INDIA-China relations are sinking once again. But it would be naive to consider this development only in the light of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Tawang monastery: it was his fifth visit to Arunachal Pradesh and third to Tawang. The reasons for Chinese fulmination are more fundamental and strategic in nature.
As large and fast growing Asian powerhouses, China and India have become increasing mindful of their territorial integrity and security, strategic and economic ambitions, and manoeuvring space in the global environment. China’s strategic alliance with Pakistan, blocking India’s entry into the NSG and the UNSC, denying the declaration of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, its steady outreach to India’s other neighbours in South Asia, and its territorial claims in the area of South China Sea are some of its strategic assertions.
The fundamental reason, however, remains the dispute over the China-India boundary after China’s PLA occupied Tibet in 1950. The India-China war (1962), skirmishes at Nathu La (1969), at Wangdung (1986), and several attempted intrusions along the disputed boundary have made this the most sensitive issue.
Let us check on the hotspots — India’s Northeast first. During the 1962 war, after routing India in Kameng (Arunachal Pradesh), the PLA occupied Tawang and came up to Chakoo, south of Bomdila. After the unilateral ceasefire, the PLA withdrew to its present positions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), 35 km north of Tawang. During that period, China failed to woo the Monpa population of Tawang who kept themselves aloof from the Chinese.
When talks began, China was prepared to accept the territorial status quo in the Northeast if India would accept the post-war status quo in Ladakh. After 1985, it began to claim Tawang, and later the whole of Arunachal because it is ‘inalienable from China’s Tibet in terms of cultural background and administrative jurisdiction’. China opposes even development projects there.
The claims over Arunachal have become shrill and threatening, notwithstanding that the claim repudiates Article VII of the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of India-China Boundary Question of 2005. Its cardinal provision states, ‘In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.’
The situation in India’s northwest is more complex. In the 1950s, China constructed a strategic road connecting Tibet to China’s Xinjiang through the Aksai Chin area of J&K claimed by India. The dispute became one of the triggers for the 1962 war. In 1963, Pakistan and China signed an agreement wherein Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam valley, part of J&K territory of Northern Areas occupied by Pakistan, to China. This area forms a wedge between Afghanistan and Xinjiang and provides land route links between China and Pakistan. The status of Northern Areas was kept nebulous as Pakistan’s constitution did not recognise Northern Areas as Pakistan territory. It was area ‘under the actual control of Pakistan’.
Article 6 of the pact stated, ‘The two parties have agreed that after the settlement of Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the government of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) on the boundary so as to sign a formal boundary treaty.’ Its next paragraph stated, ‘Provided that in the event of the sovereign authority being Pakistan, the provision of this agreement and the aforesaid protocol shall be maintained in the formal boundary to be signed between the PRC and Pakistan.’
But now China tows the Pakistani line on J&K and its troops and engineers are deployed in parts of the PoK. Two years ago, when China and Pakistan decided to build the CPEC with $46 billion investment, China again safeguarded its strategic stake (and overcome the possibility of India’s objections), insisting that ‘disputed territory’ tag be removed from Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan has obliged. After a constitutional amendment, the region will soon be declared as Pakistan’s fifth province. With a change in the political status of Gilgit-Baltistan, China would make significant territorial and strategic gains even though this development would have repercussions for India, Pakistan, and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The Chinese vision for the CPEC goes back to the 1950s, primarily to acquire access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. That motivated them to construct the Karakoram highway and take up construction at Gwadar. The CPEC is a collection of projects intended to modernise Pakistani infrastructure and strengthen its economy by the construction of high-speed motorways and railway networks, energy projects and special economic zones. In the process, Xinjiang will get direct access to Gwadar. The mega project will mark a major advance in China’s plans to boost its influence in the Central, South and West Asia. One has to admire the Chinese leadership’s strategic vision!
While working on the prognosis of these developments, we should also factor in the national power edge that China enjoys over India. There is little doubt that the balance of power will continue to shift in China’s favour.
On the face of it, India and China have a cordial, cooperative, bilateral relationship. There is the civilisation relationship, economic cooperation, the annual strategic, political and economic dialogues; even some military cooperation. But China’s competitive relationship far outweighs the cooperative one. As Aaron Freidburg states, ‘Relations between great powers cannot be sustained by inertia, commerce or mere sentiments’. The deep strategic fissures cannot — should not — be ignored.
The foremost India-China bilateral problem is of unresolved boundary. China says that Tibet, including south Tibet, is a ‘core issue’ and there will be no compromise over territorial integrity. The problem is that most of China’s neighbours do not know which Chinese era is its territorial benchmark. What exactly is the Chinese territory? China recognises McMahon Line as its boundary with Myanmar but not with India. Till date, it has successfully evaded giving any meaningful idea of their version of the LAC in spite of undertaking to do so in solemn bilateral agreements.
Paul Kennedy in his book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has stated that ‘Long-term shifts in economic productivity of nations are co-terminus with the increase or decrease of their global influence.’ After successfully developing its economy, China is now revealing its imperious intent more openly.
According to Henry Kissinger, ‘The PRC leadership is capable of extreme elasticity and pliability, surpassing the marvels witnessed in the fantastic physical contortions of the famed Chinese circus gymnasts.’ He also states, ‘The familiar Chinese style of dealing with strategic decisions is: thorough analysis; careful preparation; attention to psychological and political factors; quest for surprise; and rapid conclusion.’
In the coming days, we can expect more of coercive diplomacy and bullying tactics from China. More incidents along the LAC, even border skirmishes cannot be ruled out. China may also encourage Pakistan to create new diplomatic and security pressure points over India.
India will require greater political ingenuity, determination and more effective military response capability to safeguard its national interests.
The writer is a former Army Chief
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