India-China ties: A blast from the past

The recent Chinese move has come at the time when the US and China are locked in a confrontational relationship, and when the world, including China, is battling a pandemic.

 |  5-minute read |   02-08-2020
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Once India attained independence and China her revolution, the perception of their borders with one another underwent a drastic change and the catalyst to that change was the Chinese move into Tibet in 1950.

The essential dispute until then rested on the possible negotiations around the Ardagh–Johnson line in the Western Sector and the McMahon line in the Eastern Sector by India and China respectively. The Chinese occupation of Tibet, which entailed the imposition of a regime alien to the Tibetan culture led to the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959. The Indian government accorded him the status of a Government in Exile. India by then had officially accepted the Chinese occupation of Tibet as de jure, without in an inexplicable manner insisting on the quid pro quo of the Chinese reciprocity in the NEFA sector. The beginning of the Sino-Indian border dispute is rooted in Chinese claims of sovereignty over Tibet and in areas which China considered historically belonging to Tibet, and hence to her. Within the Chinese imagination, they include the NEFA sector (modern-day Arunachal Pradesh), Ladakh and Aksai Chin.

The Chinese offer

In 1960, Zhou Enlai made a take-it-or-leave-it offer to Prime Minister Nehru for settling the border dispute. The essential nature of the offer lay in the demands on India to make concessions to the Chinese in the Western Sector and the Chinese reciprocating the gesture in the Eastern Sector. This offer would have meant that India would have had to agree to the Chinese hold of territories in Aksai Chin and the Chinese agreeing and reciprocating the same in the NEFA sector for India.

main_india_china_fla_080220100246.jpgOnce India attained independence and China her revolution, the perception of their borders with one another underwent a drastic change and the catalyst to that change was the Chinese move into Tibet in 1950. (Photo: Reuters)

For an observer looking at the Line of Actual Control today, the Chinese proposal in 1960 was for China to drop its claim to the NEFA in exchange for India dropping its claim to Aksai Chin, with both sides making concessions over the middle sector. Such a settlement as far as China was concerned would have been in consonance with the realities of administrative control as it deemed existed on the ground. The Chinese repeated this offer with similar connotations for the Line of Actual Control to the subsequent Indian governments as well. What is interesting is all the later Indian governments and rightly so, in consonance with India’s first Prime Minister’s stance, have rejected these offers. We need to understand the current standoff against the above historical background and in the light of the new realities that emerged since then.

Caught by surprise?

Has any ground shifted further between the time when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made that breakthrough visit to China and the current intrusions and China’s policy of salami slicing on the border? The status quo ante is decisively broken by China with respect to areas in and around Pangong Lake, Hot Springs and Galvan valley. Despite some disengagement, the claims on these areas from the Chinese side remain and do get reiterated time and again. These, incidentally, are the very regions in Ladakh where India and China fought in 1962. It is interesting to note that the recent Chinese move has come at the time when the US and China are locked in a confrontational relationship, and when the world, including China, is battling a pandemic.

What could be the reasons for China to pursue this aggressive stance on her southwestern border? In recent times and under successive governments, India has moved to strengthen infrastructure on the borders: joining the Quad initiative with the United States and others that have implications for Chinese maritime security, augmented, substantially, the mobilisation and logistical capabilities of the equipment, troops and critical assets including smart and intelligent systems and their integration in the War Doctrine; initiating a process of raising the Mountain Strike Corps that can strike across the Tibetan plateau, and is aggressively pursuing a high economic growth path.

Such actions may have possibly taken China by a strategic surprise. The Chinese response has patterned on the strategy that they have followed for 70 years. China even when “weak” pursued the policy of aggressive deterrence, which was manifest in the Korean War of the 1950s when the poorly armed PLA forces fought the Americans on the 36th parallel. Aggressive deterrence would mean aggressive actions to prevent an adversary from gaining long-term advantages. China, given her complete commitment to the One Belt One Road Initiative, would want India on the defensive and not pose a question to Chinese economic and political interests at any time. This would, therefore, include for the near future, the possibility of thwarting the possibility of Indian intervention in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and securing the link road between Tibet and Xingjian that goes through Aksai Chin. In the longer run, one may surmise that China would like to have an upper hand in border negotiations with India where the finality of the Chinese annexation of Tibet and the acceptance of fait accompli in the Western Sector would be a non-negotiable act. Would that non-negotiable position of China extend in the Eastern Sector as well?

The OBOR factor

One Belt One Road Initiative is perhaps the most critical strategic bid the Chinese leadership has made to assert her status as the dominant global power. The rise of India as the possible Asian Pivot is from that perspective a factor they would want to respond to. While the response from the Chinese has been to turn to aggressive deterrence short of a conflict that seeks to divert Indian attention and her resources our response should be shaped by our long-term strategic interest as well. It would, therefore, beg a question from our side whether the original Chinese offer of Premier Zhou Enlai is still on the negotiating table or whether that ground has now shifted?

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: How India can hit China where it hurts them most

Writer

Ajay Vishwas Dandekar Ajay Vishwas Dandekar

The writer is a Professor in the Department of History, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Shiv Nadar University.

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