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Defining the border

In June 2003, following India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing, China officially recognised Indian sovereignty over the North Eastern province of Sikkim and the two countries moved a little closer to resolving their border disputes. Sino-Indian relations have, since the decades following Indian independence, at best been contentious. There have been trying moments interspersed with the development of commercial interests, military conflicts and border skirmishes. But more recently, Beijing and New Delhi have made serious endeavours to engage in diplomatic, military and economic ties. This paper will examine historical developments that have led to confrontation and the undermining of relationships between two of the world’s largest countries.

Historically, India and China have shared extensive cultural contact. Buddhism which evolved in India was adopted in China and many Indian monks travelled to the Middle Kingdom to establish monasteries and centres of learning including the Shaolin. Chinese scholars like Fa Hein and Huen Tsang studied at the ancient Nalanda University; trade was extensive along the Silk Road and envoys were exchanged with the courts of the Tang Dynasty. During the Ming period under the reign of the Emperor Yongle, an armada of the Grand Admiral Zheng He, traded in silk and spices with Indian ports. More recently, in the 1830s, the Sikh Confederacy fought battles with Chinese forces in Ladakh. But the embodiments of Indo-Chinese foreign relations were formed post Indian independence, in the 1950s.

The border dispute essentially comes down to a few fundamental differences. Firstly, Beijing did not, until recently, recognise Sikkim as an Indian protectorate and was furious following its integration with the Indian Union. Secondly, the Aksai Chin region in Ladakh has historically been claimed by China as a part of Tibet. Maps published at the time of independence may not have clearly indicated this as being Indian territory and the Chinese were infuriated when in 1954 India published a new set of charts incorporating this region within its domain. Chinese maps on the other hand contend that 150,000 sq kms of land below the actual line of control are a part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Thirdly, China has always claimed as a part of Tibet, the province of Arunachal Pradesh, previously called the North Eastern Frontier Agency.

The Indian interpretation of the border is based on the McMahon line which runs through the eastern Himalayas. The line, regarded by New Delhi as the national border, is named after Sir Henry McMahon, British India’s Foreign Secretary in the early part of the 20th century. The demarcation of the borders was based on the Simla Accord, a treaty between Britain and Tibet signed in 1914. China has always disputed this agreement asserting that Tibet was never a sovereign state and thus legally incapable of entering into any international agreement.

It was in 1954 that India and China signed the Panchshila, an agreement based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that would provide the foundation of a peaceful relationship between the two nations. Despite border skirmishes relations remained largely cordial for the next few years. However, this changed in 1959 when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetan people, fled his country to take refuge in Dharamsala. The Chinese government took notable exception to this event and claimed that the act of providing sanctuary was symbolic of Indian interference in China’s internal affairs. India on the other hand, argued that the Dalai Lama was being hosted on humanitarian grounds and would not undertake any political activities on its soil. However, the fact remains that Tibet’s spiritual leader does run a ‘government in exile’, a reality that cannot, even with the widest degree of latitude, be construed as being social or religious in nature. Beijing consequently insisted on the ‘rectification’ of the entire border involving 100,000 sq kms of territory over which Indian maps claimed sovereignty. Finally, in October 1962 the People’s Liberation Army marched into India and occupied large tracts of land in Ladakh and the North East. Shockingly, the Chinese army had reached the town of Tezpur where the local administration evacuated citizens to the south of the Brahamputra river. Only two countries – Malaysia and Ethiopia spoke up in India’s support. The rest of the world wondered in amazement how a fine army that has shown exemplary service in Burma and North Africa (in World War II), could be reduced to such levels of incompetence. Following Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s appeal to the United States for help, President Kennedy dispatched a naval fleet. Subsequently, the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its troops to positions 20 kms behind the McMahon line in the east and the line of actual control in the west.

Sino-Indian relations deteriorated in the 1960s when the PRC government backed Pakistan in its war against India. Beijing constructed an all weather road across lands claimed by India linking its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with Pakistan. India could then do little more than protest. Moreover, adding to Indian irritation, China provided financial support to dissident groups in the tribal regions of the northeast.

Over the years, China has moderated its position on issues that concern India. In the early 1980s, for instance, the PRC government altered its pro-Pakistan stance on Kashmir and appeared disposed to remaining silent on India’s absorption of Sikkim and its special advisory relationship with Bhutan. Besides, it allowed annual Indian pilgrimages to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar, the mythological home of the Hindu pantheon. In 1994, Beijing announced that it not only favoured a negotiated settlement on Kashmir but strongly opposed any form of independence for the region.

Trade between the two nations has grown rapidly with China emerging as one of India’s largest trading partners. Whist boundary disputes remain and discussions of demarcation linger inconclusively, New Delhi and Beijing have signed an agreement to maintain peace and tranquillity along the line of actual control. In June 1999, during the Kargil conflict, India moved five infantry divisions, five independent brigades and forty four battalions of paramilitary troops to Kashmir. Many of these were relocated from the Eastern Front in the comfort and belief that China would not take advantage of India’s vulnerability.

Be that as it may, China and India continue to occasionally exasperate each other by being overtly sensitive. Despite the opening of Nathula, the ancient trade route in July 2006, after a gap of 45 years, which demonstrated a refreshing approach, China refused a visa to a government officer from Arunachal Pradesh seeking to accompany an Indian delegation to Shanghai. The Chinese argued that as Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory the officer did not need a visa to visit his own country! However, a few months later, it granted a visa to Arunachal born Marpe Sora, a lecturer at the Rajiv Gandhi University in Doimukh. Border skirmishes continue and newspapers from time to time report intrusions into each other’s territory. Typically both sides back away from conflict and subsequently deny that military clashes had occurred in the first place.

The solution to the border dispute remains complicated. China may at a stretch agree to relinquish its claim to most of India’s northeast in exchange for India doing the same for Aksai Chin. Whilst theoretically this may seem logical, as the territories that India claims are really not under its administration, practically it would be difficult to implement. Elected Indian governments are constrained by domestic public opinion which may reject the notion of a resolution, one that is consequent upon a perceived loss of territory. Such a resolution would appear imbalanced and humiliating. It will take several years to sort out differences but Mr Vajpayee’s visit that resulted in the resolution of Sikkim was a notable start. This effort needs to be sustained by regular senior level engagements between the world’s most populous and fastest growing economies.


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