India-China unfinished border business

Against the backdrop of the global financial crisis and the drastically evolving international situation in 2009, the two Asian giants of China and India showed their might, coming up against each other for more world power status and defying diplomatic ties with the West. The world’s two most populous countries, China and India – which are now both nuclear-armed – had a heated last quarter of 2009, with claims laid on almost every corner, but by the end of the year they were found coordinating their strategies at the Copenhagen climate summit, indicating there are areas in which they can work together.

1st Jun 2010


Against the backdrop of the global financial crisis and the drastically evolving international situation in 2009, the two Asian giants of China and India showed their might, coming up against each other for more world power status and defying diplomatic ties with the West. The world’s two most populous countries, China and India – which are now both nuclear-armed – had a heated last quarter of 2009, with claims laid on almost every corner, but by the end of the year they were found coordinating their strategies at the Copenhagen climate summit, indicating there are areas in which they can work together.

New Delhi and Beijing have come a long way since. The two have signed various agreements to maintain peace and guiding principles for current negotiations. Their armies have even engaged in joint exercises on Chinese and Indian soil. But the question is whether China and India are rivals or partners? The Sino-Indian relationship is so delicate that during past decades, conflicts and cooperation have been part of each country’s national interest.

But the two future superpowers have areas on which they would never shake hands – the territorial dispute along their borders is what strikes them the most. India and China are embroiled in border rows. Recent news of intrusions along the border has resulted in a war of words, with both sides threatening possible action. In recent years, however, China has been raising the temperature at the border. Chinese claims to Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian administered state in the north east, and frequent Chinese "incursions" into the nearby Indian state of Sikkim and in Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir have begun to multiply in line with Beijing's rising economic and political influence.

Even a recent rare opinion poll conducted separately in both countries perceives each other as the greatest threat. The highlight of the poll was seen on Indian TV channels and newspapers and resulted in pressure on the Indian Foreign Ministry.

Recent news reports say that China has occupied large swathes of Indian territory in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir over the years. A note from the Leh district administration to the Indian home ministry says that India has lost a substantial amount of land in the last two decades. Sources say that China is taking advantage of the “disputed territory” status of 150 km of 646 km long LAC in Ladakh sector and increasing its presence closer to the Indian side.

Sovereignty claims


However, both sides continue to claim chunks of territory under the other's control. China's anger stems in part from a dispute over Arunachal Pradesh that stretches back nearly a century. China claims sovereignty over the entire Arunachal Pradesh.
China also lays claim to 90,000 sq km (35,000 sq miles) of land in India's northeast and cites the region's cultural affinity with Tibet as evidence the area forms part of what it calls "southern" Tibet. India says China occupies 38,000 sq km (15,000 sq miles) of territory in Aksai Chin plateau in the western Himalayas. Aksai Chin is critical of the Chinese as it is the site of a key highway linking Tibet and Xinjiang. Pakistan recognises the Chinese position of the so-called western sector dispute only, because it is part of the wider border agreement of 1963 between the two. Even as China recognised India's sovereignty over the state of Sikkim in 2003, incursions still persist to this day.

China claims the region and has disavowed the so-called McMahon Line – a border drawn by India's British colonial rulers in 1914 that gave Arunachal to India in an act of map-making that China to this day refuses to recognise. China says it was once part of Tibet, which the Chinese military seized in 1951, and so belongs to Beijing. India says that Tibetan leaders ceded it to British-ruled India in a 1914 treaty. The area fell within the border of British India after it was redrawn by Henry McMahon at the Simla Convention of 1914. It is known that the Tibetan representatives signed the agreement at Simla, while Beijing’s nominee refused to do so. Despite 13 recent rounds of talks on the border dispute, no agreement has been reached and the border has neither been demarcated in maps nor delineated on the ground.

However, India has rebutted claims by Chinese government and the Indian prime minister has stated categorically that eastern state Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. He repeated this to the Chinese prime minister when the two met in Thailand in October 2009.

Moreover, unlike India, China has methodically developing its infrastructure along the disputed border, littering the barren terrain with highways and railways capable of moving large numbers of goods and troops, and Beijing has deployed heavy military presence along its borders.

Relations strained


Mutual ties are lying in a state of jeopardy with relations strained by a flare-up over their disputed boundary. Now India is fortifying parts of its northeast, building new infrastructure including roads and bridges, deploying tens of thousands more soldiers and accentuating its defenses.
New Delhi has become both increasingly aware of its disadvantage and exceedingly suspicious of China's intentions. India recently announced that it will deploy two additional army mountain divisions to the northeastern state of Assam, which will bring India's troop levels in the region to more than 100,000. India is heavily reinforcing its Army and Air Force units on its undefined border with China, including two additional infantry divisions, a squadron of attack aircraft and refurbishing airfields. These will be complemented by the addition or upgrade of airstrips and advanced landing stations as part of a broader effort to bolster India's military and transportation infrastructure in its neglected northeast region.
For China the anger is greater due to India over the last half a century giving shelter to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and thousands of his followers who are calling for a sovereign Tibet outside of China. The Dalai Lama has widened the relations between the countries since his exile. The rise of India’s economic and diplomatic strength has made it even more assertive in dealings with its continental rival and New Delhi has stood firm in the face of increasing Chinese protests over the Dalai Lama’s trip to Arunachal. For India, the Dalai Lama this time is being used as a playing card by allowing him into the territory in an effort for India to show its firm grip on the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing, on its part, is suspicious of New Delhi's growing ties with the United States, with the Dalai Lama’s activities seen as a rallying point for the Tibetan struggle.

India sees China as spearheading a drive against India in diplomatic areas in other parts of the world. It is vying against India in extending cooperation to the African nations, for example. China is also the biggest arms supplier for Pakistan.

With the issue unlikely to be resolved any time soon, tension along the frontier will persist. A fuzzy frontier provides room for incursion, which carries the potential of escalating into military confrontation. It is widely believed in India that China is reluctant to resolve the issue because it would enable India to reduce military deployment along its China frontier. An uncertain border keeps New Delhi under pressure, unsure over Beijing's moves.

In the new world scenario, India and China are two fast developing economies and the rest of the countries are watching their vying endeavours closely.

The world has been seeing India and China as the future economic superpowers and some analysts believe that the economic clash between to the two to be the fastest growing economy in the world will dominate the Asian continent. India's relations with the other major powers – the United States, Russia and Japan – are growing. There are indications that China is increasingly concerned about the strategic implications of India's evolving relationship with the United States in particular. One way it could reduce its anxiety is by becoming more pro-active and moderate in its stance towards a settlement of the LAC and the boundary. The more China haggles over marginal gains in territory, remains inflexible over its “claims” and continues to be insensitive to India's security interests, the more it loses diplomatically in New Delhi.

Analysts believe India and China should set aside their lingering border disputes when the United States is strangling their economies. They must first together make sure that American supremacy is put to an end and then settle their claims. Since each side holds the territory that is strategically vital to it, a Sino-Indian boundary agreement should be attainable – given goodwill on both sides. ENDS

Beijing eyes overseas bases

Recently Beijing has signalled it could set up military bases in overseas locations including Pakistan. A Chinese government website said: “Setting up overseas military bases is not an idea we have to shun; on the contrary, it is our right…it is baseless to say that we will not set up any military bases in future because we have never sent troops abroad.” The move is also clearly to counter US presence in the region and exert pressure on India and the US vis-à-vis Pakistan and Afghanistan. “As for the military aspect, we should be able to conduct the retaliatory attack within the country or at the neighbouring area of our potential enemies. We should also be able to put pressure on the potential enemies’ overseas interests. With further development, China will be in great demand of the military protection,” the report added. Currently China has no military bases outside its territory. It has often criticised the United States for operating such overseas bases. But the recent statement is bound to create consternation in Indian circles. Growing military ties between China and Pakistan are a serious concern to India. New Delhi worries about Beijing’s rising influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

 

Saransh Sehgal is an analytical writer on Tibet and India-China Issues.
 

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