Enduring India-China Boundary Question

IITM CSC Article #33
26 July 2012

Enduring India-China Boundary Question

The India-China boundary issue needs to be revisited in an attempt to answer two paradoxes. This issue has endured in spite of vast changes, in bilateral relations and secondly, in the geopolitical situation. The maturity displayed by both governments, to constantly improve bilateral relations, in the current geopolitical context, where the ambitions and entitlements of both countries have grown and been acknowledged by the world at large, could have led to solutions to the boundary question.  That such a thing has not happened is at least partly explained by certain political and social circumstances both domestic and external faced by the two countries.

Differences, in the Indian and Chinese approaches to the boundary question, can be traced back to the correspondence between the Premiers in 1959. India’s approach was that, the India-China boundary was well settled being based on custom, tradition and history. Additionally, according to Indian perspective, imposing geographical features and agreements and treaties for most parts sanctified the boundary. Minor adjustments were, however, possible in arriving at a solution. On the other hand, China’s approach was that, with the establishment of the PRC, the new government would study China’s borders with its neighbors - since many of these were drawn in earlier historical periods. The government would be then, be prepared for negotiations to settle the boundaries on the basis of mutual understanding and accommodation. However, the three years between 1959-’62 were characterized by misunderstandings, misperceptions and even lost opportunities for a negotiated settlement. These primarily arose from the domestic circumstances, which prevailed in both countries and partly from certain factors external to both countries.

The centrality of the role of Tibet, in India-China relations, after the entry of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1950, and exile of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, has been emphasized often. In 1950, India’s note to the Chinese government to seek a peaceful solution to China’s relations with Tibet was seen as interference in a domestic matter. An authoritative article in the official media, People’s Daily, accused Prime Minister Nehru of following the British Imperialist policies relating to Tibet. This erroneous perception worsened in 1959, after the exile of the Dalai Lama to India, causing intemperate accusations that India had instigated his escape from Lhasa and had not reconciled to China’s authority over Tibet. In spite of India and Tibet signing the 1954 Agreement on Trade, where India recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, China under Mao Zedong’s leadership did not accept the distinction made in India’s stand, i.e. accepting Tibet as a part of China, while offering humanitarian asylum to the Dalai Lama and his followers.

From the mid-50’s, the Chinese leadership’s misunderstanding of the Indian Parliamentary system and free press contributed to worsening of bilateral relations. Chinese actions in expanding their occupation in the Ladakh Sector, treatment of an Indian patrol party in the same sector, the Dalai Lama’s refuge in India and the publication of inter-governmental correspondence on the boundary, combined to inflame public opinion in India. This severely circumscribed Nehru’s room for negotiations. When Premier Zhou Enlai visited India in 1960, he requested Nehru to “take a view on the Western Sector (Ladakh) similar to that taken by China on the Eastern Sector”. The same thought was repeated when Deng Xiaoping met Vajpayee, who visited China as External Affairs Minister in 1979. On both occasions the Indian leadership’s response was negative as the exchange of territory implicit in the proposal was unacceptable. Opposition from political parties played a decisive role in not letting these opportunities fructify. 

China has been facing increasing internal tension in recent times. In domestic affairs, as outlined by by Premier Wen Jiabao, China faces multiple crises including restructuring an economy which was export dependent, reducing the roles of the state sector in public investments, raising domestic demand, meeting energy conservation targets, reducing regional and economic disparities etc.  Within the party, the following issues are creeping up, where the membership has reached 80,000; arbitrary, illegal and immoral actions by cadres pose a challenge. The elimination of deep-rooted corruption is seen as a life and death struggle by the leadership.

Outside Beijing, in provinces inhabited by minorities, there is increasing restiveness in Tibet and Xinjiang. There are strong perceptions that the Han community, at the cost of the minorities, enjoys the fruits of development in Tibet and Xinjiang. The Chinese are confronted by the reality that, progress, higher incomes and development for the minorities in these regions do not eliminate the deep urge to have social, religious, cultural identities given more respect. Deep feelings of alienation among the minorities may also have an influence on delicate issues such as territorial concessions, which are necessary if the boundary question with India is to be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both countries. The scale of perception of threat to stability, both in China proper, Tibet and Xinjiang, can be gauged by the decision of the leadership to allocate a bigger budget to public security forces than the regular defense forces in the last meeting of the Parliament.  It is, therefore, not expected that the new Party leadership will take political steps, in line with those for economic growth, to meet the aspirations of people for change.

Complementing the emphasis on domestic stability is the perception of external threats to China’s security. Firstly, the unfortunate events in Tibet, such as the self-immolations of the protestors are seen as external instigations. Secondly, maritime activity by neighboring countries in accordance with international norms is sometimes seen as violation of Chinese sovereignty thus challenging internationally acknowledged practices. Thirdly, the rapid growth of Indo-US, Indo-Japan and Indo-Korean relations, in the political, security and military spheres are seen as undisguised attempts at containing China.

India’s relations with other countries and regions including the US, Russia, Japan, China, Brazil and with the EU, ASEAN, BRICS, has seen significant improvement, bringing attention to the geopolitical context of this boundary question. By virtue of its size, geography, economic, social achievements, increase in military strength including nuclear capability, India is perceived as a valuable partner with the potential to play a constructive role in ensuring regional peace and stability. For example, the growth of the Indian Navy is perceived as an important asset in the maintenance of peace in the Indian Ocean. The humanitarian role played by the Navy in times of natural disasters has been praised. This beneficial change in the geopolitical situation in India’s favor needs to be worked on, in a traditional sense of strategic autonomy and in pursuance of its national interest. In the case of China, the geopolitical situation in Asia poses new challenges. Its aggressive behavior around disputes over maritime claims has strengthened the hedging actions taken by China’s neighbors to consolidate their military relations with the U.S thereby ensuring US’s continued political and security role in Asia. In view of the end game in Iraq and Afghanistan the US has also made a policy determination to “pivot” to Asia from 2012, causing a sense of insecurity in China.

In viewing India’s relations with USA, the Chinese may unwittingly revert to an earlier era of no proper appreciation of the essence of India’s foreign policy, which is to maintain strategic autonomy. As stated by India’s Prime Minister on several occasions, India does not seek to use its evolving relationship with the US against China.

Failures on the part of the civil and military leaderships in India, erroneous assessments of the evolving ground positions along the boundary, misplaced confidence that the wide differences would not lead to a full scale attack by the Chinese army and that an armed conflict would inevitably involve intervention by the big powers, have all been commented upon and written about by Indian and foreign writers. Sixty years after the 1962 conflict, both India and China have achieved significant economic growth and have also modernized their armed forces to a considerable extent. India’s armed forces, in striking contrast to the sixties, have the self-confidence of defending its borders even as bilateral relations between India and China diversely improve. India and China have entered into a number of agreements, ensuring maintenance of peace and tranquility along the India-China boundary, which has seen no full-scale armed action since 1962. Expertise has been developed enabling India to manage the boundary situation despite each side having different perceptions of the Line of Actual Control separating the two sides’ armed forces. However, Chinese reiterations that Arunachal Pradesh constitutes China’s “Southern Tibet” in more recent pronouncements only add to the deep lack of trust, which exists in India, since 1962. On the other hand it also fuels Chinese nationalism which view all of Chinese claims, land and maritime as legitimate and non negotiable. Special representatives, appointed by the premiers of both countries have reached the second-stage of a three-stage process, agreeing on political principles that guide the solution. It has been publicly acknowledged by the leadership of both countries that it would take more time to resolve a permanent solution to the boundary question, while maintaining that this question will not impede growth of relations in other areas.

Resolution of the boundary question can only come about on a basis of give and take, each side making territorial adjustments. Also, both governments must make assiduous efforts to bridge a big gap in public perceptions of the India-China relationship. However, the existing asymmetry, between governments and opinion makers of both countries, is very wide and not conducive to arriving at an acceptable consensus on the boundary. In India coalition politics makes consensus seeking difficult. In China, the cultivation of nationalistic feelings as a substitute for socialist ideology and the regime insecurity in Tibet seem to work against early territorial compromise.  As for factors external to India-China relations, such as the scope and content of Indo-US relations, it would be an excellent initiative if tripartite dialogues at official levels between India-China-US are held to promote trust and seek approaches to ensuring peace and stability in regions where the interests of all three are heavily involved. A good example of such a region is the area referred to as AfPak. Here, the interests of all three for reemergence of a stable, moderate and modernizing Afghanistan, free from foreign interference, coincide. The tripartite dialogue can also include major items on the international agenda.

Sufficient vested interests towards sturdy maintenance of peace and tranquility along the boundary have come into existence, both with governments and the armed forces of India and China. Study of the impending political changes in China is necessary to get a clearer picture of the direction and next stage of India-China relations.


Ambassador C.V. Ranganathan,
Former Indian Ambassador to China Chairman of the Board, CSC IITM
Friday, October 16, 2015 - 15:45
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