India-China Territorial Dispute in Perspective
Mustansar Hussain Tasir
Amidst their historical territorial rivalry and divergent regional and global outlooks, a rapid rise of China and India on world stage has further added to their existing geopolitical and geo-economic contest. Various international observers see their quest for absolute dominance in their overlapping spheres of interest and influence in different perspectives. Keeping in view their historical background of a war, i.e. that of 1962, conflicts and intrusions as well as their being several times on the brink of war, the future relationship between the two old and distinct civilizations is more likely to remain strained. Their territorial disputes led them to a full-scale war in 1962, and the postwar era, too, has been marked with unremitting distrust despite the fact that both sides have achieved greater economic interdependence and their bilateral trade volume reached $87.07 billion in 2018-19. Indian import from China was US$70.32 billion in 2018-19 while Indian export to China was just US$ 16.75 billion in the same period; thus, India’s trade deficit was $53.57 billion.
This piece is aimed at finding out whether the relationship between India and China, two rapidly-rising economies of Asia, will be able to explore some avenues of strategic convergence or will the contest and competition persist? Will geostrategic and geopolitical aspect of this bilateral relationship dominate despite all their mutual economic activity? Will economy overwhelm strategy and geography with the passing of time and with increased economic closeness? What past suggests about it and do the two countries have any change in attitude in the aftermath of the 1962 war? It is also to be seen that are the existing irritants, especially in the aftermath of recent confrontation at Galwan Valley in Ladakh, serious enough to result in future confrontation between them or at least they will keep the antagonism persisting. And if it will persist, are there any prospects of any clash or collision between the two Asian giants in the Indian Ocean Region?
International relations theories such as that of economic interdependence suggest that two sides, with growing economic integration and complex interdependence, and by understanding each other’s sensitivities, come closer and that their areas of difference can lose a worth to initiate any military conflict between them. Those subscribing to these theories believe that keeping in view the “past millennia of peaceful coexistence” of India and China as well as their growing economic interdependence, both will ultimately have a better understanding of each other’s sensitivities in future. Rising costs of war is another aspect that makes this prospect attractive. The trust deficit between them can also be curtailed through cultural exchanges and with efforts of the policymakers on both sides to change their respective public perceptions; thus, subsiding the internal political gains of their enmity and warmongering. Similarly, John Echeverri-Gent and April Herlevi of the University of Virginia conclude their papers on the same note with the findings that as the structure of global economy has drastically changed from hub-and-spoke to a more controlled and monopolized one to a decentralized and open one, of which, the authors claim, the sure “consequences for the way countries define and pursue their strategic interests.”
Noted defence analyst, Air Vice Martial (retd) Shahzad Chaudhary, in an interview with this scribe, asserted that the only reality of the world is economy. The economy will ultimately put the strategic interests of both India and China on backburner because the more the two countries gain wealth, the more they will search ways and means to avoid war, owing to the anticipated losses a conflict could inflict to their respective economies. Although they may procure and accumulate more and more weapons and other war paraphernalia with growth of their wealth and economy, their chances of engaging each other in direct conflict would diminish. When you have this (wealth), you develop relationships and project your power at the farthest geographical points of the world as the US has maintained seven fleets since World War 2 and even America’s 3rd fleet is sitting in Europe. So, the acquisition of modern weapon systems by strong economies, are merely for power projection, and not for war. The complex web of globalization and complex interdependence has so emerged that the sane world will now find it extremely difficult to go to war with missiles and tanks rather it will be in the form of economic competition only.
However, the 2017 confrontation between the two countries at Doklam border area in Indian state of Sikkim, and the recent Ladakh episode, along with their persisting longstanding territorial, political and strategic frictions and, above all, the persistent mistrust between them may imply opposite to what the liberal internationalists, or the proponents of economic interdependence see. Do China and India really see each other as strategic competitors and regional rivals? The answer is essentially ‘YES’. Lack of trust and perpetual military and political competition between them evoke to the use of realist paradigm lens for a realistic analysis of Sino-Indian ties.
Even after 1962 war, territorial disputes between the two countries were not settled. The opposing claims and outlooks are the festering wound that may result in some full-fledge confrontation—the 2017 two-month-long Doklam standoff and the 2020 fight which was the “deadliest in 45 years” offer some glimpses into this proposition. It is a strong perception, backed by historical evidence and theoretical frameworks of global politics, that when two powers rise simultaneously—particularly if they have divergent strategic cultures and geopolitical orientations—the competition or clash becomes more likely. For instance, according to a prediction made by the US National Intelligence Council’s 2004 report titled “Mapping the Global Future,” in 2004 that the Sino-India rise would have radical impact on the existing geopolitical environment of not only the region but also beyond, and the outcome of that would be necessarily confrontational. The cautioned that “the likely emergence of China and India, as well as others, as new major global players—similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful United States in the early 20th century—will transform the geopolitical landscape with impacts potentially as dramatic as those in the previous two centuries.”
India recognizes McMahon Line as a de-jure border between the two countries but China does not. It claims that on the basis of an accord which was signed between the so-called Tibetan representative, Dalai Lama, and the British government at the end of the 1914 Simla Convention/ Under the agreement, the former had no locus standi to enter into such an agreement with the British, without the participation of Chinese authorities. Hence, China considered this agreement void. Moreover, China claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh, which was once South Tibet and was renamed after the British’s withdrawal, as its territory. The issue is taken more seriously by China as its government categorically rebuked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s February 2019 visit to Arunachal Pradesh and cautioned the Indian government to avoid such a move which could ‘complicate the boundary question’.
Now China feels that Indian moves regarding Tibet, including hosting of its leader Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile, ominous alliance between India and the United States and its clandestine efforts to ignite some rebellion against China, are acts of interference in its internal affairs. Both sides are unlikely to withdraw from their respective positions, especially India because Modi fears the anticipated public backlash and domestic political damage. The Tibet issue is very sensitive for China, and India’s sheltering a huge Tibetan population and helping their voice reach international community is a matter of deep concern for China. For India, on the other hand, it might not be possible to pacify China by accepting its demands regarding Dalai Lama and his followers because of the ideological association and the overwhelming public support the Tibetan enjoy in India. Dalai Lama’s demand of Tibet is not of complete independence, but of complete autonomy. Also, India recognized Tibet (as an autonomous region) as a part the People’s Republic of China in reciprocation to China’s recognizing Sikkim as a part of India, but the friction still exists and increasing mainly due to China’s suspicion about India’s future designs about Tibet.
Divergence of India and China on their respective Kashmir policies is also a major hurdle in improving relations between the two sides. India objects to China’s policy of not heeding to India’s concerns over Jammu and Kashmir, not recognizing it as an integral part of India and for issuing staple visas to those with a Kashmiri domicile. As China has been a vocal supporter of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, India cautions China of discerning the sensitivity of the issue. India believes that Kashmir is to it what Tibet and Taiwan are for China.
India has been miffed by China many a time for supporting Pakistan’s stance even by blocking and vetoing the moves in the United Nations Security Council against Pakistan-based, anti-India organizations that support Kashmir’s freedom struggle—China even refused to change its view in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack.
One recent issue of divergence is that Indian government, of late, has been vocal in opposing China-sponsored CPEC projects and roads on Pakistani side of the disputed territory of Kashmir region. India believes these high-prized Chinese projects under the OBOR “challenge Indian sovereignty.”
India and China have many areas of divergence and frictions that make their relationship tricky. Despite growing economic interdependence and trade volumes, the two countries are unable to shun the impact of geopolitics. Realism prevails and globalization is unable to defeat geopolitics especially in the Indo-Pacific region, and security is still the greatest concern of the region. Territorial disputes, containment of China policy, regional aspirations and massive military modernization, especially with opposing regional and global outlooks, are some of the serious factors. One major element that has kept the two countries at odds and leads them to more competition and least cooperation is the existing distrust which is mainly due to their relative perceptions supported by the history of their relations.
Roots of divergence and hostility between India and China are not only serious but also manifold as well as deep-rooted. However, rationality demands the two nations should revisit their policies and come up with some flexibility on their rigid stances. The current antagonism and hostility can favour none in Asia’s already unpredictable and perilous strategic environment.
The writer is an analyst and teaches International Relations in University of Okara. He can be reached at: email@example.com