India – China bilateral relations have come a long way and have witnessed several ups and downs since the days of their independence. Both are rising powers and major players in international politics and precisely for that reason both have carried with them a baggage of differences and forcing them to compete with each other. Several reasons can be attributed to this state of affairs but most basic of all is the disagreement over the common boundary between them that started a war straining their relations. Thereafter, subsequent efforts to put aside the disagreement on boundary issues and progress in other aspects of bilateral relations has not helped either to achieve any reconciliation as can be seen from the recent incursions in the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates them. The incursions in early May of 2020 has reinforced the conflictual relationship and questioned trustworthiness of China forcing India this time to adopt a decisive stand on the issue. In the intervening years since the border conflict of 1962 up until now several policy measures were taken by India to develop both economically and militarily to secure core national interests. However, these measures became complicated as several other dynamics came into play thereby continuing to raise suspicions of each other’s intent. What went wrong? How did their relationship turn hostile contributing to the current state of affairs that is engulfed in mutual mistrust and animosity? We shall now turn to address these below to help understand the dynamics of bilateral relationship that these two countries have been experiencing. But before that a glimpse of South Asian geo-political setting is essential in order to understand the inter-related security dynamics engulfing the region having an effect on India – China bilateral relations.
The Regional Geo-Political Dynamics
An analysis of India – China relations would be incomplete if one ignores the geo-political dynamics of the South Asian region owing to the interplay of factors that transpired with other countries of the region. The geographic centrality of India as a big country in the South Asian sub-region and surrounded by Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives has endowed India as a dominant power in the region. China’s geographic location beyond the Himalayas has prevented it to be part of the South Asian sub-region but then it shares land boundary with both Pakistan and India. The Great Himalayas that stretches from the Indus river in Pakistan in the West and runs through Tibet all the way up until Bhutan and ending in the East literally acts as a natural frontier between India and China. Hence for very many years Tibet acted as a natural “Buffer” between India and China. Understandably therefore there has not been very many migration of people from both countries. And therefore history tells us that there has been no big influence that these countries shared with each other prior to the modern period. As Rajiv Sikri rightly noted both India and China have poor understanding of each other and their respective systems because they did not have common boundary even though they existed side by side. As we will see later, the common boundary came about only after China annexed Tibet in 1950.
China – India boundary stretches to 3,488 km in length but it has not been demarcated. Besides, India also shares a boundary with other South Asian countries as well. In terms of size China is more than two and half times bigger and possesses economic strength four times as that of India. China developed nuclear weapons as early as in 1964 while India tested its peaceful nuclear device in 1972 and proceeded to weaponize in 1998 followed by Pakistan in the same year. Hence literally the region hosts three nuclear weapon countries – China, India and Pakistan. A comparison of their respective military strengths tells us that China is far greater in quantitative terms – troops, military arsenal, number of nuclear weapon and delivery systems, technological sophistication, navy, air force and such others as against India. This is important to note because there is a strategic advantage that China possesses which is reflected in its aggressive behaviour with neighbours. From the perception of China, India is a weak country militarily and hence the assumption that it can bully India or that India will not attack China. This is one explanation for the aggressive behaviour of China.
On the socio-economic front the region shares several similarities notable among which are the presence of a huge and dense population (home to some two-third of the world population) along with significant religious, linguistic and cultural diversities that define the region. Politically, India is a liberal democracy and offers a huge market for countries like China. As noted above, territorial claims and religious divide have dominated the region particularly between India – Pakistan and China. There have been efforts to cooperate and minimize tensions such as the creation of a sub-regional organization known as SAARC or South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in which with the exception of China the other seven countries (Afghanistan as the eighth country) became members. China and the EU have now been given observer status in the organization. There have also been several other bilateral efforts taken particularly between India and China such as the 1996 agreement on confidence building measures, regular military to military talks, hotline agreement, exchange of high level visits, Summit meetings at BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Agreement, bilateral trade ties etc., to minimize tensions. Notwithstanding, these measures have not in any way prevented the high political issues such as the boundary issue from cropping up as exemplified by the recent intrusion and capture of Indian territory at the Line of Actual Control by China in May 2020.
The region has also witnessed at least four major wars besides several other border skirmishes on and off at various times including the minor war with Pakistan at Kargil in May 1999 and several other border attacks near Kashmir and the very recent one in Ladakh between India and China in May 2020 leading to death of 20 Indian soldiers and many more on the part of China. As mentioned above, the possession of nuclear weapons by these three countries has added a new dimension to the existing security scenario in the region. Besides, sharing of river water has added another dimension. India is dependent on the water that flows from the river ‘Brahmaputra’ that originates in Tibetan part of China and is called as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet. With Tibet coming under the Chinese suzereignty since its invasion and control in 1950 also means that China holds sway over the river Brahmaputra with the possibility of preventing flow of river water into India as it happened in 2019.
The region, therefore, has been a strategic area in view of the prevailing animosities between India and Pakistan on the one hand and India and China on the other hand besides the rise of religious extremism and terrorism as exemplified by the acts of terrorist groups supported by Pakistan such as Laskar e-Tayiba and Mujahideen in for example 2001 – 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2010 all aimed against India. Such potential security problems reinforce each other and helped connivance of one country against another with the support of another country a good example being the China – Pakistan friendship against India.
Historically both India and China are ancient civilizations and they came to know of each other existing side by side only during the Han Dynasty in 2nd Century B.C. when silk road facilitated connections between mainland China and other parts of neighbouring China such as Southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Korea, Central Asia and Southern Europe. The Silk Road was primarily a land-based trade route trading Chinese Silk to these regions and what you see today is revival of Silk Road and named as Maritime Silk Road or otherwise One Belt One Road (OBOR) connecting all maritime trade routes in the Indian Ocean and beyond. As we will see later this initiative by the current leadership in China under President Xi Jinping has drawn debate and criticism by many including India. The ancient silk route also helped transmit Buddhism from India to China and particularly to Tibetan part of China as well as to other parts of Asia. Hence Tibetans view India as their religious and spiritual mentor. In fact, Tibet is also sacred to Hindu India so much so it is to China as the Great Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar are Hindu religious pilgrimage sites. However, with China capturing Tibet in 1950 and thereafter the uprising against Chinese rule by the Tibetans in 1959 led to its leaders seeing refuge in India to which India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama. This had further consequences in India – China bilateral relations.
The historicity of relations did not sustain owing to the presence of Himalayas and several other turmoil that both countries faced internally. Besides, the advent of colonial rule in India and China in the 17th and 18th Centuries prevented any meaningful interaction. Also, China by the early 19th century was undergoing communist civil war against the then ruling government under Chiang Kai Shek. Soon after the victory of the Communists and proclamation of People’s Republic in October 1949 the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai Shek was pushed to a small island of “Formosa” which today represents “Taiwan”. China’s official policy is that there is but only one China and Taiwan is an integral part of China. And any recognition of Taiwan as an independent country by any other country has only infuriated China and hence several countries including India have recognized this one China policy.
It is therefore the modern or contemporary relationship between India and China that is the subject of scrutiny ever since the short border conflict in 1962 in which India was defeated. It was noted above that soon after the proclamation of People’s Republic Prime Minister Nehru of India and Chou –En Lai of China were at the helm of cordiality and friendship trying to address issues of common concern facing the developing and underdeveloped world which were reeling under colonial rule and aspiring for independence. In fact, both countries signed in 1954 the famous Panchsheel or Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence and vowed not to be part of any of the big power rivalry that was going on then between the US and the then Soviet Union termed as “Cold War”. Besides, India under Nehru accepted that Tibet is an integral part of China.
The War and its Aftermath
An understanding of the territorial claims is necessary here before we move the 1962 conflict. The border is essentially divided into three sectors – Western, Middle and Eastern sector. The dispute in the Western sector pertains to the Johnson Line proposed by the British in early 1860s that extended up to the Kunlun Mountains and put the now disputed Aksai Chin in the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Independent India used the Johnson line to claim Aksai Chin as its own to which China initially did not object but later reversed its stand and declined to agree to the proposed Johnson Line. Hence China claims the whole of Aksai Chin as their territory even today. As is known already, the state of Jammu and Kashmir remained autonomous or given special status as per Article 370 of Indian constitution but was reorganized in late 2019 by India to make it a union territory and bring the whole state under the direct control of the Central Government. Today, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are now Union Territories of India. It is important to bear in mind that the reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh into Union Territory status was opposed by both Pakistan and China and hence added another dimension to the conflictual relations. The dispute in Middle Sector was a minor one which has been largely settled through exchange of Maps and a broad agreement reached. The Eastern Sector is the area bordering Tibet and is called the North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA) which is now called as Arunachal Pradesh. The Shimla agreement between British Tibet under Sir Henry McMahon and India in early 1913-14 to demarcate Tibet and Northeast India as McMahon line was not agreed to by the Chinese representatives who took part in the conference. The Chinese claim the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as their territory or southern Tibet which they captured in the 1962 war but withdrew after ceasefire and is currently under Indian sovereignty.
The current boundary problem between India and China is traced to both the Western Sector where Aksai Chin in Ladakh is located and claimed by China and in the Eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Tibet. The Ladakh part has not been demarcated yet and has frequently seen incursions.
Bilateral relations were broken when the Chinese troops invaded the Western sector and attacked Indian forward posts in October 1962. India was not fully prepared for the war and hence it ended within a month in November with India suffering a humiliating defeat. Tibet question was settled as China consolidated its control over it. What is important here is not the course of the war but its aftermath. India took stock of its situation and pursued vigorous defence modernization. The defeat led to a serious organizational change within the Indian defence establishment, which took place at all levels including the foot soldier and the overall structure of the Indian Army. The size of Indian army increased and so was the divisions within the army raising mountain divisions and equipped to fight a war in the mountains. A new Central Command was also set up with head quarters at Lucknow. Training establishments were increased such as the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai and in Pune in order to train and recruit new people to strengthen the existing forces. Induction of new weapon systems and strengthening of intelligence wing of the defence establishment was also given priority. To address these measures there was overall steep rise in defence spending by the government. Since then, India has progressed greatly in defence and defence allocation took a new priority for the armed forces leading India to become the fifth largest armed forces in the world today. These measures, even if seen as steps in the right direction, only contributed to an arms race in the region with each country trying to acquire new weapon systems and augment their forces with new technology. Today, India seems to have accepted the dictum of the need for preparation of war in order to achieve peace.
It’s now more than six decades and the border issue remains unresolved and has become a protracted conflict bringing into fold a whole of other issues including neighbours. Efforts were made to de-link border issue with that of economic relations and it was agreed in 2005 at the agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the boundary question to negotiate border demarcations while economic relations could be concentrated upon side-by-side. In fact Confidence building measures (CBMs) were taken up since 1981 when the first round of border talks was held and since then there have been many such talks held to find a solution. Sadly though, despite several such measures including high level meetings – both informal and formal – the relations did not proceed on the right track. To this day China claims Arunachal Pradesh and India claims the Chinese controlled Aksai Chin territory preventing both countries full normalization of relations even though trade and economic relations have continued to exist.
Impact of the Conflict on Regional Peace and Security
The conflict has also led to militarization of the border regions, brought in a strong sense of mistrust and rivalry as also bringing into fold India’s another adversary Pakistan into play. The Sino-Pakistan collusion against India has complicated matters further as China has lent all its support including military hardware and nuclear technology to Pakistan besides taking control of Gwador Port in the name of Belt and Road Initiative to which Pakistan has agreed to take part. As a consequence, each country has tried to balance and outdo the other by entering into relations with other regional and extra-regional countries that have at one point or the other have been supportive of either of them. For example, at the time of the 1962 war India was supported by the U.S. whereas Soviet Union sided communist China. Later during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war the configuration of relationship changed and India drifted to Moscow and the 1972 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed whereas the US sent its Seventh Fleet air craft carrier USS Enterprise in support of Pakistan. And now again there has been a tilt in relationship with the US supporting India against China with Russia although a long-term ally of India has tried to balance its relations with India and also with China. In the meantime China has built an all-weather friendship with Pakistan. Most importantly, the foreign policies of these countries are now being shaped by these developments.
References and Further Reading:
. Rajiv Sikri, “The Tibet Factor in India-China Relations”, Journal of International Affairs, vol.64, no.2, 2011, pp.n 55-71.
- Harsh V Pant, “Turbulence in the Himalayas”, https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/turbulence-himalayas
- Harsh V. Pant, “Making Sense of the Recent India- China Clashes”, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/06/making-sense-of-the-recent-china-india-clashes/
- David M. Malone & Rohan Mukherjee (2010) India and China: Conflict and Cooperation, Survival, 52:1, 137-158, DOI: 10.1080/00396331003612513
- Leo M. van der Mey (1994) The India—China conflict: Explaining the outbreak of war 1962, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 5:1, 183-199, DOI: 10.1080/09592299408405913
- Chandrima Ghosh, “India China Relations: Conflict or Cooperation”? Jadavpur Journal of International Relations, Volume: 13 issue: 1, page(s): 208-215.
- Sunil Khatri, “Events leading to the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962”, IDSA Monograph Series, No 58, February 2017
- Alyssa Ayres, “The India – China Border Dispute: What to Know?” Council on Foreign Relations, June 18, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/china-india-border-dispute-what-know
- Rup Narayan Das, “India-China Relations: A New Paradigm”, IDSA Monograph Series, May 2013.