Fifty Years On, Sino-Indian Border Still Unsettled

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1962 Sino-Indian War on Saturday, The Economist visited the disputed region of Arunachal Pradesh over which it was fought. The area, sometimes known in China as “South Tibet”, is considered a candidate for the birthplace of the next Dalai Lama. With the territorial dispute still looming, India has been reluctant to invest in developing the area, apart from improving roads to carry troops to the border.

[…] “Half a million men are eyeball to eyeball,” says Mohan Guruswamy, a China expert in Delhi. He sees diminishing prospects for settling the border dispute. Despite well-established routines between the two sides’ infantry patrols to avoid clashes, he worries about a persistent risk of accidental conflict.

A deal over the border has for years been self-evident: China gets to keep Aksai Chin in the west and India gets to keep the 80,000 square kilometres of Arunachal Pradesh, which China informally calls “South Tibet”. In the past China has signalled a readiness to settle the dispute along just such lines. But Indian leaders and parliament have always balked, saying voters would not tolerate losing an inch of territory, even when no settled populations are involved.

[…] Broader relations have improved over the past couple of years, though with no progress on the border. Occasional plans for joint military operations are announced and then quickly forgotten. Formal border talks exist—a 16th round is due between special representatives—but no one expects anything to follow from them.

As the years slip by, China may grow less interested in a quiet border. Observers in India worry that if either China’s generals or its nationalist social-media activists and editors gained sway over border discussions, Chinese diplomats would struggle to propose compromises.

The Economist’s Banyan blog includes an account of the two-day journey to Tawang, and explains how the 1962 conflict came about:

The war, 50 years ago, was the result in the short-term of Indian assertiveness, especially in the face of Chinese expansion farther to the west, in Kashmir. The mutual border was (and is) a disputed line drawn by colonial authorities with a thick nib, known as the McMahon line, after the Indian foreign secretary of 1914. China refused to recognise India’s sovereignty over the territory it drew in. Rather than assuage its northern neighbour, however, India chose to push soldiers—and frontier posts—farther and farther forward, even north of the McMahon border.

Yet the longer-term causes of the fighting were messier. China, in the 1950s, had quashed an uprising by Tibetans north of the border. It had also stolen into territory in Jammu and Kashmir state, which India’s considered to be its own land. In 1959 the Dalai Lama, Tibetans’ spiritual leader, fled into India, taking refuge at the monastery in Tawang. He was greeted warmly by India’s politicians and public. Many thousands of other Tibetans followed, forming a government in exile. Arguably the conflict of 1962 was in part a belated, vindictive, reaction by Mao to punish his neighbour for granting asylum to an internal opponent.

Newly unearthed official documents shed additional light on the start of the war. From The Hindu’s Ananth Krishnan:

Three months before China launched its offensive against India on October 20, 1962, a top Chinese official warned at a meeting with an Indian diplomat that China would take military action if India did not cease its continuing troop advancements in the west — a warning that went unheeded — according to recently declassified Chinese documents.

The documents, which include internal memos sent from Chinese officials in New Delhi to Beijing and notes of negotiations from 1950 to 1962, provide fresh insights into Chinese decision-making in the decade leading up to 1962 and shed light on missed opportunities to resolve the boundary issue — both during the ill-fated visit by Premier Zhou Enlai to New Delhi in 1960 and in the last-ditch talks held just three months before the war started.

At TIME, discussing Tibet’s place in Sino-Indian relations, Nilanjana Bhowmick argues that a repeat of the 1962 war is now unlikely:

While the dispute remains frozen over glacial passes and rounds of border talks yield pitiful results, the narrative of India-China ties has moved on. The last ten years have been shaped by growing, significant economic links. In 2005, the two countries agreed to a “strategic and cooperative partnership” after a meeting between Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and Indian PM Manmohan Singh. Last June, Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang proclaimed Sino-Indian ties to be the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. “India and China are not in competition,” Singh said in 2009. “There is enough economic space for us both.”

[…] Given the political and economic stakes, both sides are likely to grudgingly preserve the status quo, at least for now. “There is a certain trend of animosity [in China] towards India, which is continuous,” Mohan Guruswamy of the Observer Research Foundation says. “And we have to live with that just the way they have to live with our growing friendship with other countries and the Tibet issue. 1962, however, will never happen again.”

But a recent Pew survey previously covered on CDT shows a deepening mutual wariness between the Chinese and Indian publics, reports Tom Wright at India Real Time:

[…] The Pew Research Center report, released Tuesday, shows that two-thirds of Chinese respondents viewed India unfavorably and 23% favorably. By comparison, 43% of Chinese involved in the survey said they viewed the U.S. favorably.

[…] What’s perhaps most notable in the report is that only 39% of respondents said they viewed Beijing’s relationship with India as one of cooperation, down significantly from 53% in 2010.

Only 23% of Indians term their nation’s relationship with China as one of cooperation; only 24% think China’s growing economy is a good thing, Pew research shows.

These negative attitudes mean it’ll be hard for China and India to take bold measures needed to forge a long-lasting thaw in relations.

Meanwhile, writes Rajat Pandit at The Times of India, Indian military officers eye China with suspicion, claiming that lessons have been learned from 1962, and that “we can punch back now”:

Pakistan has always been the more in-your-face threat for India, stoking militancies, launching incursions and rattling its nuclear sabre. “But Pakistan can be managed,” says a senior military officer.

“China is the actual long-term threat. Its strategic intentions remain unclear. We have to constructively engage with Beijing but also keep our powder dry for all eventualities,” he adds.

[…] China has systematically built military infrastructure all along the unresolved 4,056-km Line of Actual Control (LAC), with five airbases, an extensive rail network and over 58,000-km of roads in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Apart from deploying medium-range ballistic missiles and fighters on the Tibetan plateau, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has now also taken to holding a series of high-end air and ground combat exercises near the Indian borders.

Beijing also continues to systematically widen its arc of influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by forging extensive maritime linkages with eastern Africa, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan, among others. “China may be doing all this to protect its sea lanes supplying energy but it also strategically encircles India,” says a naval officer.

This latter arena, complicated by energy supplies and trade routes, may play a more central role in future than the two countries’ Himalayan border. From Rajeev Sharma at China’s Global Times:

[…] China is not an Indian Ocean power and yet it is investing a lot of diplomatic and military capital into becoming one. In retaliation, India, which is not a power in the South China Sea or East China Sea, is working overtime to project itself as one. This is the crux of Sino-Indian strategic rivalries.

[…] In many ways, the South China Sea and Indian Ocean are strategically interrelated. The presence of a maritime power in one international water body inevitably increases its leverage in the other international water body. While China has been arguing that, despite the name, the Indian Ocean doesn’t belong to India alone, India and other countries can equally contend that South China Sea too does not belong to China alone.