The 50th anniversary of the 1962 India-China border conflict provides an appropriate occasion to reflect on border differences between the two countries and the outlook for the future. India’s view of China is heavily etched by the 1962 events. At the strategic level, the distrust of China is deep, with China’s policies since 1962 reinforcing the general belief that its posture towards India is basically adversarial, and will remain so in the foreseeable future.
Antagonism does not necessarily mean a recourse to arms to settle differences. India has no design to recover disputed territory by force. India accepts that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. Even though China does not respect Tibet’s autonomy and occupies it militarily against the wishes of its people, India has no agenda of destabilizing China’s rule in Tibet. If the dialogue between China and the Tibetan leadership has collapsed, it denotes a failure of China’s political management rather than any interference by India. The Chinese political system seems incapable of handling dissent or an internal challenge to political authority without repression.
The claim that the Dalai Lama’s presence in India is a political provocation to China is disputable. He has been in India since 1959, and if over the past 63 years the Chinese have not developed a clear understanding of India’s extremely cautious policy towards Tibet and the Dalai Lama, it is again a reflection of China’s closed political mind when it comes to handling issues of sharing power internally with different political forces, apart from muscle-flexing on “sovereignty” issues.
China can be accused of failing to create conditions for the Dalai Lama to return home with minimum dignity. It could learn a lesson from India’s handling of its Northeast. China is much more favourably placed than the Indian government as there is no Tibetan insurgency and no outside power is providing arms. Critically, the struggle for Tibet’s autonomy is being led not by a military figure but the world’s foremost spiritual figure deeply wedded to non-violence. India would be relieved if China and the Tibetan leadership could overcome differences and reach an agreement. It will not be at India’s cost as India has already paid the full cost of its timorous Tibetan policy since 1954 when it recognized China’s sovereignty over Tibet without any quid pro quo.
China bases its territorial claims on India by virtue of its occupation of Tibet. India has, unfortunately, allowed itself to be manoeuvred into a situation where it is now unable to contest China’s Tibet-grab and consequently reject territorial claims being made in the name of Tibet on Arunachal Pradesh. Meanwhile, China has developed an extensive military infrastructure in Tibet, which it does not need to retain its physical hold over the territory as a military uprising in Tibet with external support can be ruled out. If, unsure about potential mischief by India, these Chinese dispositions are intended to deter India, what would be the basis of such fears given our repeated assertions that we recognize Tibet as part of China?
It is clear that China has no intention to settle the Tibetan issue through negotiations with the Dalai Lama. By extension, it does not intend to settle the border issue with India, as the settlement of the first dispute would require a show of flexibility on China’s part, and the logical consequence of such accommodation would be stepping back from China’s untenable claims on “South Tibet”. The Chinese leadership is openly proclaiming that the border issue will take a very long time to settle, if at all. Why this should be so is not explained as China has settled its borders with all neighbours of India, the Central Asian countries and even Russia. Why would the next generation in the India-China case be in a better position to reach agreement? China is already moving inexorably towards number two status globally in terms of national power. Why should a stronger, more nationalistic China discard territorial demands on India that the present leadership cannot? Is it the Chinese calculation that China’s heavier weight will play in its favour in future negotiations with India? Even such reasoning is not persuasive as Indian economic and military strength will also grow in the years ahead, and the balance may be narrowed rather than expanding ceaselessly.
China’s position on the border issue is not transparent. It does not want to identify on the map the size of the disputed pockets sector by sector so that both sides are aware of each other’s perception of where the line of actual control lies on the ground, creating the practical basis for a compromise solution. It has cynically used the mechanism of the special representatives — established to explore a solution based on political and strategic considerations — to make a claim on Tawang which China does not actually control. Even that mechanism has been diverted from its original purpose, with the SRs now reviewing the totality of the relationship.
Meanwhile, China has outmanoeuvred India diplomatically by inducing it to accept, contrary to reality, that China does not constitute a threat to it. We are now having a strategic dialogue with China, just as we have with the United States of America, Russia and a select group of countries. A high-level economic dialogue with China has been instituted, replicating the one with the US. China is, at the same time, unwilling to discuss with us its nuclear and missile relationship with Pakistan. It does not consider us eligible to discuss nuclear issues bilaterally as we are not a nuclear weapons State in its eyes. Its policies around us make it more difficult for us to manage our relations with our neighbours.
Ironically, China can continue to assert territorial claims against us even as we constantly endorse its territorial sovereignty over Tibet. It limits discussions on the border issue to the maintaining of peace and tranquillity and not sincerely finding a solution. Even the peace dividend from the 1993 and 1996 peace and confidence building agreements is not available to India as China has vastly improved its military infrastructure in Tibet, compelling India belatedly to do likewise on its own side. Instead of demilitarization, the border is being increasingly militarized. China induces us to put curbs on the Dalai Lama and assume responsibility for the good behaviour of the Tibetans, while repressing them inside Tibet. It arms Pakistan and continues to give it nuclear and missile support to bolster its capacity to pursue its confrontational policies towards India. While strengthening its physical presence in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, China questions our sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of paying any price for these policies, it has become India’s largest trade partner in goods, with vested interests on the Indian side advocating closer ties with China, irrespective of its conduct. China’s behaviour in the South China Sea carries a lesson for India. Its calculated overtures to India should be seen for what they are — manipulating India diplomatically while containing its rise as much as possible.
We are playing China’s game because we cannot overcome our sense of great insecurity regarding it and assume consequently the burden of being unilaterally “statesmanlike” in avoiding contention.