Sputnik talked to experts on India-China relations to unravel the real cause of the latest flare-up, which happened despite a cordial relationship between the leaders of the respective countries. New Delhi and Beijing had also institutionalised a mechanism to resolve the border disputes in 2003, during the visit of India's then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpyee to Beijing.
The special representatives of the countries have met 22 times since then, but a resolution of the disputes remained elusive. “An early settlement of the boundary question serves the fundamental interests of both countries,” New Delhi said after the 22nd round of talks in December 2019 in New Delhi. In a similar tone, Beijing had said both sides “agreed to formulate management rules for maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”
The violent standoff on 15-16 June, however, was a turning point in India-China relations, which hit their lowest point since the 1967 limited war between the two countries at Nathu La Pass.
“Definitely it has taken a serious turn. There are two issues; there is no clear demarcation of that border and India and China have different positions on the Line of Actual Control. Earlier in 1996, it was decided to somewhat demilitarise it and not weaponise it, though there would be military on both sides,” said Professor Anuradha Chenoy, former dean of the School International Studies at the premier Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“It was always a simmering issue, though both the countries took pride in claiming that not a shot has been fired. In one sense, we see this particular development as a departure from the normal kind of incursions. These incursions and face-offs have occurred in other places across the border, from the east to the west. It has seen more than its usual jostling, pushing and shoving, particularly in the Galwan sector, where it went out of hand. In one sense, it is a serious concern because there is a great deal of bad blood,” Professor Alka Acharya of the Centre for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University said.
India-China Relations – A Historical Perspective
India-China diplomatic relations dates back to 1950, when then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to recognise the newly-established Communist regime under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, despite opposition within the ruling Congress party. New Delhi was the first country from outside the socialist bloc of nations to officially recognise Beijing, on 1 April 1950.
Both the newly independent countries gradually established closer ties and signed a pact named “Panchsheel” or five principles for peaceful coexistence in 1954.
“When Nehru signed the Panchseel, the backdrop was a commitment to promoting the Sino-Indian relationship as bedrock of the new Asian resurgence. And pre-1962, India’s relations with China were of a different order. After 1962, the framework has essentially remained the same, but there was a gradual building up of this relationship from the mid-1970s onwards, with the realisation that there is no option with your largest neighbour,” Professor Acharya said, explaining the transformation of relations between Asia's two most populous nations.
Escalation of Border Disputes
How, then, did relations start to sour? Professor Chenoy asked. China had never given up its rival claim to Indian Territory. But Prime Minister Modi thought the Chinese were primarily interested in trade and that they would not pursue or push into what was seen as Indian territory.
Both Professor Chenoy and Professor Acharya indicated that China chose to escalate the border dispute to an unprecedented level partially because of its internal politics and pressure from the world community about the origin of the coronavirus.
“Obviously there were domestic issues and increasingly we are beginning to hear about how within China there is a lot of dissatisfaction with (President) Xi Jinping and the party’s different factions, which are not right on the same page, and COVID has also bred to a lot of resentment among the Chinese people,” Professor Acharya felt.
Referring to some general theories doing the rounds about a Chinese provocation to engage India at a time when both the countries were in the grip of the global pandemic, Professor Acharya said Beijing was wary of New Delhi’s machinations in Ladakh, especially after the scrapping of Article 370 and reorganisation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, coupled with the development of infrastructure in Ladakh.
“There was apprehension on the Chinese side that possibly India was trying to change facts on the ground. The area where the whole thing has happening has not been in dispute. But the concern was becoming far clearer as with infrastructure development; India was in a far greater position to create problems for [China's] own CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) project,” suggested Professor Acharya.
Both the analysts opposed any coercive action by New Delhi, as it would hurt India more than China. Professor Chenoy pointed out the measured statement by Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Ladakh, although he is a known nationalist.
“It is very clear that India can retaliate and has the capacity. Both India and China can hurt each other. If not unequally, it would do great damage to both; even though China may be arguably more weaponised and more powerful. But India is no less; both are nuclear powers and nobody in the world wamts nuclear powers to engage in this kind of face-to-face conflagration; even a controlled conflict can get out of hand. It would change the entire security situation in Asia,” said Professor Chenoy.
On the other hand, Professor Acharya felt that if New Delhi does anything drastic in the economic sector, it would be a source of “enormous pain” for the small and medium-sized business sector. She said the Chinese economy or investment has penetrated into the Indian system in a major way and “millions of shopkeepers whose lives are dependent on cheap Chinese products, especially in the electronic sector” would be hurt.
“Banning the apps is one way to signal to them that is already running into trouble, as the Chinese are contesting it legally. But more than that, if we do want to make the economic kind of weapons to bring China to the negotiating table, and have some leverage, we have to devise a clear strategy which will have clear deliverables in the short and medium term before we decide to shut off the Chinese taps,” said Professor Acharya.
Even China had warned that India should avoid any “strategic miscalculation”.
“China and India should follow the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and uphold overall bilateral relations. India should avoid a strategic miscalculation with regard to China,” cautioned Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Friday (3 July).
India and China fought a war over a border dispute in 1962, and in 1967 in a limited way. Their armies were face to face in Doklam in 2017.
The India-China border dispute covers the 3,488 km-long LAC from Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast to Ladakh. While the LAC is mainly a land border in most regions, in Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh, it passes through a lake. India controls the western portion of the 45-km long lake, while the rest is under Chinese control. Most of the clashes between the two countries have taken place in the Galwan Valley.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.