Inside Story

Uneasy neighbours

A disputed border continues to fuel tension between China and India, but there are also good reasons for better relations, writes Louise Merrington

Louise Merrington 19 August 2010 2369 words

A Buddhist monk holds a camera above his head to take pictures of the Dalai Lama in Tawang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, last November. The visit created increased tension between New Delhi and Beijing. AFP Photo/Diptendu Dutta

IN AUGUST last year the Chennai Centre for China Studies, a hawkish Indian foreign-policy think tank, published a copy of an article it clearly hoped would create a furore. Translated from a Chinese website, it detailed how China could split India into ten or twenty ethnically based states by funding insurgents and supporting restive neighbours like Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. As expected, controversy ignited across India.

With their usual tendency to manufacture outrage, India’s voracious tabloids and twenty-four-hour television stations began baying for Chinese blood. And in a typical display of the Indian media’s tendency to eat their own, they also turned on the Hindu newspaper’s Beijing correspondent, Ananth Krishnan – one of only four Indian correspondents in China – when he dared to suggest that not everything on China’s internet can be associated with the Chinese government.

Coming on top of a series of low-level skirmishes on the India–China border, the controversy illustrated just how deep anti-China feeling still runs in large sections of Indian society. The roots of the hostility lie in the still-disputed border and a three-month conflict – nearly fifty years ago – that many people outside India have never heard of. As the furore showed, the relationship between the two countries might have evolved in many ways over the last six decades, but some things haven’t changed.

There is a running joke among India–China scholars that relations between the two countries over the past sixty years can essentially be described in three phases: “Hindi–Chini bhai-bhai,” “Hindi–Chini bye-bye” and “Hindi–Chini buy-buy.” Although the story is more complex than that, the three labels are a useful way to begin to understand what has changed and what hasn’t.

“Hindi–Chini bhai-bhai” – “Indians and Chinese are brothers” – was coined during a visit by the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to China in October 1954, reciprocating the visit by the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, to India four months earlier. Nineteen fifty-four was a high point in the relationship, a period of rapprochement after decades of strife over the disputed India–Tibet border, which dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, and the more recent tension after the 1950 Chinese “liberation” of Tibet. The year also marked India’s formal recognition of China’s sovereignty over Tibet. India relinquished all its territorial rights over the province, abandoning the long-held position of maintaining Tibet as an autonomous buffer zone.

This new friendship created the potential for renewed discussions about the disputed border, though this was tested only two years later. Two areas were (and still are) in dispute. The first, the north-eastern stretch, was known until 1972 as the North-East Frontier Agency and is now the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh; China claims it as Southern Tibet. The second is the western region of Aksai Chin, claimed by the Indians and currently administered by the Chinese, which borders the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Until the mid 1950s most of the border tension had centred on the eastern stretch – and specifically the disputed border known as the McMahon Line. But the western region became the focus in 1956 when the Chinese decided to build a highway through Aksai Chin, linking the restive provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet and allowing for the rapid movement of troops. Despite the fact that it disputed the occupation of the territory, India hadn’t administered the region in any way, and after the building of the road the region effectively passed into Chinese hands. Aksai Chin continued to be a volatile area – not helped by the fact that the rest of Jammu and Kashmir was the subject of an ongoing and often violent dispute between India and Pakistan – and it would provide one of the flashpoints for the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict.

Matters were further complicated with the Lhasa Revolt of March 1959, an uprising of Tibetans that culminated when the fourteenth Dalai Lama (and subsequently thousands of Tibetan refugees) fled to India and Chinese forces crushed the resistance. In the northern autumn Chinese and Indian troops clashed along the McMahon Line border.

It’s possible that a deal to settle the border dispute could have been made in 1959 – most likely through an exchange that would have given China Aksai Chin and India Arunachal Pradesh. But talks broke down. A bilateral committee, established – according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs – to “examine the factual material in the possession of the two governments in support of their stands,” met three times during 1960 but failed to agree even on the most basic question: had the border ever been officially delimited? (No, according to China; yes, according to India.) This was the last, failed opportunity to effect an agreement before relations broke down completely.

The Sino-Indian War began on 8 September 1962 when the Chinese crossed into the North-East Frontier Agency and attacked an Indian border post, alleging that the Indians had already violated the McMahon Line. This was the first time the conflict flared along the McMahon Line, though there had already been some fighting in Ladakh around the Aksai Chin region, after India alleged that China and Pakistan were colluding to undermine its position in Kashmir. Skirmishes continued throughout September and into October. This was the era of “Hindi–Chini bye-bye.”

After six weeks the Chinese launched a full-scale offensive along the frontier, from Ladakh to the North-East Frontier Agency, arguing that it was a pre-emptive strike against Indian aggression. This moved the conflict beyond the disputed areas and into Indian territory, essentially making it an invasion of India. The Indian force was heavily under-prepared and crumbled before the Chinese onslaught. The fighting lasted for just over a month, with the Chinese declaring a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November. Statistics released by the Indian government on 29 October 1962 declared between 2000 and 2500 Indian soldiers killed during the first week of fighting, with 1102 held prisoner, 291 wounded and 5174 missing and presumed dead.

On 8 November the Chinese proposed a ceasefire agreement whereby both parties would withdraw twenty kilometres behind the positions held on 7 November 1959. The Chinese would withdraw back behind the McMahon Line, but they would maintain control of Indian-claimed territory in Ladakh, including the strategically important Aksai Chin road linking Xinjiang and Tibet. The Indians rejected this proposal; after another fortnight of fierce fighting, however, the Chinese surprised everyone by announcing a unilateral ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops to the 7 November 1959 positions. The Chinese added that, provided the Indian government took corresponding measures, the two parties could meet to discuss troop withdrawal and an end to hostilities. Militarily weakened, and with the rest of the world supporting all measures to solve the conflict, India was in no position to argue.

In December 1962 six non-aligned nations (Ceylon, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, the United Arab Republic and Ghana) met in Colombo to try to broker a formal peace deal, but their lack of condemnation of the Chinese invasion incensed India. India nevertheless accepted the Colombo proposals, but China rejected them, sticking to the terms of its 21 November 1962 statement. The talks broke down and nothing was resolved, even in subsequent bilateral meetings.

In the decades following the Sino-Indian War relations gradually began to normalise. Formal diplomatic ties were re-established in 1976, and after China instigated economic reform under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s the rapprochement continued, though it wasn’t until 1988 that the turning point came with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing. This made him the first Indian prime minister to visit China since Nehru in 1954 and marked the end of the impasse on the border issue, which had lasted for most of the 1980s. The two sides agreed to maintain peace and stability along the “Line of Actual Control” in Arunachal Pradesh (roughly equivalent to the McMahon Line) and they also agreed to set up a joint working group to help defuse the border issue. In addition, India agreed to curtail the anti-China actions of Tibetans in India, a stance that was still evident twenty years later during the anti-China protests surrounding the 2008 Olympic torch relay in Delhi. The era of “Hindi–Chini bye-bye” was drawing to a close, and “Hindi–Chini buy-buy” had begun.

TODAY, Sino-Indian trade is over US$50 billion and growing, though this figure hides a huge trade imbalance in favour of China. The political relationship, however, remains complicated. Much of India’s current attitude to China – which in many ways informs its view of its own place in the world – still has its roots in the border dispute. To most outsiders, the importance of this issue in India, and the significance of the 1962 war in particular, is perplexing – it was, after all, a three-month war that took place half a century ago. But the defeat still rankles in certain sectors of the Indian foreign-policy establishment.

Though the institutional memory of the 1962 war is beginning to recede as a younger guard takes over in the political and foreign-service spheres, the border dispute has become part of a broader nationalist narrative that doesn’t have much to do with precise lines on maps. In the Indian case at least, this stoking of nationalism has contributed to a sense of entitlement which is becoming more pervasive now that Indians are beginning to absorb the Western rhetoric that India and China are “emerging powers.” The fact that the two countries are increasingly linked together – often erroneously – in the West means that the more hawkish elements in the Indian defence establishment feel that the country now has the capacity to “stand up” to China.

This narrative is fuelled by media on both sides of the border, as was evident during the skirmishes last year. Both countries have troops stationed along the border who occasionally provoke each other up by crossing over (to dump their rubbish, for example). When China tried to block a $2.9 billion loan from the Asian Development Bank to India because part of the money was to be used for a water project in Arunachal Pradesh, the Indians increased their troop numbers along the border and the Chinese subsequently did the same, with predictable results.

Another ongoing problem is China’s relationship with Pakistan, which solidified in the 1970s after India signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union, and culminated in transfer of military nuclear technology in the 1980s. Although in the 1990s China renounced its support for Pakistan in Kashmir, saying that it was an issue for India and Pakistan to sort out, it continues to provide extensive aid, including a major transfer of civilian nuclear technology in June this year, which causes considerable consternation in India.

For China’s part, the 1962 war is insignificant; instead, the major issue in the relationship is Tibet, and specifically the Dalai Lama’s residence in India. This came to a head in November last year when the Dalai Lama visited the town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. Tawang – a strategically important border town – is one of the most sacred places in Tibetan Buddhism and is home to the 300-year-old monastery that was the Dalai Lama’s first place of refuge when he fled Tibet in 1959. The Chinese government vigorously protested about the visit, which marked a particularly tense point in the relationship after the series of skirmishes along the McMahon Line.

Although the media on both sides have a limited impact on policy, the extent to which they shape and inflame public opinion must not be underestimated. Among the Indian and Chinese publics there is very little understanding of the other, which tends to lead to knee-jerk reactions during low points in the relationship, such as the 2009 border clashes. In China, India is still generally seen as relatively insignificant – a major player in South Asia, perhaps, but with little clout outside its immediate region. In India, some see China as a threat and others as an enormous trade opportunity worthy of significant engagement. From a Chinese perspective, the Indian media, with their loud, tabloid journalism and devotion to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, are seen as unruly and sometimes hostile, with a penchant for scapegoating China for political ends. To Indians the Chinese media look like a monolithic mouthpiece of the government. (In reality, although the Chinese media are mostly forced to adhere to the government line, opinion there, particularly online, is by no means homogenous.) Such generalisations conveniently ignore the subtleties of the debates taking place on both sides, as well as the informal diplomatic efforts and people-to-people exchanges which, although still in their infancy, are gradually assuming greater importance.

These exchanges, however, remain hampered by bureaucracy and misunderstandings. In particular, the attempts by both countries to foster “cultural exchanges” are often developed with no thought for their intended audience or cultural accessibility. The Indian government sends traditional dancers to China, for example, when the Chinese people would far prefer representatives of Bollywood. China has a phenomenal “soft power” machine in the Confucius Institutes and related programs, but continued suspicion about their motives and links with government mean that it can be difficult for them to gain a serious foothold in countries like India. The Indian equivalent, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, is notoriously ineffective and has nowhere near the global reach of the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), which administers the Confucius Institutes.

In spite of the obstacles, however, the governments of both sides are taking a far more measured approach than their respective media, particularly on the border issue. Both governments realise that it is in the best interests of their own domestic development to maintain peace along the border, to increase trade and to promote engagement. For this reason, although relations continue to be wary and the potential for confrontation remains, a fresh outbreak of border conflict is unlikely in the immediate future. •