India-China Standoff: Will It Ever End

The standoff between India and China continues considering the differing perceptions and absence of defined international boundary. Political reasoning through dialogue between the leaders on the issue, can resolve the standoff – only if, both countries agree to a pragmatic give and take solution…………

Opinion

By Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja

China has the uncanny quality to continue to remain in the news, if not in international news, then, at least in the Indian news. Of late, news about China in the Indian media is about ‘villages’ being constructed within Indian territory, or in Bhutan, or in some areas occupied by it in the 1962 war, and never vacated!

Such news would obviously raise doubts in anyone’s mind, has the India-China boundary ever been delineated and demarcated? Two English words that have very distinct meanings, although the Thesaurus shows them as synonymous, yet the dictionary meanings of the two words are quite different. Delineation means markings on the map, while demarcation is to physically mark the boundary on ground. This piece is not meant to be a lecture on English language, so getting down to business, the answer to the question posed earlier, in simple language is: NO (Emphasis intended).

There is no defined international boundary between India and China. The 3488 kms long separation line is called the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Without delving too deep into history, it is, however, necessary to go into the past to understand the genesis of the problem.

The “Johnson Line” in 1865, which put Aksai Chin in Kashmir, was never proposed to the Chinese, but only to the Tibetans, since China did not control most of the Xinjiang region at that time. India, be it when under British rule, or after gaining its independence, never really bothered to either delineate the border on a map or demarcate on ground to secure the area to further its claim of Aksai Chin; it let the matter rest essentially on the cartographic expeditions of Johnson. To further confuse the issue, the British, while leaving India, left behind quite a few maps with many lines drawn on them; one of the lines, running along the Kun Lun Mountains, referred to as the Johnson-Ardagh Line, depicts Aksai Chin within the present J&K; another such line that is marked closer to the Karakoram Range, is named as the Macartney-MacDonald Line, and yet another line is called the Foreign Office Line, which are a little ambiguous. It was, hence, left to the claimants – the Maharaja of Kashmir, Tibet, China, and India – to resolve the issue!

Despite many attempts by India to resolve the issue, the problems continue to fester. After the 1962 war, talks were first initiated in 1981, followed by a Joint Working Group in 1989, and an Experts’ Group in 1993. Even after many rounds of talks, more than 20 at the last count, and the many attempts by the Indian Prime Ministers – Rajiv Gandhi, Narsimha Rao, AB Vajpayee, and Narendra Modi, no solution has yet appeared on the horizon

The Eastern sector, too, is not devoid of controversies and debates. A meeting called in October 1913, in Shimla, was attended by Tibet, and an unenthusiastic China also attended; the British team was headed by Henry McMahon. The delineation, as per the now famous McMahon Line, showed the limits of British India up to the edge of the Tibetan plateau, although with not much clarity. China, had reluctantly signed the agreement, and soon withdrew from it; the McMahon Line was also, thus renounced. The problems, thence created, increased after China’s occupation of Tibet, and continue till date, with both nations claiming territories as per their own perceptions.

Despite many attempts by India to resolve the issue, the problems continue to fester. After the 1962 war, talks were first initiated in 1981, followed by a Joint Working Group in 1989, and an Experts’ Group in 1993. Even after many rounds of talks, more than 20 at the last count, and the many attempts by the Indian Prime Ministers – Rajiv Gandhi, Narsimha Rao, AB Vajpayee, and Narendra Modi, no solution has yet appeared on the horizon.

Without a formal delineation and demarcation of the boundaries in the various sectors, how then do the two countries manage the border? Some treaties have been signed, such as, the Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (PTA) in 1993, and the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in 1996, which have been built upon in 2005, 2012, and 2013. All that these talks, agreements, CBMs, have achieved is the recognition of the LAC, while the delineation and demarcation of the international boundary is still a work in progress. Due to differing perceptions of both countries, confrontations between the two have become a norm. Between 2010 and 2014, there had been a total of 1612 violations on the LAC (as reported in Parliament), with two or three serious confrontations per year, as was in Doklam in 2017, and Aksai Chin in Eastern Ladakh, in 2020.

Unknown to India until 1958, China had constructed a connection between Tibet and Xinjiang regions in between 1951-1957, with about 180 kms of the road through Aksai Chin

The border issues were inherited by India in 1947; the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) was formed in 1949, with end of the civil war in China. It is indeed surprising that both the governments recognised maps of their respective nations, with common territories in both; the prime territorial dispute was in Aksai Chin. Unknown to India until 1958, China had constructed a connection between Tibet and Xinjiang regions in between 1951-1957, with about 180 kms of the road through Aksai Chin. In a discussion in Parliament, Prime Minister Nehru made light of the whole affair, by stating, “It is an inhospitable area and has not been under any kind of administration. Nobody has been present there. It is a territory, where not even a blade of grass grows, about 17,000 feet high.” So much for laying claim on territory that rightfully belonged to India!

After the occupation of Tibet by China in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India. He, along with his followers, were welcomed and given asylum, and also permitted to form a Tibetan Government in exile, much to the annoyance of China. This has always been the bone of contention, territorial or otherwise, between India and China. Although India has recognised Tibet as an integral part of China ever since its annexation, China does not seem to appreciate the act. In 2006, China laid claim to entire NE State of Arunachal Pradesh, as Southern Tibet, although claims had been made earlier to pockets around Tawang. As on date, China is building small conclaves in areas that it occupied in 1962, south of the McMahon Line.

Is a mutually acceptable boundary resolution then possible between Indian and China? In my opinion, for whatever its worth, it depends upon the present leadership of both the countries. A mutually acceptable solution will have to be one of give-and-take, of making compromises, to make amendments on maps, and then translate them on ground

Is a mutually acceptable boundary resolution then possible between Indian and China? In my opinion, for whatever its worth, it depends upon the present leadership of both the countries. A mutually acceptable solution will have to be one of give-and-take, of making compromises, to make amendments on maps, and then translate them on ground. China already has possession of Aksai Chin, while India has full possession of Arunachal Pradesh. Would one cede territory for a quid pro quo for the other?

President Xi Jinping has just paved the way for his re-election in November 2022. Politically, in China, there is no other leader that wields as much clout as him. The nature of China’s governmental system, would not permit detractors to any of his policies to be around for long. Prime Minister Modi is also a popular leader, a great orator, who can carry the masses along with him, and does not shy away from taking difficult decisions. Both the leaders are recognised and accepted, not just in their respective domestic audiences, but also internationally, albeit, may be for different reasons.

Taking such a decision, however, would be extremely difficult for either of them, although this does seem to be the only way out to end the standoff between India and China. President Xi Jinping, wants to see China at the peak in the international order during his autocratic reign. Such an action, however, has the tremendous risk of a revolt within the Communist Party of China (CPC), and his being forcibly removed from the helm.  For Prime Minister Modi, on the other hand, as the leader of the world’s largest democracy, it would be extremely difficult for him to explain such an action to the people.

Political reasoning through dialogue between the leaders on the issue, can resolve the standoff. Will it ever happen? The stars do not foretell! Until then it shall be status quo!

–The writer is an IAF veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda