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Border dilemma between India and China: lessons from retrospection

Friday, July 14, 2017
By Ranajoy Sen

Familiarity breeds contempt between neighbours

The Sino-Indian border conflict in the winter of 1962 is more than half-a-century behind in time. Nevertheless, there are certain traces of familiarity with the ongoing prolonged border stand-off between India and China. The centre of the dilemma is the Doklam plateau, located at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan; China’s attempt to force its way there has been thwarted by India. Doklam is within Bhutanese territory, but under Indian protection. There is a trace of palpable tension within India, Bhutan and probably also in China. The confabulations and parleys are bound to be between India and China: the two geographically sprawling Asian neighbours. The issue at hand seems to be not how the stalemate would dissolve, but when.    

Reflecting back at history, letters of discords regarding the border between governments of India and China began in spring of 1959. The China issue came round to occupy a notable portion of Indian public discourse by 1960. Despite the context being different then, the subject was familiar. China had clandestinely built a road across the Akasi Chin plateau in Kashmir, linking its Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. Additionally, it also claimed a portion of what is the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh – then known as NEFA. Since ceding neither was feasible for India, the two countries gradually gravitated towards conflict.   

Correct, cautious step by India now
As in Doklam today, the areas within the vicinity of Chushul in the Kashmir sector and of the propinquity of Tawang in NEFA were the locations of dilemma, back then. However, at Doklam today, India has correctly stepped in to prevent a possible pre-emptive, unfair move by China, to try to elbow in its position at an India-protected territory of Bhutan.

The approach appears to have a measure of resemblance to what China did across the Aksai Chin plateau between 1955 till 1959: it constructed a road, with India completely unaware. When it was all completed and China had taken full control over it, making it fait accompli, China publicly declared the opening of the Aksai Chin road.

Expression of amazement and outrage in India followed. China knew well that it would be so. Nevertheless, the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Chinese Premier, Chou en Lai, exchanged letters and correspondence. To try to find a potential solution to the border conundrum surrounding Chinese claims, Chou came to New Delhi in 1960. Nehru emphasised his Indian identity, and attendant Indian nationalistic aspirations and priorities: he usually welcomed international guests with a speech in English at Delhi’s Palam airport. But, on that day, while welcoming Chou at Delhi, his speech was in Hindi.  
The net outcome of Chou’s visit to New Delhi was unsatisfactory. It did not yield nor indicate any progress towards a mutually acceptable solution of the full length of the Sino-Indian border.   

However, an event from that visit bespeaks of the apparent Chinese predilection for tenacity tinged with anger to prove their point of view even when all indications point otherwise. Among the ministers of the Nehru dispensation that Chou had interacted with, that with Morarji Desai was considerable. When the meeting began at Desai’s official residence, Desai enquired of Chou whether he would prefer to speak first. When Chou replied on the affirmative, he asked him to begin. Chou went on with his usual list of statements and arguments to insist why the Chinese had taken such a position in two sectors of its border with India in the west and east. He stated that China was willing to agree to India’s viewpoints at NEFA; but, India would have to unhesitatingly agree to Aksai Chin being a part of China.

When Chou was done with his speaking, Desai began. He told Chou that when China, after the revolution of and the formation of the “People’s Republic of China” (PRC) in 1949, was isolated and cornered, it was India which had stood by it. During Bandung’s Non-Aligned nation’s conference in 1955, it was India which had spoken up in favour of China in the face of anti-Chinese positions by pro-American countries of Asia. India had readily accepted the Chinese acquisition of Tibet. India was one of the first to give diplomatic recognition to the PRC. Nehru had spoken with fervour in favour of China’s admittance to the United Nations (UN), when Western countries were very averse to it. Furthermore, when offered a seat in the UN’s Security Council, India had voluntarily and graciously declined it in favour of the China. Given the plethora of goodwill and cooperation from India, Desai stated, why was China conducting itself so arrogantly and unreasonably with India?   

Chouhan’s brief flare up temporarily
Faced with the onslaught of such harsh truths and compelling arguments from Desai, Chou had briefly flared up temporarily. Desai stated that if Chou did not wish to continue the meeting, it could be concluded forthwith. Nevertheless, realizing the folly, Chou regained his composure and Desai completed his say. Chou had no convincing answer to it. Nevertheless, there was no change in policy of both countries and they moved inexorably towards and armed conflict in 1962 in which the Chinese knife turned into the Indian wound.

That was an event from which India took keen lessons. All idealism regarding China was replaced with realistic diplomacy. Indian defence resources expansion and upgrades received a major boost. There have been instances of border tensions with China post-1962, but India has been well prepared to fend it off appropriately, henceforth.   

The prevailing gridlock at Doklam would hopefully come to a conclusion, sooner than otherwise. But, for the time being India just has sent about 2500 additional soldiers to Doklam. It is an indication of being well prepared and cushioned to manage an event of tension. Hopefully, China would decide soon to let the respected convention be as it is and not proceed to press too hard upon Bhutan and by extension to India.

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