India and China Relations: Back to Basics
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 May , 2024

India and China continue to face-off over a long running territorial dispute that has resulted in one war, back in 1962, and numerous lesser confrontations at regular intervals over the years. The latest crisis in Eastern Ladakh, sparked in 2021 by the preemptive Chinese occupation of over 4000 Sq Kms of disputed territory claimed by us, that resulted in the unprovoked Galwan clash, have only made matters worse. While the Chinese Government is keen to set aside the border question for later and instead concentrate on bolstering mutual trade, economic and bilateral ties, the Indian Government has, if only publicly, taken the position that all other aspects are dependent on the border question being first resolved to both our mutual satisfaction and benefit.

In the meantime we are seeing increasingly closer cooperation between India and the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific. In addition, greater priority has been given torapid improvement in border infrastructure, including logistic facilities, to cater for the additional troop deployment that has been forced on us along the LAC. Clearly, as things stand Indian defensive posture is aimed at ensuring requisite deterrence to prevent any further piecemeal occupation of our territory. Undoubtedly, the prevailing situation has also forced the PLA to deploy additional forces as well.

There is no gainsaying the fact that not only does the prevailing stand-off not auger well for either side in geopolitical and economic terms, but more importantly, as the law of diminishing return kicks in it will result in a steady decline in the image of the political and military leadership on both sides. This is an issue that will consistently be used by opposition parties in India and opposition factions and leaders within the CCP against the present leadership for domestic gains, especially if both countries continue to face economic headwinds.

In India, for example, despite the earnest attempts of the Mr. Modi Government and its acolytes within the media to desist from acknowledging the loss of 4000 Sq Kms of territory that India earlier claimed in Eastern Ladakh, the issue has been gaining traction domestically. Even if the Prime Minister wins a third term, as many expect, this issue is unlikely to be given a quiet burial. After all, if Mr. Nehru’s transgressions that resulted in loss of territory in Aksai China can still be stridently used against the Congress and its leadership, there is no reason to believe that either Mr. Modi or the BJP will remain unscathed as the news trickles down and becomes common knowledge. It is a matter of record that it was public pressure that forced Mr. Nehru to confront the Chinese with disastrous results; certainly not something that Mr. Modi would like to repeat. This is why he has unsuccessfully attempted to bury the issue of Chinese occupation of additional territory. Like it or not, his hard-line nationalistic image already a little dented will be subjected to far more scrutiny and his reputation damaged beyond repair.

The irretrievable reputational damage that political leaders suffered following the Vietnam War for the Americans, Afghanistan Occupation for the Soviet Union, American hasty abandonment of Afghanistan and now the invasion of Ukraine for Russia, appears to have been repeated, albeit at a much smaller scale, by President Xi with his unprovoked and preemptive action in Ladakh. The TAR is located over 2000Kms from mainland China, though well connected by rail, road and air. However this is through some of the most difficult and hazardous high altitude terrain in the world. An active LAC will only add to their problems in the long term especially as infrastructure across the LAC catches up in the next couple of years, giving India the full benefits of interior lines of communication. Thus, for all intents and purposes, regardless of rationale employed to justify the preemptive actions, the Chinese have created a quagmire for themselves. They can rest assured the Americans and their allies will do the best to exploit this, much like what NATO has achievedby provoking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, where President Xi has truly lost out is with regard to the options available with him to unify Taiwan, his publicly stated aim. He can no longer consider doing this through the use of force, however farfetched or unlikely the option of an amphibious assault may have been.This is because in the event of such an option being exercised, the likelihood of a second front along the LAC cannot be ruled out, especially as the Indian Army is still smarting from the manner in which they were outmaneouvred and out generalled, apart from the humiliation and embarrassment that Mr. Modi was subjected to.

With the necessity to ensure that the LAC remains sacrosanct, the PLA just does not have the force level or capabilities to undertake an assault on Taiwan. The last thing that President Xi can afford is for such an assault to be unsuccessful, while at the same time the PLA finds itself losing ground along the LAC. That could have a knock on effect and could well result in greater difficulties with its minorities be it the Tibetans or the Uyghur. A conflict here will also adversely impact, if not put paid, to the Belt and Road initiative and the CPEC.

So, at the end of the day, the only ones who will gain from this ongoing confrontation, and any escalation in the future, will be the Americans and the West. Ironically enough the only reason for our confrontation is the border issue. We can neither damage them economically nor dislodge or replace their trade or commercial interests around the world. In fact, despite hostilities they have become our major trading partner and if both countries were working together in tandem the advantages that would accrue to both can be easily visualized. For example, as is the case of generic drugs manufactured here with raw materials being provided by China.

As great ancient civilizations and neighbours our relationship transcends millennia. It is indeed ironic that both India and China are at loggerheads over territory that only people who were an amalgam of the Mongol-Turkic- Persian tribes can legitimately claim to have ruled over, if history has any say in such matters. The last “Chinese Empire”, the Qing Dynasty, with its roots in Manchuria, hadruled overall of Mongolia, China and Tibet from the late 16th Century till the early 20th Century, though the British Opium Wars of the mid 19th Century had left them greatly diminished and rulers in name only. In fact the majority Han population, that is so dominant today, never had an ethnic Han as Emperor of China after the mid 17th Century (the Ming Dynasty). In essence, the geographical region that we today know as the People’s Republic of China was controlled by dynasties rooted in their Turkic, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Manchurian origins, all of whom are today treated shabbily as minorities. The People’s Republic only came into being in 1949 when it came to see itself through the Westphalian model of nation states.

What is truly fascinating is that in our context we followed a very similar timeline. The last major Hindu Dynasty ended in the mid 6th Century (the Gupta’s), though rump kingdoms like the Marathas and Rajputs continued to remain powerful till the 17th Century. The major power that replaced the Hindu Kings were the Mughals, who had their roots in Mongolia-Turkey and Persia and controlled much of present day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan between the early 15th and 18th Century. By mid 18th Century the British had come to be the dominant power reducing the Mughals to a figurative head. Following the War of Independence/Mutiny of 1857, replaced the Mughals.  India as a nation state in the Westphalian model also came into being in 1947. 

From this it is quite clear neitherside is the true inheritor of the regions they now claim for themselves. More importantly when both these entities were at the height of their powers between the 15th -17th Centuries, the two richest nations in the world with over 50% of world GDP, they saw no reason to engage in any kind of dispute with each other for control of international trade or military domination. Interestingly the dominant religion in China, Buddhism, had originated in India. So the two countries did not ever have ‘religious wars’ quite unlike the situation that prevailed in Europe at that time where nation states were engaged in perpetual conflict. It seems reasonable to suggest that if these two great nations lived together in amity and friendship with disregard for the Western model that has controlled international relations for so long. It would then be inevitable that the West would not be able to create fissions in our partnership in the manner that they done for centuries. Their dominance is based on duplicity and greed and it is time we showed them their place in the world.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a Military Veteran and was formerly with the ORF, and now is member of The Peninsula Foundation, a Chennai based Think-Tank.

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One thought on “India and China Relations: Back to Basics

  1. The ball is in the Chinese court. They are pushing the buttons to create an imbalance that will prove detrimental to both and beneficial to the West. They need to pull back, without losing face and India has to facilitate that.

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