Solving the Sino-Indian Border Dispute: One Million Indians for a Road
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Issue Vol. 30.2 Apr-Jun 2015 | Date : 14 May , 2015

China can control its media, and should be able to suppress populist demands not to give away an inch of territory in Arunachal Pradesh. India, however, cannot muzzle its press. Its media, especially opposition media, might well try to portray any release of territory in Aksai Chin as a craven surrender to Chinese bullying, even though India has exerted no control in the area since 1962 and has no population there. Yet gradually, the obvious benefits of security on its Northern border would become apparent, as would the economic benefits of private investment in the Northeast that would follow the lifting of the Chinese threat.

On march 24, 2015, the leaders of India and China sat down to discuss the border between their countries. More than a million Indians live in the territory claimed by China while India claims an area of Chinese controlled-land which is larger than Belgium. The two countries, which together constitute a third of the world’s population and a tenth of the world’s economy, must get along. Yet their land dispute has the potential to escalate into an armed conflict (as it did in 1962) and has received too little attention from the rest of the world. It’s easy to see why. In the oceans, China competes with the navies of Japan, the United States, South Korea, and many other countries. But it is time for the world to look harder at the problem on India’s Northern borders.

China could do murderous damage to India simply by refusing to trade with it…

The solution is two-fold: an exchange of territory, and a show of resolve by India. India’s military reinforcement in the Northeast will actually help the political leaders in Beijing negotiate a settlement along the border that will be beneficial to both countries. Only if India appears militarily weak will the hawks in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) be able to obstruct a deal on the demarcation of the frontier. The exchange of territory we’re talking about is simple: India must achieve recognition that Arunachal Pradesh is India’s and the people who live there are Indian. China already gave in on the Sikkim question in 2003 and is ready to do so again. In return, India must stop pretending it has a viable claim over Aksai Chin, which China already controls and needs for its supply route between Tibet and Xinjiang.

The summit meeting in late March 2015 is part of a positive change in relations. On January 01, military delegations from the two countries exchanged greetings. Then on January 26, this year India’s Republic Day, Chinese and Indian troops exchanged gifts1. On the Chinese New Year, February 18, the Chinese put on displays and performances to amuse the Indian solders invited. The appreciative statements by Colonel SD Goswami, the Indian Army’s spokesman, were also translated into Chinese and quoted in full in China’s press.2 These Border Personnel Meetings (BPMs) are particularly important when the opposing sides are as culturally different as India and China. Pakistan shares languages, ethnicities, and history with India. China does not.

Yet China has shown no signs of reversing its position on the contested areas of the border, and for as long as it perceives India as militarily weak, its army will continue to press for aggressive patrols beyond the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between the two countries. Even amid the jovial handshaking its soldiers and the Indian Army in the mountains in February 2015, China made its position clear with an angry summons of the Indian ambassador in Beijing, who was told that the visit by Narendra Modi to Arunachal Pradesh was a provocative act. Mr Modi’s visit did not go further North than the state capital, Itanagar but that was enough to annoy the Chinese. Contrary to popular belief, China does not claim all of Arunachal Pradesh but it does claim the 70 per cent of it that lies along the Northern border of Assam – and that includes Itanagar.

Certain aspects of Indian military development do have the potential to cause the PLA to rethink its strategy…

Until recently, China has been very confident of its ability to deal with India. Part of China’s self-confidence stems not only from its belief in its military superiority but also in its belief that India is economically weak, and that it relies on China’s cooperation for water security in the Northeast. The River Brahmaputra, one of the most important sources of fresh water in the region, flows (under different names) from China through India into Bangladesh. China is the upper riparian country and thus sees itself as having the power to divert or control its flow3. China deliberately keeps India guessing as to its intentions, for example by such means as only selectively providing hydrological data and flood information on the River Brahmaputra to India4.

Economically, there is a huge trade imbalance between the two countries, with China exporting far more to India than vice versa. From China’s point of view, India needs China more than the latter needs the former. China could do murderous damage to India simply by refusing to trade with it. China is a deep believer in the ability of economics to end political conflict and has applied this policy with apparent success in its domestic affairs and also in its relations with various foreign countries, including Britain. India will, one hopes, take advantage of any opportunity to adjust the imbalance in trade deficit with China, but will not sacrifice its political aims in order to do so. China, however, hopes that economic cooperation is a means to prevail.5

Given India’s weaknesses, both topographical and economic, it is not surprising that many have suggested that it should simply mollify its larger neighbour. China’s current behaviour in international relations, however, shows that conciliatory policies alone do not help a country negotiating with her. Border conflicts have only been solved successfully by countries that have shown strength or determination. Russia finally settled its borders with China in 2004 and 2008, and was able to confine the discussion to the lines of demarcation along rivers, and the possession of islets therein, despite popular opinion in China that the “unequal treaties” that had granted vast tracts of land to Tsarist Russia should be re-examined. Even when Russian civilians opposed the settlement around an 18 sq km area in the River Argun, China compromised by granting them fishing rights in Chinese territory.

Chinese military bulletin boards are often very dismissive of Indian military capability…

Similarly, in 2000, China and Vietnam concluded the demarcation of their land borders. Although the two countries are still in fierce dispute over their respective rights in the South China Sea, the land border was settled peacefully. Vietnam has always adopted a rugged approach to China and left its larger neighbour in no doubt as to its military capabilities when the two sides came to armed blows in 1979, and again in the 1980s. A pattern does emerge in Chinese foreign affairs that shows a willingness to negotiate fairly with a country that is in a position of strength, and China’s approach to negotiation typically involves the making of concessions by both sides. It is, therefore, vital for each side to have something to concede, be it retreat to a less forward geographical position, partial disarmament, or the offer of economic cooperation. While China can offer all three, India can only realistically offer the first. In other respects, China is ahead of India.

Mutual Respect on the Ground

The Chinese and Indian armies on the ground display a respect for each other that is absent from China’s exchanges with the Japanese or with other Pacific countries. India already has a two hundred year history of military courtesy and fraternisation, and this is now extended to China. Chinese and Indian commanders shook hands when the month-long stand-off in the Daulat Beg Oldi Sector finally ended. Chinese media also published a flattering biography of General Dalbir Singh Suhag, India’s Chief of the Army Staff. It was noted that his “excessive emphasis on ‘threats from neighbours’ was political short-termism”, but otherwise portrayed him as an accomplished officer capable of handling difficult tasks.6 The confrontations at the LAC follow clear rules, written and unwritten, showing that the two great armies are starting to share some understanding. In contrast to the hectoring tone of Chinese coast guard warnings to Japanese and Philippine adversaries, the troops on the Indian frontier held up signs in English saying, “Please go back” – a direct message but a relatively polite one. The ability to keep calm is going to be very important if these clashes continue.

Timeline of Recent Incursions and Meetings

15 April 2013

Daulat Beg Oldi stand-off near Aksai Chin.
5 May 2013 DBO standoff ends
9 May 2013 Salman Khurshid visits China
18 May 2013 Li Keqiang visit to India
October 2013 India China joint statement to create crisis control mechanisms
November 2013 Sino-Indian Joint Military Exercises in Miaoergang, China. The Chinese side was led by General Yang Jinshan who unfortunately was sacked for corruption in 2014
7 September 2014 Pro-Chinese nomads enter Demchok (Aksai Chin) with PLA support, when Indian workers began constructing a canal in the border village of Demchok.
14 September 2014 PLA enters Chumar (near Aksai Chin)
17 September 2014 Xi Jinping visits India and meets Modi
18 September 2014 PLA withdraws from Chumar
19 September 2014 Xi Jinping leaves India
20 September 2014 Chinese back to Chumar
21 September 2014 Chinese withdraw from Demchok
25 September 2014 Sushma Swaraj met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in New York to agree withdrawal
26 September 2014 Chinese begin withdrawing and finish by Tuesday
November 2014 Sino-Indian Joint Military Exercises in Pune, India.
20 February 2015 Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh.
22 February 2015 India criticised by China for this visit and Indian ambassador summoned
24 March 2015 India and China meet to discuss border demarcation
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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

Nicolas Groffman

writes on China, practised law in Beijing and Shanghai and conducted the first ever enforcement of a Hong Kong court judgment in Mainland China.

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9 thoughts on “Solving the Sino-Indian Border Dispute: One Million Indians for a Road

  1. Thank you for the interesting comments below. I did not go into detail about the historical background to the claims of the respective countries to the disputed territory. I would comment, however, that in contrast with China’s maritime claims in the Pacific and the South China Sea, its claims to the territory on the Indian border do have some basis in international law. India cannot simply laugh them off as ludicrous, however much it may feel that China is a bully (even if it is). India’s own claims to much of the territory in the north are based on British adventurism, and it is unsurprising that China challenges such claims. The way forward for India is to beef up its defences and to be ready to compromise. This is more or less what China is doing, and doing very well.

  2. China has a favourable trade balance with India to the tune of nearly $40 billion. It is China which is dependent on India for its export market. It would help India if China stops trading with India ; then the domestic markets would empower themselves to meet the domestic markets. Unfortunately for China its economy has become export oriented. If she cannot maintain her exports Chinese warehouses with finished goods would beoverflowing and factories would layoff workers. She could face internal turbulence and law and order problems in the overcrowded cities and towns on her Eastern Coast.
    There is no need to yield to China on the Ladakh front. India should build up her military capacities and wait for the ripe time to reclaim her lands.

  3. There is no need for India to solve the Indo-Tibetan border with China. China has been bullying around cause they think there are powerful, or present them to be powerful. India should just wait it out and send China back out of territories it has occupied after building the great wall, and if necessary send the people that claim to have 5000 years of superior culture to kingdom come.

  4. A thoughtful article with interesting views from the Chinese army. We seldom hear that. I am not sure, however, that our soldiers and theirs yet treat each other as gallantly as is implied above. Would like to hear first hand from the soldiers themselves – maybe the author has spoken to them on the Chinese side?

  5. Does the PRC have a pressing need for Aksai Chin for accessing Tibet (illegally occupied) now, as compared to the 1950s-60s-70s-80s)?
    It has direct rail access to Tibet now.

    The fact of the matter is that the areas of influence of the Indian and Chinese kingdoms had shifting borders basis the ebb and flow of the fortunes of these kingdoms.

    The British also had a forward and a ‘non-forward’ policy basis their threat perception from Tsarist Russia and the kingdoms/warlords that controlled the Tibetan plateau.

    The British did not ‘persuade’ the Chinese enough for the borders which we hold as correct.

    So the Chinese can argue that the border as shown by us is a border thrust upon them by an imperial power.

    The blunder that we did (maybe we did not have many options then) was our weak opposition to the occupation of Tibet by the PRC in 1949/50.

    The subsequent Nehruvian ‘forward policy’ with no military planning and support to support it was another blunder.

    The foreign policy during the Nehruvian era was an era of strategic blunders.

  6. As stated in the opening sentence, India’s claims in Aksai Chin involves land mass “greater than Belgium” but with negligible settled population unlike Assam & Arunachal which have large settled population. The strategic importance of Aksai Chin for China due to the road linking it to TAR has diminished considerably over the last 50 years due to rapid communication infrastructure development through other routes into TAR. As such, China may relent on its rigid stance on the LAC in the Western Sector, provided we make minor concessions on the Eastern sector like providing access to Tibetians to pray at Tawang monestry etc.

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