No easy fixes in India-China relations

India must strive for an early resolution of the territorial dispute, so that it is left with only one military adversary.
Gurmeet Kanwal
Even as President Xi Jinping was being entertained by prime minister Narendra Modi on the bank of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad, Chinese and Indian troops were once again engaged in a tense face-off at Chumar in Ladakh. Eventually, soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) blinked first and backed off when confronted with show of force by an Indian infantry battalion. So far this year, there have been an unprecedented 335 transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by the PLA.
It was no wonder then that in the press statement after his meeting with the Chinese President, prime minister Modi expressed ‘serious concern over repeated incidents along the border’. He pointed out that ‘clarification’ – or demarcation –of the LAC would enhance ‘efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity’ and sought an ‘early settlement’ of the territorial dispute. No Indian prime minister has used such strong language in a summit meeting with a Chinese President before, but given the aggressive border management policies of the PLA, the Chinese had it coming.
Relations between India and China have been fairly stable at the strategic level since then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s summit meeting with Deng Xiaoping in 1988. Mutual economic dependence is growing rapidly. Bilateral trade is now worth US$ 65 billion and is expected to cross US$ 80 billion by 2017 even though the balance of trade in heavily skewed in China’s favour. India and China have been cooperating in international issues like the WTO and climate change negotiations. Limited cooperation has taken place in energy security. However, the security relationship has not kept pace with the growing political and economic relationship. China’s political, diplomatic and military aggressiveness at the tactical level is acting as a dampener.
Fragile security ties
China has a clandestine nuclear warheads, ballistic missiles, military hardware technology transfer relationship with Pakistan that causes apprehension in India. In fact, Pakistan’s proxy war against India is seen by analysts as China’s proxy war as Pakistan cannot sustain it without China’s support. The fragile security relationship has the potential to act as a spoiler and will ultimately determine whether the two Asian giants will clash or cooperate for mutual gains.
In recent years, China has raised the ante by way of frequent transgressions across the LAC, unprecedented cyber-attacks on Indian networks and the denial of visas to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds that they are Chinese citizens. China’s behaviour is in keeping with its recent assertiveness in the areas of the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Also, despite prolonged negotiations at the political level to resolve the longstanding territorial and boundary dispute, there has been little progress .
China continues to be in physical occupation of large areas of Indian territory. On the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh, China is in physical possession of approximately 38,000 sq km of Indian territory since the mid-1950s. In addition, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of territory in the GilgitBaltistan area of Jammu and Kashmir to China in 1963 in the Shaksgam Valley, north of the Siachen Glacier, under a bilateral boundary agreement that India does not recognise. Through part of this area China built the Karakoram highway that now provides a strategic land link between Xingjian, Tibet and Pakistan. China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sq km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls Southern Tibet. Chinese interlocutors have repeatedly claimed that the Tawang Tract, in particular, is part of Tibet and that the merger of this area with Tibet is non-negotiable. China’s official position is that the reunification of Chinese territories is a sacred duty for the PLA.
The LAC between India and China, implying de facto control after the 1962 war, is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. This is a major destabilising factor as it leads to frequent transgressions. Both sides send their patrols up to their ‘perception’ of the LAC. Patrol face-offs are common with an element of tension built into them. Major incidents in the recent past include those at Depsang near Daulat Beg Oldie in April-May 2013; and, Chumar and Demchok in September 2014. There was an armed clash at Nathu La in 1967 and a prolonged standoff at Wang Dung in 1986. So, though the probability of conflict is low, its possibility cannot be ruled out.
The military gap between Indian and China is growing steadily as the PLA is modernising at a rapid pace and India’s military modernisation plans remain mired in red tape. China is also steadily upgrading the military infrastructure in Tibet to enable rapid deployment. China will stall resolution of the territorial dispute till it is in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so as to be able to dictate terms. It is in India’s interest to strive for early resolution of the territorial dispute so that there is only one military adversary to contend with. It is in this direction that the Government of India must firmly nudge the Chinese leadership during future meetings of the political interlocutors.
(The author is a Delhi-based strategic analyst)