India-China Territorial Dispute: The Growing Challenge

China’s Rise is Fuelling Regional Instability

China’s unbridled military growth, its assertiveness in dealing with territorial disputes on land and at sea and its quest to acquire naval bases in the northern Indian Ocean, are rapidly emerging as the primary causes of growing regional instability. China senses the emergence of a security vacuum in the Indo-pacific and is rushing to fill it. China has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy to “hide our capacity and bide our time”. It has dropped the phrase “peaceful rise” while referring to its economic growth and increasing military power.

China and India, both Asian giants and emerging world powers, have begun to exercise immense influence in international political and economic affairs. As China’s GDP is much larger than that of India, it enjoys a correspondingly greater international clout at present. Relations between India and China have been fairly stable at the strategic level. Political and economic relations between India and China are much better now than these have ever been since the 1962 border war between the two countries. Economic relations are much better now than these have been in the past. Mutual economic dependence is growing rapidly every year, with bilateral trade increasing at a brisk pace. Even though it is skewed in China’s favour, bilateral trade has crossed US$ 50 billion and is expected to touch US$ 60 billion soon. The two countries have been cooperating in international fora like WTO talks and climate change negotiations. There has even been some cooperation in energy security.

However, growth in the strategic and security relationship has not kept pace with the political and economic relationship. Despite prolonged negotiations at the political level to resolve the long-standing territorial and boundary dispute between the two countries, there has been little progress on this sensitive issue. China has a clandestine nuclear warheads-ballistic missiles-military hardware technology transfer relationship with Pakistan that causes apprehension in India. Also, in recent years, China appears to have raised the ante by way of its shrill political rhetoric, frequent transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and unprecedented cyber attacks on Indian networks. The security relationship has the potential to act as a spoiler in the larger relationship and will ultimately determine whether the two Asian giants will clash or cooperate for mutual gains. Arguably, while the India-China relationship is relatively stable at the strategic level, China’s political, diplomatic and military aggressiveness at the tactical level is acting as a dampener.

Strategic Relationship: Competition or Cooperation?

On April 11, 2005, China and India announced a new “strategic and cooperative partnership” after a summit-level meeting between Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao. International analysts were quick to note that the prospects of a more cooperative relationship between these two growing economies had significant global implications. A meaningful strategic partnership will lead to mutually beneficial synergies between Chinese and Indian economies. India is rapidly emerging as a leader in software development. Its knowledge-based industries are attracting the interest of major information technology (IT) enterprises from all over the world. China is now a leading base for the manufacture of IT hardware. Synergising India’s software capability and China’s hardware strength will produce an unbeatable combination.

The rapidly growing appetite of both the countries for energy and their high dependence on oil and gas imports is forcing both to secure oil equity abroad. Chinese and Indian oil and gas companies have often been in competition with each other to invest in overseas fields and have driven up prices by outbidding each other. A strategy based on cooperation rather than competition will help both the countries to secure better terms and will enable them to share their risks. They could follow a consortium or joint venture approach for bidding and invest in sharing infrastructure costs such as building joint pipelines. So far, cooperation in this field has been extremely limited.

China and India’s coordinated approach in international negotiations is proving to be mutually beneficial to both. The two countries have been following a coordinated approach in the ongoing WTO negotiations and on environmental issues. This was particularly evident during the 2009 World Climate Summit at Copenhagen. When two countries that represent more than a third of the global population speak in unison, the world has no option but to sit up and take note. China and India played a calming role in the 2008-09 global financial melt-down that has now begun to peter out. They are likely to work together towards the long-pending reform of the international financial architecture. As both the countries hold substantial foreign exchange reserves, they will increasingly play a greater role in decision-making in the existing Bretton Woods organisations.

Reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC) is yet another area for cooperation. Just as India had played a very positive role in China’s membership of the UN and its subsequent inclusion in the UNSC, India expects China to support its aspiration for a seat in an expanded UNSC. This will quite naturally increase Asia’s clout in world affairs. However, so far such explicit support has not been forthcoming. In Asia, China and India should work together for peace and stability and broader regional economic integration to make the 21st century truly Asia’s century. Counter-terrorism is another area in which China and India can cooperate for mutual benefit as both countries are victims of pan-Islamist fundamentalist terrorism emanating from across their borders. In this context, the Hand-in-Hand series of joint military exercises, conducted at Kunming in 2007, at Belgaum in 2008 and after a gap at again at Kunming in November 2013, were steps in the right direction. Both also need to work together to counter the menace of narcotics trafficking from the Golden Crescent on one side and the Golden Triangle on the other.

Areas of Concern

In the Indian perception, there are several major areas of concern that are limiting the growth of the bilateral relationship. The foremost among these is the “all-weather” friendship between China and Pakistan that is, in Chinese President Hu Jintao’s words, “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans”. President Xi Jinping has added the words “stronger than steel and sweeter than honey.” The Indian government and most Indian analysts are convinced that China has given nuclear warhead designs, fissile material and missile technology as well as fully assembled, crated M-9 and M-11 missiles to Pakistan, as has been widely reported in the international media. China also enabled North Korea’s transfer of Nodong and Taepo Dong nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Pakistan. China and Pakistan are known to have a joint weapons and equipment development programme that includes Al Khalid tanks, F-22 frigates and FC-1/JF-17 fighter aircraft. China’s military aid has considerably strengthened Pakistan’s war waging potential and enabled it to launch and sustain a proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir and in other parts of India. By implication, therefore, it is also China’s proxy war.

Other contentious issues include China’s continuing opposition to India’s nuclear weapons programme and to its admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); its deep inroads into Myanmar and support to its military regime; its covert assistance to the now almost defunct LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in Sri Lanka; its increasing activities in the Bay of Bengal; its attempts to isolate India in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) while keeping India out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; and, its relentless efforts to increase its influence in Nepal and Bangladesh. China’s efforts to develop port facilities in Myanmar (Hangyi), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Maldives and at Gwadar in Pakistan are seen by many Indian analysts as forming part of a “string of pearls” strategy to contain India and develop the capacity to dominate the northern Indian Ocean region around 2015-20. Though at present the Indian Navy dominates the northern Indian Ocean, a maritime clash is possible in future as the PLA Navy begins operating in the Indian Ocean – ostensibly to safeguard its sea lanes and protect its merchant ship traffic. Hence, China’s moves are seen by Indian analysts to be part of a carefully orchestrated plan aimed at the strategic encirclement of India in the long-term to counter-balance India’s growing power and influence in Asia, even as China engages India on the political and economic fronts in the short-term.

As both China and India are nuclear-armed states, it is in the interest of both to ensure that strategic stability is maintained and that the risk of accidental or unauthorised nuclear exchanges is minimised. This would be possible only if negotiators from both the sides sit down together and discuss nuclear confidence building measures (CBMs) and nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRMs). However, China’s insistence that it cannot discuss nuclear CBMs and NRRMs with India as India is not a nuclear weapons state recognised by the NPT is proving to be a stumbling block. China’s official position is that India should cap, roll back and eliminate its nuclear weapons in terms of UNSC Resolution No 1172. That is unlikely to happen. India has been recognised as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology and has been given a backdoor entry into the NPT through the NSG waiver and the IAEA safeguards agreement. India has also signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with France, Russia and the United States (US). It would be in the interest of both the countries to discuss nuclear CBMs and NRRMs so as to enhance strategic stability in Southern Asia. It is also in China’s interest to enter into a nuclear trade agreement with India as India is rapidly emerging as a large market for nuclear fuel and nuclear technology.

India realises that its growing external relations with its new strategic partners are causing some concern in China. China has viewed with some suspicion India’s willingness to join Australia, Japan and the US in a “quadrilateral” engagement to promote shared common interests in South East Asia. China also wishes to reduce what it perceives as the steadily increasing influence of the US over New Delhi. China knows that the US is several years ahead of Beijing in recognising India's potential as a military and economic power and has greatly increased its cooperation with India in both spheres. China fears that the growing US-India strategic partnership is actually a loose alliance and that the two countries are ganging up against China. China study India’s track record. It should be clear that India is unlikely to ever form a military alliance with the US – unlike Pakistan, which is a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) of the US and is also China’s “all weather” friend. India has always pursued an independent foreign policy and cherishes its strategic autonomy. It will be recalled that India steadfastly supported the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) for several decades during the Cold War and has never entered into a military alliance with any country. The US is an Asian country in strategic terms and it is necessary for India to maintain good relations with it. It is also India’s largest trading partner and has a large Indian Diaspora. There are major convergences of interests between India and the US. Hence, India’s newfound strategic relationship with the US need not come in the way of India-China relations, which have their own strategic significance for India.

In an article entitled “Warning to the Indian Government” (posted on the website of the China Institute of International Strategic Studies on March 26, 2008), Zhan Lue, a Communist Party member, warned India not to “walk today along the old road of resisting China” as the People’s Liberation Army is now well-entrenched in Tibet and will not repeat its mistake of withdrawing after a border war as it did in 1962. He extolled the virtues of the PLA’s newly developed capabilities and went on to advise India “not to requite kindness with ingratitude.” This surprisingly sharp attack in a scholarly journal did not appear to be an isolated piece of writing. Another Chinese scholar advised his government to engage India’s neighbours to break India into 26 parts. In the wake of the Tibetan unrest in India and across the world earlier during 2008, anti-India rhetoric in the Chinese media had been ratcheted up several notches. Analysts in India believe that such scurrilous writings could not have been published without the express sanction of the Chinese authorities as almost all Chinese media are state controlled. This type of rhetoric sets back efforts at reconciliation and mutual understanding.

China is concerned about the situation that might develop when the Dalai Lama passes away. Despite all the raving and ranting against him, the Chinese government is acutely conscious of the fact that the present Dalai Lama’s is a voice of moderation and accommodation. They know that there will be a major uprising in Tibet when he passes away as the Tibetan youth will no longer feel constrained to respect his cherished desire for peace and harmony and are likely to resort to violent attacks against the Han Chinese people and officials and state property. Despite India’s remarkable restraint over 50 years, the Chinese are not sure of how India will react to a post-Dalai Lama rebellion in Tibet. In fact, the Chinese harbour a fair deal of ill will against India for providing the Dalai Lama with a sanctuary – even though India has forbidden him from any anti-China political activities from Indian soil and the Dalai Lama has honoured the restraints imposed on him by his hosts. A senior Chinese interlocutor told this analyst at a bilateral think tanks’ dialogue at Bangkok in October 2009 that relations between China and India would flourish very well if India was to hand over the Dalai Lama to China even at this belated stage. From this the depth of Chinese resentment with India for providing shelter to the Dalai Lama can be gauged. Since such a course of action would be completely out of character with India’s civilisational and spiritual values, handing over the Dalai Lama is simply out of the question. China would, therefore, do well to put this issue aside and move forward in its relationship with India.

Another area of concern is the rapid development of military infrastructure in Tibet by China. The Gormo-Lhasa railway line is now fully operational. The rail network is proposed to be extended towards Shigatse and then into Nepal. China has recently developed a road network of 58,000 km and five new air bases. New military camps have come up close to the border with India. Telephone and radio communication infrastructure has been considerably improved. China has been practicing the rapid induction of airborne divisions into Tibet. Some Indian analysts have estimated that China is now capable of inducting and sustaining about 25 to 30 divisions in Tibet in a single campaign season. Short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), some of them nuclear tipped, are also known to be deployed in Tibet. Surely, all these developments are not for sustaining Tibet’s fledgling economy. The continuing improvement of military infrastructure in Tibet does not augur well for future peace and stability between the two nations in the light of an unresolved territorial and boundary dispute.

Conflict Resolution

Of all the areas of concern that have dampened relations between the two countries, it is the long-standing territorial and boundary dispute that is the most disconcerting. Even after over two-dozen meetings of the Joint Working Group and the Experts Group, it has not been possible for the two countries to exchange maps showing the respective versions of the LAC claimed by the two armies in the contentious Western (Ladakh-Aksai Chin) and Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors. Discussion of the varying positions can begin only after marked maps are first exchanged. The only positive development has been that maps have been exchanged for the least contentious Central Sector, that is, the Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh borders with Tibet where almost no fighting had taken place in 1962. It clearly shows how intractable the challenge is.

Early in 2005, India and China had agreed to identify “guiding principles and parameters” for a political solution to the five-decade old dispute. Many foreign policy analysts had then hailed it as a great leap forward. Five years down the line, the two countries are still stuck with the principles and a solution is nowhere in sight. In fact, even the sanctity of the principles accepted by the two sides is in doubt as China has violated the agreed principle that “settled populations will not be disturbed” while arriving at an acceptable solution by so vociferously laying its claim to Tawang.

The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), signed in October 2013, is the most recent agreement between the two countries to maintain peace and tranquillity at the border in view of several instances of Chinese military assertiveness along the LAC. The agreement commits the two sides to “periodic meetings” of military and civilian officers and to exchange information – including information about military exercises, aircraft movements, demolition operations and unmarked mines. It emphasises the avoidance of border patrols “tailing” each other and recommends that the two sides “may consider” establishing a hot-line between military headquarters in both countries.

A close examination of the BDCA reveals that it falls substantially short of removing the anomalies and impracticalities of the previous agreements that have not worked well, including the Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, September 7, 1993; the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, November 29, 1996; the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, April 11, 2005; the Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in India-China Border Areas, April 11, 2005; and, the Agreement on Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, January 17, 2012.

Chinese intransigence in not being willing to exchange maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the Western and the Eastern sectors is difficult to understand. In 1988, China’s leader Deng Xiao Ping had told visiting Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that the territorial dispute is a problem left over from history and it should be left for future generations to resolve. Early resolution of the dispute is in the interest of both the countries as it will end the suspicions and hostility of the past and free both the countries to shape a more friendly future for mutual gains. China and India must resolve the territorial and boundary dispute on the basis of historical records, geography, security parameters and the interests of the people who live in the area. Meanwhile, it is in the interest of both the countries that peace and tranquility should continue to prevail on the border.

The military gap between Indian and China is growing steadily as the PLA is modernising at a rapid pace due to the double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defence budget while India’s military modernisation plans continue to remain mired in red tape. The Chinese armed forces have surged ahead of India in many areas of defence modernisation; the gap is slowly becoming unbridgeable. China’s defence budget is growing annually between 16 and 18 per cent. In 15 to 20 years from now, China may attempt to force a military solution to the territorial dispute with India after settling the Taiwan issue and India may be forced to accept an unequal settlement due to its military weakness.

China’s negotiating strategy on the territorial dispute is to stall resolution of the dispute till they are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can then dictate terms. The rapidly blossoming strategic partnership between China and Pakistan is also a major cause for concern. During any future conflict with either China or Pakistan – even though the probability is low, India will have to contend with a two-front situation as each is likely to collude militarily with the other – a situation for which the Indian armed forces are not prepared. Hence, it is in India’s interest to strive for the early resolution of the territorial dispute with China so that India has only one major military adversary to contend with.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.