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Renewed tension on the India-China border: who’s to blame? September 3, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Bhutan, Guest authors , trackback

Guest Author: Neville Maxwell, ANU

This contribution first appeared on our sister web site, East Asia Forum.

‘So solidly built into our consciousness is the concept that China is conducting a rapacious and belligerent foreign policy that whenever a dispute arises in which China is involved she is instantly assumed to have provoked it.’ — Felix Greene 1965.

India is heavily reinforcing its Army and Air Force units on its undefined border with China (two additional infantry divisions, a squadron of attack aircraft, refurbishing airfields etc). This is in breach of the parties’ obligation under a 1993 Sino-Indian treaty to keep force levels in border areas to ‘a minimum level compatible with … friendly and good neighbourly relations’, and Beijing has protested angrily and publicly.


Indian military parade

The India/Bhutan sector (Bhutan is in effect India’s satellite, treaty-bound to conduct its foreign relations under Indian guidance) of China’s extensive land borders is the only one which is undefined and disputed. Soon after the 1949 establishment of the PRC, Beijing recognising that almost all sectors of its land borders needed diplomatic processing to bring them to the agreed, jointly defined, linear status required by modern states, committed itself to resolving territorial differences through negotiation, waiving inherited irredentist claims and eschewing the use or threat of force. Pursuing that policy of compromising territorial claims to achieve agreement, over half a century China achieved cordial boundary settlements with Burma, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos.

Both the USSR and India initially refused to negotiate conflicting territorial claims, but instead unilaterally defined the alignments of their China borders, proclaiming them to be already defined and therefore final and non-negotiable. That policy was inherently aggressive and inescapably escalatory. Local confrontations between border police were bound to occur: since the different claims could not be resolved diplomatically confrontation inevitably escalated to skirmish, to battle, to border war.

In the case of the USSR, after the battles on the ice of the Ussuri River in 1969 brought the two sides to the brink of nuclear war, Moscow backed down. After years of hostile stalemate, Moscow reversed its policy under Gorbachev in 1987, accepting the need to negotiate. In a diplomatic process lasting from 1987 to 2005 all Sino-Soviet/Russian boundary sectors were agreed and formalised.

In the case of India, the local confrontations began in 1958, escalated into clashes between armed police in 1959, into army skirmishes in 1961, and into border war in 1962. Defeat did not change New Delhi’s policy, that remained locked into refusal to negotiate and in 1987 Indian advances into disputed territory nearly renewed the war. In 1993 Prime Minister Narasimha Rao reversed policy. He negotiated a stand-still agreement which looked to mutual recognition of a zonal ‘line of actual control’ which, by averting clashes and obviating charges of ‘incursion’, would allow the borders to relax into ‘peace and tranquillity’. Such a condition, maintained for perhaps several decades, might have allowed public attitudes in India to mellow to the point at which a government could take up Beijing’s long-standing call for negotiations.

Since each side holds the territory that is strategically vital to it, a Sino-Indian boundary agreement should be attainable – given goodwill on both sides. But successor Indian governments did not follow up the 1993 treaty, there has been no agreement on a ‘line of actual control’, local confrontations have continued to occur, and it appears that for reasons that can only be inferred India may now be moving towards renewing the broad military challenge to China which it mounted in 1962 and again in 1987.

Neville Maxwell is a Visiting Fellow at the ANU’s Contemporary China Centre.


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