[Read the original version form the link at the bottom of this article]
By Mohan Malik
October 9, 2007
Yet another "useful and positive" round of Sino-Indian boundary negotiations was held
on September 24-26 against the backdrop of a general consensus in both capitals that no
breakthrough to the territorial dispute could be achieved for a long period of time. Talks
for a settlement have now gone on for more than a quarter of a century (since 1981, to
be precise) -- with a "big push" given to them by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to
China in 1988, the second one by Atal Bihari Vajpayee's sojourn in Beijing in 2003 and
a third one by Manmohan Singh's talks with Premier Wen Jiabao in 2005 and President
Hu Jintao in 2006 -- yet all were in vain.
As a result, the 4,056-kilometer (2,520 miles) frontier between India and China, one of
the longest inter-state borders in the world, remains the only one of China's land borders
not defined, let alone demarcated, on maps or delineated on the ground. While Indians
doubt China's sincerity in border negotiations, Chinese question India's leaders' will and
capacity to settle the dispute in a "give-and-take" spirit.
Up until 2005, there was a great deal of optimism about a possible breakthrough.
Evidence of this came during Prime Minister Vajpayee's China visit in June 2003 when
New Delhi's readiness to address Chinese concerns on Tibet was matched by Beijing's
willingness to resolve the Sikkim issue by recognizing the trade route through the Nathu
La Pass on the China-Sikkim frontier with India and later showing Sikkim as part of
India in its maps.
For its part, New Delhi reiterated its stance on the Tibetan Autonomous Region as part
of China. This visit also paved the way for border talks to be held through special
representatives of the leaders to find an early "political solution" to the boundary
question, rather than going only by the legal and historical claims of the two sides. India
indicated its willingness to settle for the territorial status quo by giving up claims to the
Aksai Chin in Ladakh and hoped China would give up its claims to Arunachal Pradesh
in the eastern sector and recognize the McMahon Line just as Beijing had accepted
Tibet's British-drawn boundaries with Afghanistan and Myanmar (formerly known as
In order to give a new thrust to the ongoing border negotiations, an "Agreement on the
Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary
Question" was signed during Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to India in
April 2005. The joint statement issued at the end of the visit talked of a "Strategic and
Cooperative Partnership" between India and China. No Movement
Since then, however, Beijing has upped the ante by demanding major territorial
concessions in populated areas of Arunachal Pradesh on terms that many in New Delhi
see as "humiliating and non-negotiable." Tawang, in particular, has emerged as a
sticking point since the Chinese claim it to be central to Tibetan Buddhism given that
the sixth Dalai Lama was born there.
Ties between China and India were strained even further in May 2007 when the Chinese
government refused a visa to an Indian official from disputed Arunachal Pradesh to visit
China, and the Indian government's invitation soon thereafter to Taiwan's opposition
Kuomintang (K.M.T.) party presidential candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, to visit India in June
2007 to hold talks with senior Indian officials. China voiced its opposition to Ma's visit
and called on India to abide by the "One China policy."
Thereafter came media reports of the People's Liberation Army (P.L.A.) encroachments
across the Line of Actual Control (L.A.C.) and Chinese small arms supplies to
insurgents in India's volatile northeast via Bangladesh and Myanmar. Then, in August
2007, Beijing demanded the removal of two old Indian Army bunkers near the trijunction of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet, claiming that these were located on their
territory. This move raised questions about China's declared policy of treating Sikkim as
part of Indian territory. Not surprisingly, China's increasing assertiveness over the
disputed borders has led to a rapid meltdown in the Sino-Indian border talks and a
"mini-Cold War" has quietly taken hold at the diplomatic level during the past two
years, despite public protestations of amity.
Some observers argue that Hu Jintao's desire to control the choice of the next Dalai
Lama has led to pressuring India to concede access to the Tawang Monastery, which is
crucial to this choice. The deterioration in Sino-Indian relations under Hu, however,
should not have come as a surprise given his reputation as a hardliner over Tibet. (After
all, Deng Xiaoping had groomed him for the Chinese Communist Party leadership
because of his prominent role in the successful suppression of the Tibetan revolt in
1988.) In this context, the rapid pace development of road, rail and military
infrastructure in Tibet close to its borders with India and Nepal is seen as preempting
any possible destabilization of Tibet post-Dalai Lama.
Others, however, do not see any sinister designs in western China's development.
Instead, they attribute the recent downturn in Sino-Indian relations more to domestic
power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) than to the Dalai Lama
succession issue or to Chinese concerns about India's growing tilt toward the United
While there may be an element of truth in all these arguments, there are other more
fundamental reasons behind the recent chill in Sino-Indian relations. Apparently, the
strategic consequences of India's economic resurgence coupled with U.S. Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice's offer in March 2005 to "help make India a major world power
in the 21st century" have greatly bothered the Chinese. This offer, and the long-term
India-U.S. defense cooperation framework and the July 2005 U.S.-India nuclear energy
deal that followed soon after, have been compared by Chinese strategic analysts to "the
strategic tilt" toward China executed by former U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971 to
contain the common Soviet threat. Claiming that these developments have
"destabilizing" and "negative implications" for their country's future, China's India-watchers have started warning their government that Beijing "should not take India
lightly any longer."
Chinese leaders were led to believe that China's growing economic and military might
would eventually enable Beijing to re-establish the Sino-centric hierarchy of Asia's past
as the U.S. saps its energies in fighting small wars in the Islamic world, Japan shrinks
economically and demographically while India remains subdued by virtue of Beijing's
"special relationships" with its South Asian neighbors. However, a number of "negative
developments," from Beijing's perspective, since early 2005 -- the Indian and Japanese
bids for permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, the formation of the East Asia
Summit that includes India, Australia and New Zealand, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal,
India's ability to sustain a high economic growth rate of eight to nine percent and the
strategic implications of India's "Look East" policy -- have apparently upset Chinese
Therefore, after a hiatus of a few years, Chinese media commentaries have resumed
their criticism of Washington's "hegemonic ideas" and for drawing "India in as a tool
for its global strategic pattern." Some Chinese analysts express serious reservations
about U.S. efforts to draw "India in as a tool for its global strategic pattern," arguing
that "India's DNA doesn't allow itself to become an ally subordinate to the U.S., like
Japan or Britain." Nonetheless, most see India as a "future strategic competitor" that
would be an active member of an anti-China grouping due to the structural power shifts
in the international system and advocate putting together a comprehensive "contain
India" strategy based on both economic tools (aid, trade, infrastructural development)
and enhanced military cooperation with "pro-China" countries.
An internal study on India undertaken in mid-2005 (with inputs from China's South
Asia watchers such as Cheng Ruisheng, Ma Jiali, Sun Shihai, Rong Ying, Shen Dingli,
among others) at the behest of the Chinese leadership's "Foreign Affairs Cell"
recommended that Beijing take all measures to maintain its current strategic leverage (in
terms of territory, membership of the exclusive Permanent Five and Nuclear Five
clubs); diplomatic advantages (special relationships, membership of regional and
international organizations); and economic lead over India. Although the evidence is
inconclusive, the most plausible deduction is that this internal re-assessment of India
lies behind the recent hardening of China's stance on the territorial dispute and a whole
range of other issues in China-India relations.
The Chinese are concerned that the U.S.-India nuclear deal and related agreements
would bring about a major shift in the power balance in South Asia that is currently
tilted in China's favor. The recent strengthening of China's strategic presence in
Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and overtures to the Maldives should,
therefore, be seen against this backdrop. Despite protestations to the contrary from India
and the United States that New Delhi is unwilling and unlikely to play the role of a
closely aligned U.S. surrogate such as Japan or Britain, China's Asia strategy is based
upon the premise that maritime powers such as the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India
would eventually form an informal quadrilateral alliance to countervail continental
As a commentary in Huanqiu Shibao noted: "The fact is that Japan, Australia, and India
are respectively located at China's northeast, southeast, and southwest, and all are Asian
powers, while U.S. power in the Pacific is still unchallengeable. Hence, should the "alliance of values" concentrating military and ideological flavors in one body take
shape, it will have a very great impact on China's security environment."
From Beijing's perspective, the responsibility for this "negative development" lies solely
at New Delhi's door. In their writings, Chinese analysts seem upset over their southern
neighbor's all-consuming passion to become "a big power," and see the nuclear deal as
its key to unlocking the door leading to the big league in world politics.
As a Renmin Ribao commentary noted in August:
The U.S.-Indian nuclear agreement has strong symbolic significance for India in
achieving its dream of a powerful nation…In recent years, it introduced and
implemented a 'Look-East' policy and joined most regional organizations in the East
Asian region…In fact, the purpose of the United States to sign a civilian nuclear energy
cooperation agreement with India is to enclose India into its global partners' camp, so as
to balance the forces of Asia [read, China]. This fits in exactly with India's wishes.
Once the nuclear deal crosses all the "big four hurdles" (opposition from pro-Chinese
Communist parties in India; negotiations on I.A.E.A. safeguards; approval by the
Nuclear Suppliers Group (N.S.G.); and its passage by the U.S. Congress), Beijing
believes that it would end the nuclear symmetry between New Delhi and Islamabad (or,
de-hyphenate the sub-continental rivals) and put India on par with nuclear China (rehyphenate China with India).
This, from Beijing's perspective, is quite disconcerting because a major objective of
China's South Asia policy has been to perpetuate parity between India and Pakistan.
Add to this India's military exercises with the U.S., Japan and Australia, support for the
concept of "concert of democracies," and attempts to establish strategic ties with
countries that fall within China's sphere of influence (Mongolia, South Korea, Vietnam,
the Philippines, Taiwan, and Myanmar) -- all of these reinforce Beijing's fears about its
containment. However, despite its strong disapproval of a pact that would narrow the
power gap between India and China, Beijing would not want to take a stance that
pushes India further into Washington's camp. Most likely, Beijing would use its N.S.G.
membership to further its own and its allies' interests by:
Using the "double standards" argument to question Washington's commitment to
non-proliferation goals in light of its decision to back India's nuclear industry while
opposing the right to nuclear energy for Iran and Pakistan;
Insisting that any changes to the N.S.G. guidelines to accommodate the deal must
not be "country [i.e., India]-specific" but "universal criteria-based" so that "all countries
[read, Pakistan] can benefit from the peaceful use of atomic energy under the I.A.E.A.
safeguards." This formulation, outlined by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, would pave
the way for the Chinese construction of the Chashma III and IV nuclear reactors in
Using the deal to extract major concessions from Washington, including an end to
the arms embargo and the lifting of bans on high-tech dual-use technology exports to
Seeking new assurances that U.S.-India ties are not related to any "contain China"
strategy. The fact of the matter is that China and India are locked in a classic security dilemma:
one country sees its own actions as self-defensive, but the same actions appear
aggressive to the other. India feels the need to take counter-balancing measures and
launch certain initiatives to stay independent of China -- such as the "Look East" policy
-- which are perceived as challenging and threatening in China. Like China, India is
actively seeking to reintegrate its periphery with the framework of regional economic
cooperation. Like China, India seeks greater international status and influence
commensurate with its growing economic power.
However, like any other established status quo great power, China wants to ensure that
its position remains strong vis-à-vis challenger India for strategic, economic and
geopolitical reasons. Through closer strategic ties with India's neighboring countries,
China is warning India not to take any counter-measures to balance Beijing's growing
Tibet is the Key
Tibet remains the key to China's policymaking on the India-China boundary dispute.
The Chinese still suspect that India prefers an independent Tibet and covertly supports
Tibetan separatists. Unless and until Tibet is totally pacified and completely Sinicized
as Inner Mongolia has been, Beijing would not want to give up the "bargaining chip"
that an unsettled boundary vis-à-vis India provides it with. An unsettled border provides
China the strategic leverage to keep India uncertain about its intentions, and nervous
about its capabilities, while exposing India's vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and
ensuring New Delhi's "good behavior" on issues of vital concern to China.
Several recent commentaries in Chinese language sources confirm a shift toward a
tougher Chinese stance on the territorial dispute with India. Articles on "Future
Directions of the Sino-Indian Border Dispute" published in Guogji Zhanlue in
November 2006, Liu Silu's "Beijing Should Not Lose Patience in Chinese-Indian
Border Talks" in Wen Wei Po on June 1, 2007, and Professor Wang Yiwei's interview
"Helping U.S. May Derail Border Talks" with the Asian Age on July 25, 2007 are
broadly representative of the official thinking in China's national security establishment
on this subject. The key arguments and major themes presented in these and other
writings are summarized below.
First, since India controls 90,000 square kilometers of the richest part of Tibet and the
Himalayan region, equivalent to two and a half Taiwans and as large as Jiangsu
Province, "the Chinese government will not easily give up its territory." Wen Wei Po
commentator Liu Silu contends that as "it is equally difficult to get India to spit out the
fatty meat it is chewing…Beijing had better be patient at the negotiation table [because]
time is on China's side." Apparently, many Chinese strategic thinkers believe that
China's comprehensive national power vis-à-vis India is likely to increase over time,
and that would enable Beijing to drive a better bargain on the boundary question in the
Second, as Professor Wang Yiwei puts it, "China showed 'greatness' once, after the
1962 Indo-China war, when it gave up the land it controlled [in Arunachal Pradesh] and
it could not be expected to show magnanimity again…India 'lost an opportunity' to
settle the boundary question when Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong were alive.
President Hu Jintao is not Deng or Mao. He is strong but cannot be compared with
them." In other words, the ball is in India's court. If New Delhi wants a settlement, it
must hand over a large chunk of territory in Arunachal Pradesh to China. Third, the Sino-Indian border issue is linked with sovereignty, territorial integrity, and
the respective status of the two countries in the global hierarchy. Hence, a Guogji
Zhanlue commentary advises that Beijing "should not adopt any hasty step or make big
compromises on principles" because this issue, "if approached in a hurry, could impact
the respective rise of the two nuclear powers." One Chinese concern is that a border
settlement, without major Indian territorial concessions, could potentially augment
India's power position and thus impact negatively China's rise. An unsettled boundary
suits Chinese interests for the present because China's claims in the western sector are
complicated by the Indo-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, Pakistan's interests in the SinoIndian territorial dispute, and Beijing's interest in keeping India under strategic pressure
on two fronts.
Fourth, a "fair and reasonable settlement" implies that "India will need to give up
something to get something." Ideally speaking, Wen Wei Po argues that China should
"recover the entire area. But it is negotiable for the disputed territory to be split equally
between China and India, as was the case of Heixiazi [Bolshoy Ussuriysky] Island in
the northeast [on the Russian border]. A third option would be for Beijing to recover at
least the 2,000 square kilometers covering Tawang and Takpa Shiri. It is believed that
this is Beijing's last resort and it will not accept any deal worse than this." Having
wrested substantial territorial concessions from Russia, Vietnam, and Tajikistan in their
land border disputes with China, Beijing is now expecting the same from India.
Fifth, China should economically harmonize/integrate Tibet, Nepal and the border
regions with India into China's economic sphere through increased economic links and
infrastructure projects, such as the Qinghai-Tibet railway, before proceeding for a
boundary settlement with India. Underlying this is the belief that economic
interdependence would soften India's position, leading to a settlement on China's terms.
Last, if negotiations, coercive diplomacy and economic harmonization (a carrot and
stick policy) fail to produce the desired outcome, the use of force at an appropriate time
in the future to recover "China's Southern Tibet" (a new Chinese term for Arunachal
Pradesh) is not ruled out. Many Chinese analysts believe that the military balance has
shifted in their favor with the completion of the 1,118-kilometer (695 miles) QinghaiTibet railway and other military infrastructure projects in Tibet and that negates the
need for any territorial concession to India in the eastern sector.
These views and arguments clearly (a) advocate a "constraining India" strategy; (b)
foretell a long and torturous course of future border negotiations; and (c) indicate an
uncertain and unpredictable future for India's relations with China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's statement to his Indian counterpart Pranab
Mukherjee made in June 2007 that the "mere presence of populated areas in Arunachal
Pradesh would not affect Chinese claims on the boundary" should then be seen against
this background. However, in Indian policy circles, this statement is seen as repudiating
Article VII of the "Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles" signed
during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's India visit in April 2005, which states: "In
reaching a border settlement, the two sides shall safeguard populations in border areas."
The inclusion of the phrase "settled population in the border areas" was then interpreted
as a diplomatic concession that India had extracted from China as it protected India's
interests against Chinese claims to Tawang and other areas in Arunachal Pradesh. India
reportedly conveyed to China in June 2007 that it could not be pushed beyond a point
on the boundary dispute. Describing the Chinese move as "a serious retrograde step," Mukherjee publicly rebuffed Beijing, saying that New Delhi would not part with
populated portions of the state of Arunachal Pradesh: "Any elected government of India
is not permitted by the constitution to part with any part of our land that sends
representatives to the Indian Parliament."
Sending a clear signal against any Chinese designs over Arunachal Pradesh, he added:
"The days of Hitler are over. After the Second World War, no country captures land of
another country in the present global context. That is why there is a civilized
mechanism of discussions and dialogue to sort out border disputes. We sit around the
table and discuss disputes to resolve them."
The Indian government has also responded by unveiling plans for economic
development and major infrastructure projects (the building of 72 roads, three airstrips
and numerous bridges) in the border areas along the undefined L.A.C. that would enable
the Indian military to "swiftly move forces into the region and sustain them logistically
in the event of any untoward trouble or emergency." Indian Defense Minister A. K.
Antony told the Combined Commanders' Conference in July 2007 that "China has been
building a lot of infrastructure -- railways, airports and roads [along the Indian border].
We are also doing the same thing."
Reacting to recent reports of some military skirmishes, Antony acknowledged that
"there may have been an odd instance," but he ruled out "chances of any confrontation."
Indian Chief of Army Staff General J. J. Singh has done the same, assuring the country
that "a 1962-like situation will not be repeated. We are fully prepared to defend our
borders." In response to the establishment of four new airbases in Tibet and three in
southern China, the Indian Air Force is reportedly beefing up its presence by deploying
two squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKIs near the Chinese border.
Although the probability of an all-out conflict is extremely low, the prospect that some
of India's road building projects in disputed areas could lead to tensions, clashes and
skirmishes with Chinese border patrols cannot be completely ruled out. Should a
conflict break out, the P.L.A.'s contingency plans emphasize a "short and swift
localized" conflict (confined to the Tawang region, along the lines of the 1999 Kargil
conflict) with the following objectives in mind: capture the Tawang tract; give India's
military a bloody nose; and deliver a knockout punch that punctures India's ambitions to
be China's equal or peer competitor once and for all.
The ultra-modern civilian and military infrastructure in Tibet is expected to enable
Beijing to exercise the military option to achieve the above-mentioned objectives should
that become necessary at some stage in the future.
Present Imperfect, Future Tense
In short, there is little or no sign of an early resolution to the conflicting claims, despite
continuing negotiations and the recent upswing in diplomatic, political, commercial and
even military ties between the world's two most populous countries. The border disputes
have simmered in the background for more than 50 years, threatening to disrupt
relations between Asia's two giants.
With China insisting on the return of Tawang on religious, cultural, and historical
grounds, Indians have a more powerful case for the return of the sacred Mount KailashMansarovar in Tibet, since it is a sacred religious place associated with the Hindu
religion. Additionally, there is the contentious issue of the Shaksgam Valley that Pakistan handed over to China in 1963, which China's Foreign Ministry spokespersons
now claim is a non-issue.
Negotiating these issues will not be easy and will test diplomatic skills on both sides. It
is worth noting that historically China has negotiated border disputes with neighbors in
their moment of national weakness (Pakistan, Myanmar in the 1960s, and the Central
Asian republics in the 1990s) or only after the overall balance of power had shifted
decisively in China's favor and/or after they had ceased to be a major threat (land border
settlements with Russia and Vietnam in the 1990s). It has not, however, negotiated with
those who are perceived as present rivals and future threats (India, Japan, Vietnam, the
Philippines and Taiwan).
In the meantime, both sides will have to learn to live without an early resolution to the
dispute. Even if the territorial dispute were somehow resolved, India and China would
still compete over energy resources, markets and for geostrategic reasons. A new
potentially divisive issue for the future appears to be the ecological impact on the Indian
subcontinent of Chinese plans to divert the rivers of Tibet for irrigation purposes in
China. With China controlling the Tibetan plateau -- the source of Asia's major rivers --
there looms a potential conflict over depleting water reserves. Water is increasingly
becoming a divisive issue in India's bilateral relations with China.
Simmering tensions over territory, Tibet, energy resources and rival alliance
relationships ensure that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's assertion that "there
is enough [geopolitical] space for the two countries to develop together" will remain
more a "hope" than a conviction. The relationship between the two rising Asian giants
with overlapping spheres of influence and disputed frontiers will be characterized more
by competition and rivalry than cooperation. Indeed, the possibility of confrontation
cannot be ruled out completely.