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Commentary: China, India: Back to the Boundary

June 18, 2008

A recent hardening of positions on both sides does not augur well for
regional stability in Asia.
by Harsh V Pant
International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
June 16, 2008

During his recent visit to China, India's external affairs minister
called upon Beijing and New Delhi to join hands for the creation of a
new Asian security architecture that would ensure peace and stability
in the region and beyond.

Speaking at Peking University, the Indian official argued that ideas
could not be merely transplanted from other parts of the world and
that new mechanisms were needed to accommodate the great diversity of
Asia. He further underlined that cooperation between India and China
transcended the bilateral sphere and had global significance.

Notwithstanding this lofty rhetoric, the reality of Sino-Indian
relations is growing increasingly complicated as the two Asian giants
continue their ascent in the global inter-state hierarchy.

Tensions over a boundary dispute between the two sides are
escalating, with China opening another front recently by raising
objections over an area that was previously thought to have been settled.

Earlier this year, China contested Indian control of a 2.1
square-kilometer region known as the Finger Area in the in the
northernmost tip of the Indian state of Sikkim. This came as a
surprise to New Delhi, as the issue of Sikkim was widely considered
to have been settled some years ago.

In 2003, when the then-Indian prime minister visited Beijing, a
bilateral agreement was signed with New Delhi recognizing Tibet as an
integral part Chinese territory and pledging not to allow
"anti-China" political activities in India. In return, China
acknowledged India's 1975 annexation of the former monarchy of Sikkim
by agreeing to open a trading post along the border with the former
kingdom and later by rectifying its official maps to include Sikkim
as a part of India. This was hailed as a major breakthrough in
Sino-Indian bilateral ties though the Chinese government did not
issue any formal statement recognizing Sikkim as part of Indian territory.

Five years later the situation has become much murkier.

Last year, Chinese forces destroyed some Indian army bunkers at the
Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet junction, and more recently it has threatened to
undertake cross-border forays to destroy stone demarcations in the Finger Area.

The Indian government recently informed parliament that Chinese
forces had stepped up regular cross-border activities in the past few months.

China persists in refusing to recognize the Indian state of Arunachal
Pradesh as part of India, laying claim to 90,000 square kilometers of its land.

Even as China has solved most of its border disputes with other
countries, it seems reluctant to move ahead with India on border
issues. The entire 4057-kilometer Sino-Indian frontier is in dispute,
with India and China the only known neighbors not to be separated
even by a mutually defined Line of Control.

Despite the need for an expeditious demarcation of the Line of Actual
Control, the Sino-Indian boundary talks seem to be continuing
endlessly, and the momentum of the talks seems to have flagged.

China continues to refuse to exchange maps of its existing position
in Aksai Chin, despite Indian readiness to move forward, thereby
keeping the settlement of the boundary dispute in abeyance for a more
"opportune" moment.

The country also apparently wants major territorial concessions on
Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, which India seems to be in no position
to offer. As a consequence, a breakthrough on this issue seems to be
the key to the larger boundary settlement.

China has adopted shifting positions on the border issue, time and
again enunciating new principles but not explaining them. This
deliberate opacity and springing surprises are typical of Chinese
negotiating tactics intended to keep the interlocutor in a perpetual
state of uncertainty, even as the façade of negotiations continues.

The real problem, however, is that India has no real bargaining
leverage vis-à-vis China, and negotiations rarely succeed in the
absence of leverage.

India seems to have lost the battle over Tibet to China, despite the
fact that Tibet constitutes China's only truly fundamental
vulnerability vis-à-vis India. India has failed to limit China's
military use of Tibet despite its great implications for Indian
security, even as Tibet has become a platform for the projection of
Chinese military power. Not only has China pumped in infrastructural
investments in developing roads, railways, airfields, hydroelectric
and geothermal stations, leading to a huge influx of Han Chinese in
Tibet, it is also rapidly expanding the logistical capabilities of
its armed forces there.

India's tacit support to the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile has
failed to have much of an impact either on China or on the
international community. Even the Dalai Lama has given up his dream
of an independent Tibet and is ready to talk to the Chinese as he
realizes that in a few years Tibet might become overwhelmed with the
Han population and Tibetans themselves might become a minority.

Encouraged by the growing isolation of Tibetans, the Chinese
government now seems to have little interest in a genuine dialogue
with the Dalai Lama.

It is a possibility that recent riots Tibetans in China may be
hardening Chinese perceptions vis-à-vis India. During the Indian
foreign minister's recent visit, the Chinese government reportedly
raised objections to the media prominence being given to the Dalai
Lama and his supporters in India.

Though the Indian government can do little to control how the Indian
media treats the Tibetan cause, it will inevitably affect its ties
with China. This despite the fact that the Indian government has not
been able to summon enough self-confidence to even allow peaceful
protests by the Tibetans and forcefully condemn Chinese physical
assaults on its Tibetan minority and verbal assaults on the Dalai Lama.

China also seems to be concerned about Indian foreign policy becoming
proactive in recent years and being able to play the same balance of
power game. India's growing closeness to the US and the idea that
democratic states in the Asia-Pacific should work together to counter
common threats is generating a strong negative reaction in Beijing.

Whatever the cause, the recent hardening of positions on both sides
does not augur well for regional stability in Asia. Sino-Indian ties
will, in all likelihood, determine the course of global politics in
the coming years. The consequences of this development, however,
remain far from clear.

** Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College London.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only,
not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
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