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India and China's territorial disputes

August 23, 2010

The Economist
August 20 2010

India and China, repositories of 40% of the
world’s people, are often unsure what to make of
each other. Since re-establishing diplomatic ties
in 1976, after a post-war pause, they and their
relationship have in many ways been transformed.
A war in 1962 was an act of Chinese aggression
most obviously springing from China’s desire for
a lofty plain that lies between Jammu & Kashmir and north-western Tibet.

The two countries are in many ways rivals and
their relationship is by any standard vexed as
recent quarrelling has made abundantly plain. If
you then consider that they are, despite their
mutual good wishes, old enemies, bad neighbours
and nuclear powers, and have two of the world’s
biggest armies with almost 4m troops between them
this may seem troubling. One obvious bone of
contention is the 4,000km border that runs
between the two countries. Nearly half a century
after China’s invasion, it remains largely
undefined and bitterly contested. The basic
problem is twofold. In the undefined northern
part of the frontier India claims an area the
size of Switzerland, occupied by China, for its
region of Ladakh. In the eastern part, China
claims an Indian-occupied area three times
bigger, including most of Arunachal. This 890km
stretch of frontier was settled in 1914 by the
governments of Britain and Tibet, which was then
in effect independent, and named the McMahon Line
after its creator, Sir Henry McMahon, foreign
secretary of British-ruled India. For China which
was afforded mere observer status at the
negotiations preceding the agreement the McMahon
Line represents a dire humiliation.

China also particularly resents being deprived of
Tawang,which though south of the McMahon Line was
occupied by Indian troops only in 1951, shortly
after China’s new Communist rulers dispatched
troops to Tibet. This district of almost 40,000
people,scattered over 2,000 square kilometres of
valley and high mountains, was the birthplace in
the 17th century of the sixth Dalai Lama (the
incumbent incarnation is the 14th). Tawang is a
centre of Tibet’s Buddhist culture, with one of
the biggest Tibetan monasteries outside Lhasa.
Traditionally, its ethnic Monpa inhabitants offered fealty to Tibet’s rulers.

Making matters worse, the McMahon Line was drawn
with a fat nib,establishing a ten-kilometre
margin for error, and it has never been
demarcated. With more confusion in the central
sector, bordering India’s northern state of
Uttarakhand, there are in all a dozen stretches
of frontier where neither side knows where even
the disputed border should be. In these
“pockets”, as they are called, Indian and Chinese
border guards circle each other endlessly while
littering the Himalayan hillsides as dogs mark
lampposts to make their presence known.

Despite several threatened dust-ups including one
in 1986 that saw 200,000 Indian troops rushed to
northern Tawang district there has been no
confirmed exchange of fire between Indian and
Chinese troops since 1967. It would be best if
the two countries would actually settle their
dispute, and, until recently, that seemed
imaginable. The obvious solution, whereby both
sides more or less accept the status quo,
exchanging just a few bits of turf to save face,
was long ago advocated by China, including in the
1980s by the then prime minister, Deng Xiaoping.
India’s leaders long considered this politically
impossible. But in 2003 a coalition government
led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata
Party launched an impressive bid for peace. For
the first time India declared itself ready to
compromise on territory, and China appeared ready
to meet it halfway. Both countries appointed
special envoys, who have since met 13 times, to
lead the negotiations that followed. This led to
an outline deal in 2005, containing the “guiding
principles and political parameters” for a final
settlement. Those included an agreement that it
would involve no exchange of “settled
populations” which implied that China had dropped
its historical demand for Tawang.

Yet the hopes this inspired have faded. In ad hoc
comments from Chinese diplomats and through its
state-controlled media China appears to have
reasserted its demand for most of India’s far
north-eastern state. Annoying the Indians
further, it started issuing special visas to
Indians from Arunachal and Kashmir. In fact, the
relationship has generally soured. Having
belatedly woken up to the huge improvements China
has made in its border infrastructure, enabling a
far swifter mobilisation of Chinese troops there,
India announced last year that it would deploy
another 60,000 troops to Arunachal. It also began
upgrading its airfields in Assam and deploying
the Sukhois to them. India’s media meanwhile has
reported a spate of “incursions” by Chinese troops.
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