The two countries, with a longstanding border dispute and episodes of wars and clashes, continue to engage in diplomacy with circumspection
BY SRIKANTH KONDAPALLI
India-China relations have become more complex after the Galwan border incident in June 2020 when 20 Indian soldiers and an estimated four Chinese soldiers were killed in hand-tohand combat. The Galwan incident is a major, unsavoury milestone that still influences crucial aspects of bilateral relations. This is despite the two major “informal summit” meetings held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan and Mamallapuram prior to the Galwan incident.
As External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar has mentioned repeatedly since June 2020, bilateral relations with China can only improve if “peace and tranquility” prevail in the border areas. He has reminded the Chinese leadership that a number of agreements were signed by the two countries and that the letter and spirit of these agreements should be followed. However, China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, attending the recent Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, said, “The merits of the China-India border conflicts are very clear, and the responsibility does not lie with China.” The diametrically opposing positions and the ensuing stalemate characterise the current state of relations between India and China.
Prior to the Galwan incident, the bilateral relations had witnessed over 30 engagement processes between different ministries on both sides as well as between the civil societies and chambers of commerce. However, after the Galwan incident, most of these were discontinued and border tensions spilled over into many areas of interaction.
One of the key challenges in India-China relations is the unresolved territorial dispute that comes to a simmer once in a while and even
results in overt conflict such as the 1962 border clashes, the 1967 Jelep La incident in the Sikkim sector, the 1975 Tulung La and the 1987 Samdurong Chu incidents in Arunachal Pradesh, the 2017 Doklam incident in the India-China-Bhutan area and the Galwan incident of June 2020. The territorial dispute as such has become intractable despite over three decades of talks between officials at various levels and the border incidents. The fast pace of infrastructure development on either side, rising nationalism and other geopolitical factors have complicated these talks further.
China interlocutor Dai Bingguo’s observation that unless and until India hands over the Tawang tract to China no territorial dispute can be resolved, had driven a spanner in the works regarding the border talks. This is not acceptable to any government in Arunachal Pradesh or at the Centre as the people’s representatives have been elected from this region.
In 2017, the then Chinese ambassador, Luo Zhaohui, had suggested an “early harvest” for resolving the dispute, that is, firming up regarding those border areas where there is less dispute. However, this is not in sync with the “sector by sector approach under the package deal” agreed to earlier by both parties. Former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had suggested an ‘out of the box’ approach during her visit to Beijing in February 2016 but there were no takers for this as well.
To specifically resolve the post-Galwan clashes, 15 corps commanders’ meetings took place in the western sector of the border to further the “disengagement and de-escalation” process in “all friction points”. Despite some disengagement in a few patrol points, many critical areas are still under military occupation which has complicated the bilateral relations. Recently, China suggested meeting “half-way” to resolve this dispute, meaning that its troops will remain in the encroached upon areas. This is not acceptable to India.
A second issue is that of Kashmir, which in August 2019 was bifurcated into two Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. China objected to the Indian parliament’s resolution and laid claim to several regions in Ladakh. Significantly, and in a sharp departure from its earlier policies, it tried to raise Kashmir in the United Nations on August 16 and December 19, 2019 and on January 16, 2020. However, given the opposition of the other P-4 members, Beijing could not make much headway on this issue. This, of course, left India seething. Moreover, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, attended the Organisation of Islamic Countries meeting in Islamabad in March this year where the Kashmir issue dominated. Against this background, it was natural that Wang’s visit to India proved to be a damp squib. Dr Jaishankar stated at the
press briefing that the bilateral relations were indeed “abnormal” after the Galwan incident.
On the other hand, to change the ground realities, since 2014 China began investing heavily (about $42 billion so far out of $62 billion) in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that connects through Xinjiang and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir regions, in violation of Indian sovereignty. Since 1963 China has been able to secure the Kashmir territories of Aghil, Shimshal, Ruksam and Sakshgam from Pakistan. This provided China with a foothold and regional domination opportunities. Even though China suffered at the hands of Pakistan-based terrorists regarding the Dasu hydroelectricity project last year and despite the recent attack on Confucius Institute personnel in Karachi, there is no let-up in Sino-Pakistan condominium.
Also, China’s military began consolidating these territories with the deployment of an estimated 36,000 “security guards” for area domination and counter-terrorism efforts. It was also reported that after constructing 624 “well-off society villages” across Tibet—with nearly 200 on the Line of Actual Control with India— China is exploring construction of similar villages in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
A third issue that influences the bilateral relations is the status of Tibet. Over 160,000 Tibetans live in India since the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959. Although India accepted the “one China” policy, developments in Tibet and in the bilateral relations have resulted in the policy not being mentioned in the joint statements since 2010. While this does not mean that India jettisoned the “one China” policy, in 2014 New Delhi sought clarifications from China on its own “one India” policy for which Beijing had no positive reply. It is likely that India will continue to insist on diplomatic reciprocity with China on Kashmir-Tibet issues with possibly Taiwan also playing some role in this matrix.
Crucially, China had raised the issue of preparing for the 15th Dalai Lama’s selection process. Beijing stated that it had a right to choose the next Dalai Lama through the golden urn process of selection. This approach is not acceptable to Tibetans. Nevertheless, China has made several preparations in this regard—creating confusion among the ranks. India is concerned about the transition period for the impact this can have on the fragile trans-Himalayan region as well as for the welfare of Tibetans. With the passing of the Tibet Policy Support Act last year by the United States, the issue of the 15th Dalai Lama’s selection is expected to generate considerable friction between the US and China with spillover effects on India.
Fourthly, as a result of the border tensions, many bilateral processes have come to a standstill, including grant of visas and border controls, and negative fallouts on trade and commerce and people-to-people contact are discernible. While trade increased to $125 billion last year, nearly 30,000 self-paid Indian students were denied educational opportunities in China. Though China stated that this measure is due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it did allow students selectively from other countries. On the trade issue as well, as trade deficits are mounting, India is in the process of diversifying its import basket from China. India, Japan and Australia have also signed a supply chain resilience initiative last year to
avoid supply chain shocks and to enhance digital trade.
India refused to be part of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signed last year for discriminatory policies on rules of origin, trade imbalance and possible dumping of goods. On the other hand, India not only joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework Partnership in May this year but actively concluded a trade agreement with Australia and is likely to sign free trade agreements with the UAE, UK, Israel and other countries to counter China’s economic domination.
Fifthly, despite the differences on a number of bilateral issues, India and China still show maturity in participating and cooperating in a number of multilateral initiatives and institutions. Such interactions possibly provide for a cushion in the bilateral interactions and possibly allow them to take a long-term view of their relations. Both have continuously participated in multilateral institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BRICS, United Nations, World Trade Organisation, and on issues such as climate change, among others.
Indications are that the frosty relations between India and China are likely to continue with major implications for not only stability in bilateral relations but also regarding a spillover effect on the Asian geopolitical landscape. While the leaderships of both countries apply a cost-benefit balance ratio yardstick, the continuing stalemate on many fronts is surprising many.
The formulation that asymmetry in power relations defines India-China relations has been quashed by the mobilisation of military forces in the border areas with an advantage for India as it is the defender of the mountains. On the other hand, the defensive and deterring posture of India vis-a-vis China is also undergoing serious re-evaluation with potential new outcomes.
Srikanth Kondapalli is a Professor of Chinese studies and Dean of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University
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