Why the resolution of border dispute between China and India is complicated?

Delhi Jun 25, 2020, 01.40 PM(IST) Written By: Major General S B Asthana

Special representatives of both countries had exchanged ideas on various confidence-building measures during their talks, India's external affairs ministry said. Photograph:( Reuters )

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The standoff between Chinese and Indian Forces have once again highlighted the complexity of the border issue between the two countries.

The adventurism of China in Ladakh and a few other places along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the standoff between Chinese and Indian Forces have once again highlighted the complexity of the border issue between the two countries.

The fact that 22 rounds of special representative-level talks have taken place between India and China in the last 30 years, and the resolution of the border issue is nowhere in sight, speaks of the magnanimity of the problem. LAC, irrespective of differing perceptions, continues to be a compromise formula, which has its own pitfalls in bringing peace and tranquillity, because perceptions can be repeatedly stretched beyond limits if the intentions change, as has been the case with Chinese so many times. The idea of managing peace and tranquillity through agreements and Confidence-building measures (CBMs) has not been found effective enough.

Defining the Complexity of China-India Border Issue   

People's Republic of China refused to ratify the Simla Agreement of 1914, signed between British India and Tibet. The Indian stance generally follows Johnson Line (1865) in Ladakh and McMahon Line in East. When Maharaja Hari Singh signed Instrument of Accession, Aksai Chin was part of it; hence, it rightfully belonged to India. India should have compelled China to accept the Shimla Agreement before recognising Tibet as part of Beijing. There is, therefore, no mutually agreed border treaty between Independent India and PRC. China can never be trusted, and hence, India can also have a relook at old treaties/recognitions with China.  

It is often mentioned that China has resolved its border dispute with several other countries, however, Chinese argue that it was done on give and take principle. India and China interpret history as it suits them, which is unlikely to change easily. Expecting India to give Tawang or China to give back Akshai Chin is unlikely to be accepted by domestic constituencies on both sides. It is for this reason that every time when the talks start on border resolution, it invariably ends with additional measures for the management of undefined, LAC.  

Why is Graceful Disengagement along the LAC Difficult? 

LAC, by definition, indicates loosely demarcated areas under the actual control of Chinese and Indian Forces. The term was used by Zhou Enlai in his note to Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959, followed by respective positions in 1960 and post 1962 conflict, with some unheld areas in between, and later used for negotiations since 1993, with a provision that it does not impact respective positions adopted by both countries on unresolved Border Issue. Both countries have their own perception of LAC and in certain areas these perception overlap. As LAC is not demarcated, Chinese, with scant regards to international agreements and obligations, use non-demarcation as an opportunity to pursue their ‘Strategy of Incremental Encroachment’ by laying fresh claims (Galwan Valley) and following it up with troops buildup/infrastructure development till resisted and stop just short of conflict. An opposing build-up by Indian Forces leads to ‘Standoff' each time. 

The problem in the resolution of standoff is that a graceful retreat becomes extremely difficult due to rising sentiments/ nationalism in respective countries and media glare, thus increasing the political cost of any compromise by either side. Galwan/Pangong Tso is neither the first nor the last standoff between the two countries as the demarcation of LAC is doable, provided both sides “Agree to Agree”. Chinese, however, continue to drag their feet in doing so, as they fear that it will become de facto border, forcing them to forego their claims made in 1959, including Tawang and take away an opportunity to needle India, whenever it has any major divergence in strategic interests. Having developed their infrastructure up to LAC earlier than India, China does not want to let go of this comparative strategic advantage by denying similar infrastructure development by India.  

In my opinion, the delimitation and demarcation of LAC will happen only, when the political/strategic cost of not doing so will increase for China. It could happen when China faces insurmountable military pressure on South-Eastern seaboard from a group of countries, in response to Chinese adventurism in Indo-Pacific. China, having recovered early from COVID-19, has unfairly used it as an opportunity to make quick gains in claimed areas amidst pandemic and unfair profiteering from ‘Health Silk Road’ igniting global anger. Chinese aggressiveness in South and East China Sea, blocking of global sea-lane of communication and freedom of flights, coupled with a declaration of independence by Taiwan can create such conditions, along with economic decoupling, resulting in internal dissent in the mainland, Hong Kong, and heightened rivalry with the US with accidental triggers.  

China, on its part, will try to stop its adventurism just short of war, in consonance with Sun Tzu’s principle of ‘winning without fighting’. India will have to walk an extra mile in Indo-Pacific engagements like QUAD, and target all vulnerabilities of China, in coordination with like-minded countries. Till then China and India will continue with a tug of war along the LAC. 

 (This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article)