March 6, 2010

The Sino-Indian Border dispute: You Scratch my Back, But I Won’t Scratch yours

In the longest running border dispute in modern history - the two Asian giants still can't decide where one ends and the other begins

About a century ago, Sir Henry McMahon, the then British Foreign Secretary, took a think red pencil and sketched a line between India and Tibet on a map - a line that has resulted in the two most populous nations in the world going to war, costing more than 2000 lives; and that has created enormous mistrust on both sides, especially in India. 

Consequently, on the 3rd of July, 1914, was signed one of the most bizarre and controversial agreements ever known to man - The Simla accord, the complexities of which have yet to be unraveled. 

It was signed at a conference in the Indian mountain town of Simla that was attended by representatives of the British Empire, the newly founded Republic of China, and the Tibetan government at Lhasa. It is on this extremely controversial treaty that the entire negotiating stance of the Indian government is based. It recognizes the McMahon line as the legal international boundary. 

The legality of the Simla accord is disputed. If it is legal, then it serves India's cause; if it is illegal, China's.

The border negotiations have been going on since 1981, making them the longest boundary negotiations in modern history.  The rap sheet includes:
  • 8 rounds of senior-level talks between 1981 and 1987
  • 14 Joint Working Group meetings between 1988 and 2002
  • 14 rounds of talks between the designated Special Representatives since 2003.

Disputed Territories

The major territories that are disputed between these two countries can be divided into two distinct parts:
  1. The Western Sector - Aksai Chin, which lies to the east of the Kashmir valley, covering an area of about 37,250 (14,380 sq.mi) - currently occupied by China.
  2. The Eastern Sector - Most of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, that China calls South Tibet, covering an area of 83,743 (32,333 sq.mi) - currently occupied by India.
Territories disputed between India and China

China's boundary settlements with other countries

Western and Indian analysts and journalists frequently accuse China of having a new-found self-confidence, call on Obama to "burst Beijing's bubble" (The Washington Post), call its statements "harangue" and its behavior "hubris" (The Economist), and accuse it of possessing an increased "assertiveness" (Almost everyone!).

Even a 2005 Pentagon report on Chinese military power expressed concern that “conflicts to enforce China’s [territorial] claims could erupt in the future with wide regional repercussions." J. Mohan Malik, an expert in Asian Geopolitics and  Proliferation, proclaims, "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."

Although a thorough analysis of China’s border disputes merits a separate blog post, only a summary is sufficient here to put things in perspective. China has had land border disputes with every country which it bordered. However, it has resolved 12 out of the 14 disputes quite remarkably, giving remarkable concessions in each of them.

In its border negotiations, China has pursued compromise and offered concessions in most of these conflicts. China’s compromises have often been substantial, as it has usually offered to accept less than half of the contested territory in any final settlement. It has also not reiterated its claims on a majority of the territory which was seized from it by the so-called 'unequal treaties'.

According to M.Taylor.Fravel, an expert on China's border disputes,
"Contrary to scholars of offensive realism, ......China has rarely exploited its military superiority to bargain hard for the territory that it claims or to seize it through force. China has likewise not become increasingly assertive in its territorial disputes as its relative power has grown in the past two decades. Contrary to others who emphasize the violent effects of nationalism, which would suggest inflexibility in conflicts over national sovereignty, China has been quite willing to offer territorial concessions despite historical legacies of external victimization and territorial dismemberment under the Qing."
 ".....China has not issued demands for large tracts of territory that were part of the Qing dynasty......"
"China only contested roughly 7 percent of the territory that was part of the Qing dynasty at its height"

In the adjoining map, the grey area was part of the Qing dynasty during 1820, claims that China did not pursue.

China's land border negotiations with neighboring countries offer a startling revelation. Portions of the total disputed territories that China received as part of its boundary negotiations with 12 of its 14 neighbours are as follows:

Afghanistan  -  0%
Tajikistan      - 4%
Nepal            - 6%
Burma          - 18%
Kazakhstan  - 22%
Mongolia      - 29%
Kyrgyzstan   - 32%
North Korea  - 40%
Laos             - 50%
Vietnam        - 50%
Russia          - 50%
Pakistan       - 54%

(Pakistan was a special case in which China received 60% of the disputed land but transferred 1,942 square kilometers of separate land to Pakistan. In Tajikistan’s case, the figure refers to the 28,000 of the disputed Pamir mountain range, other sectors were divided evenly. In the case of Vietnam, in addition to this settlement, China transferred, apparently without any strings attached, the White Dragon Tail Island to (North) Vietnam in 1957)

According to Fravel, "Analysis of China’s dispute behavior bears directly on the future of peace and stability in East Asia. Behavior in territorial disputes is a fundamental indicator of whether a state is pursuing status quo or revisionist foreign policies, an issue of increasing importance in light of China’s rising power."

China's recent 'assertiveness'

On a recent visit to the US, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "There is but a certain amount of assertiveness on the Chinese part. I don't fully understand the reasons for it".

He was referring, among other things, to Chinese objections to the PM's and Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh and China's attempt to stall an ADB loan, part of which was earmarked for the state.

There has also been some media hype among the Indian media about unconfirmed reports of border incursions (which The Economist calls the 'picking up (of) fights' by China) . But since the Line of Actual Control (LAC)  is not clearly defined, incursions often take place on both sides; and it was dismissed by the Indian government as inconsequential.

Dr. Fravel argues that "China has beefed up border security and associated infrastructure along all of its borders, not just the one with India." Now since its border with India is not clearly defined,  a perceived incursion to one side is simply a normal border patrol to the other. Even the Indian government has said that the LAC is perceived differently on both sides.

According to Fravel, "...often times the Indian government denies that incursions have occurred when local officials in India report that they have occurred.

What is clear is (that) Chinese activity on the border has increased in the last several years. What I mean here is the frequency of its patrols, and that in itself is threatening to India if it cannot patrol at the same level of frequency." (my emphasis)

India significantly beefed up the number of troops on its border with China after these reports.

Although this is not the appropriate place for a detailed analysis of these accusations, it is clear that China's recent behavior does NOT indicate that it wants Arunachal Pradesh per se, it simply means that its claim is still alive, which it always was. That Arunachal Pradesh is disputed (but not Chinese per se) territory has been its official position since before the 1962 war.

China in fact only 'attacked' India in 1962 only to get it to negotiate.  After occupying Arunachal Pradesh for a short period, it declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew - thus maintaining the same status quo as that prior to the war.

'Facts of History'

History is History. It cannot be changed. But what we can change is its effect on the future. China understands this perfectly.

It refers to the McMahon line and the other aspects of the dispute as 'a fact of history' or 'a fact leftover by history' (two of its favorite phrases). It is willing to forget history and move forward, even if it means offering significant concessions.

China seems to have mastered the art of giving remarkable concessions and settling disputes peacefully. (So much so that it seems to border on an obsession of resolving land border disputes as quickly and amicably as possible), characteristic of which is its 'One country, Two systems' approach, which resulted in the successful and peaceful transfer of Hong Kong and Macau to China. By contrast, India had to 'invade' Goa, another Portuguese colony like Macau, to liberate it.

This is in stark contrast with India, where Foreign Policy is little more than a vote-grubbing exercise. It would be political suicide for any Indian government if it were to 'settle' any dispute with mutual concessions. 

While Chinese Foreign Policy is about surviving the next century, Indian Foreign Policy is about surviving the next election.

In 1960, Zhou Enlai offered Nehru a bargain that was in India's favor by a land area ratio of about 3:1 - China would drop its claim in the Eastern sector if India would drop its claim in the Western sector. But Nehru rejected this package solution, and later also refused to negotiate with the Chinese, until it vacated 'illegally occupied' Indian territory (As if there'll be anything left to negotiate then!).   

Deng Xiaoping again offered a similar deal to India on a number of occasions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but they were again rejected by India.

In contrast, India has chosen to adopt a sector-by-sector approach, negotiating each of the two distinct sectors separately.

As China expressed a willingness to drop its claim in the Eastern sector, Fravel thinks that "India believes that it can use this strategy to maximise concessions from China. Because China has already suggested dropping its claims in one sector, India can also seek concessions in the Western sector. China has opposed this and one reason why China has increased the prominence of Tawang (a district/town in Arunachal Pradesh or South Tibet with close links to Tibet) is because India prefers to pursue a sector by sector approach. China is signaling to India that if a sector by sector approach is pursued, China will expect concessions in both sectors from India." (my emphasis)

Yet, even in this sector-by-sector approach, there is no evidence that India is willing to offer any concessions.

In the official statements of these two countries, the differences of their respective approaches seem to stand out. While India refers to Arunachal Pradesh as an 'integral part of India', China refers to it as 'disputed territory' - thereby indicating that although China has a claim on that territory, it recognizes and respects the fact that India also has a claim on it. It doesn't refer to Chinese occupied Aksai Chin as an 'integral part of China' and South Tibet (or Arunachal Pradesh) as being under 'illegal occupation' by India. 

The above facts have been completely missed by the Indian media as well as the general public and politicians, who put the blame squarely on China for the dispute remaining unresolved. 

Recently The Times of India published an article by Dilip Hiro, a journalist and analyst specializing in India, which stated, "Although China has settled its land border disputes with all other neighbors it has refused to do so with India". Indian analysts are often quick to claim that China has 'refused' to settle its border dispute with India because it is afraid of India's rise, conveniently forgetting the fact that the same argument can apply to India too.

You can scratch my back, but I won’t scratch yours.

Historians on both sides can offer arguments and analyses to support their claims. They can debate till the cows come home. But while the Chinese government is willing to forget history and even recognize the McMahon line in the eastern sector, the Indian government remains stubborn, risking a political fallout and a huge backlash fueled by a brainwashed Indian public, which is in turn fueled by false and exaggerated  media reports. The current Indian government is often compelled to succumb to the people's prejudices. Nationalistic fervor and zeal run so high in Indian minds that it clouds rational thinking in the national interest.

In fact, after losing the war in 1962, Nehru and his government; along with the Indian media, succeeded in portraying India as the innocent 'victim' of Chinese 'aggression' and 'betrayal'. Even today, a look at media reports and even MP's speeches in parliament clearly shows that this fiction is still maintained in the Indian mindset.

The words of a 1964 CIA report still ring true today,
"A political settlement, which could not be negotiated when Sino-Indian relations were still to some degree friendly, will be even less likely now that relations are completely antagonistic."
Needless to say, it is in India's long-term national interest to resolve the dispute quickly. However, it is not in the government's interest to offer any sort of compromise, and hence it wouldn't touch the issue with a bargepole (A textbook example where national interest is superseded by political interest in a democracy).

It is abundantly clear that China wants the dispute resolved as quickly as possible (For one, it doesn't have such a strong and ill-informed public opinion to contend with). It understands that friendly relations between neighbours cannot be fully achieved as long as the mutual border is not clearly demarcated. It has offered significant concessions to India, keeping only the territory that is strategically important to it (because of the Aksai Chin road). It is willing to recognize Indian claims on the populated portion of the disputed territory, keeping only the barren desert land of Aksai Chin, where according to Nehru himself, "Not even a blade of grass grows".

Unfortunately, the Indian government seems to think that it has a mandate from heaven to keep ALL the disputed territory for itself, and will not offer any concessions whatsoever. It will not accept 74% of the total disputed territory that was part of the deal offered by China (heck, it won't even accept 99.99% of the territory if China offered it!), but wants the ENTIRE disputed territory for itself.

(update: This post also featured on Fool's Mountain and Hidden Harmonies)