by Brian Cloughley

Over the past ten years the amount of trade between India and China has increased dramatically, reaching some $70 billion in 2013. 

China is now India’s largest trading partner, although in 2013 Chinese exports to India were $48.44 billion while India’s to China were a comparatively modest $17.03 billion.  The deficit is a matter of concern to India, and after the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Delhi in September 2014 India’s Prime Minister Modi said he “raised the issue of trade imbalance between the two countries” and “urged President Xi to give our companies better market access and investment opportunities in China.” Mr Xi assured Modi that he would take “concrete steps” to help reduce India’s deficit, but this is unlikely in the short term, not least because China’s economy has been cooling, with its import growth easing to 3.8 percent in November 2014.

While it is apparent that the governments in Beijing and Delhi are intent on increasing trade and engaging politically there are some major difficulties in their relations, and although it is in the interests of both to maintain cordiality there are stresses and strains that may militate against establishment of trust.  For example, on 20 November 2014 India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh stated that “China has illegally occupied Aksai Chin and incursions by Chinese troops do not augur well in maintaining cordial relations with our neighbour” which was hardly a positive indicator of desire to keep contentious matters off the boil.

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party government elected in May 2014 has maintained the policies of its predecessor regarding China and has a similarly robust approach to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which have nothing whatever to do with India but nevertheless have attracted comment and even action.  India has leaned towards Vietnam in the latter’s maritime dispute with China, and when Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung visited Delhi a month after President Xi he stated that “Vietnam hopes that India, as a major power in the region and the world, will actively support the parties concerned to peacefully resolve all disputes, refrain from actions that may further complicate the situation, thus contributing to the maintenance of peace, stability, maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation in the East Sea.”  India is involved in China Sea oil exploration in conjunction with Vietnam and has extended a $100 million export credit to Vietnam for military equipment, while making it clear that it also takes the side of the United States in its confrontational stand against China. 

Prime Minister Modi and President Obama met in Australia in October and issued a statement that “The leaders expressed concern about rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes, and affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”  No doubt China got the message, especially as Indian navy warships had joined US and Japanese vessels in a Pacific Ocean exercise in July 2014, followed by a high-profile visit to Vietnam by an Indian frigate.

It is intriguing that India finds it strategically important to become involved in eastern waters while itself objecting strenuously to any Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, but, as observed by Liu Zongyi of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, “India sees the Indian Ocean within its own sphere of influence, with the intervention of other powers forbidden. China's increasing cooperation with other Indian Ocean countries rankles India.”

The strains continue and are especially sensitive because both countries have armed forces numbering over a million,  arsenals of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles,  expanding blue-water navies, advanced strike aircraft,  and deep national pride.  Their long-festering border disagreements and seeming disinclination to compromise on sovereignty over disputed territory are matters of considerable concern to the wider world.  In the regions of frontier tension they are developing local and strategic communications infrastructure while increasing the size and capabilities of their military presence. 

India and China share a frontier – the ‘Line of Actual Control’ – totalling some 2,200 miles,  along which there are two main areas in dispute:   the Aksai Chin region in the west, occupied by China and considered by India to be part of Kashmir (which is divided by the ‘Line of Control’ between regions administered by India and Pakistan);  and at the eastern end, abutting Burma (Myanmar), the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as ‘Southern Tibet’.  Between them lie the China-Nepal border of 885 miles, about which there are no disagreements, and the 265 mile border with Bhutan, over which there are only minor differences concerning such matters as grazing areas, as “China fully respects the territorial integrity and independence of Bhutan.”  The formerly independent country of Sikkim, between Bhutan and Nepal and with a border of 90 miles with China, was absorbed as a State of the Indian Union in 1975 and recognised by China as Indian territory in 2003. 

In what India refers to as the ‘middle sectors’ of the Line, between Aksai Chin and Nepal, there are four small pockets of Chinese-occupied territory claimed by India, and there is further concern on the part of India over frontier tracts in northern Kashmir exchanged between China and Pakistan in March 1963. Their agreement demarcated the boundary between China’s Xinjiang Province and areas  “defence of which is under the actual control of Pakistan,” and is not recognised by India which in May 1962 “drew the attention of the Government of China to the fact that sovereignty over the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir is vested solely in the Indian Union.  Any agreements reached with Pakistan regarding any sector of the boundary of Kashmir would, therefore, have no legal validity.” (The Indian-administered region of Kashmir was included in the State of Jammu and Kashmir which was unilaterally declared “an integral part of India” in 1956.)

On 20 October 1962, after six years of rhetoric, high-level meetings, reciprocated accusations of territorial infringement,  military skirmishing and patrol clashes, Chinese troops attacked Indian forces in Ladakh, abutting Aksai Chin, and in what was then called North East Frontier Agency (created Arunachal Pradesh in 1972), at the east of the Line.  In both areas the Indian army was driven back, with losses officially stated to have been 1,383 killed, 1,696 missing, and 3,966 taken prisoner.  Figures of Chinese casualties have never been provided, but given the intensity of fighting there may have been similar numbers of dead and missing, although there were no Chinese prisoners of war. On 21 November China declared a ceasefire and on 1 December began withdrawing its forces to positions 20 km  “behind the line of actual control which existed between China and India on November 7th, 1959.” 

India’s defeat was caused by a combination of political foolhardiness, overconfident diplomacy, a devious and bungling minister of defence, and flawed leadership by some gravely incompetent senior officers. Great bravery was displayed by thousands of soldiers and junior officers who were ill-served by their government and many of their commanders, having been ill-prepared, poorly-equipped and rushed into the mountain heights without acclimatisation or cold-weather clothing.  An inquiry into the debacle was held, with extremely limited terms of reference (for example, the board was not permitted to interview the army chief or any officers of GHQ or to have access to GHQ records), but the report has still not been released because, as stated to parliament in 2010 by then Defence Minister AK Antony,  its contents  “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.” The statement was criticised by the BJP, notably by Mr Antony’s immediate successor, Arun Jaitley, but after the BJP came to power Jaitley removed his critical blog post on the matter, and it is considered most unlikely that the government of Prime Minister Modi will ever permit publication. (In a particularly cynical display of party politics, on 15 November 2014 a Congress Party official called on the Modi government to release the report.)

In March 2014, however,  the Australian author Neville Maxwell published some of the report on his website (which was promptly blocked) and one interesting revelation was the admission that “We [India] acted on a militarily unsound basis of not relying on our own strength but rather on believed lack of reaction from the Chinese.”  This is hardly of “current operational value” but is certainly indicative of a lesson from the past that would be relevant to any future action.

The origins of the Sino-Indian border dispute lie in British colonial boundary policy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Britain’s frontier objectives were designed to ensure the security and continuing supremacy of its empire,  but in many instances this involved delimitation rather than demarcation,  in that borders were determined by written agreement and,  preferably,  treaties, and did not necessarily – or even often – involve the definition of geographical boundaries by construction of physical indicators such as pillars, fences or survey sub-bases (known as ‘trig points’ – trigonometrically surveyed stone markers inscribed with geographical coordinates).  According to Maxwell,  the ‘McMahon Line’ of 1914 between British India and Tibet “was accepted by an exchange of letters between [Sir Henry] McMahon and the Tibetan plenipotentiary  . . . [and] included no verbal description of the new boundary and made no mention of any principle on which it had been drawn.”

Added to this source of potential future discord was the fact that subsequent independent governments seeking control of frontier regions could have quite different interpretations of historical accords.  Measures and agreements considered essential for protection and furtherance of empire would rarely be acceptable to sovereign nations that emerged from colonial suzerainty;  neither would they be welcomed by adjacent countries whose governments often considered territorial arrangements entered into by their predecessors as having no relevance to the requirements and imperatives of coexisting with a nationally conscious and sometimes prickly neighbour.

Irrespective of the claims and contentions in over half a century by the governments of India and China it is in their own best interests to solve their differences,  but there is little international optimism that there will be progress towards territorial resolution.

Regular meetings are held to discuss border problems, and the Indian record of the last discussions stated that “the 17th round of talks between the Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question, Shri Shivshankar Menon, National Security Advisor and Mr. Yang Jiechi, State Councillor took place in New Delhi on 10-11 February 2014. The talks were held in a candid, friendly and constructive atmosphere.”  But in spite of the agreeable atmosphere, nothing was achieved.

It seems that there may be new resolve on the part of India to move towards settlement, as Reuters reported in November 2014 that “India named its powerful national security adviser as a special envoy on China, opening the way for resumption of talks on the disputed border, where tensions have risen in recent months over border patrols and stiffer defences.  Ajit Doval, a close aide of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will lead the negotiations with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi to try and reach a settlement on dispute over the 3,500-km (2,175-mile) border that has clouded rapidly expanding commercial ties.”  Talking is certainly better than fighting, but even better than that would be recognition by each side that the other may have valid arguments.

Politically, economically, and especially militarily, the areas adjacent to the Line of Actual Control are receiving exceptional attention by China and India.  Substantial numbers of troops are being deployed on both sides of the Line (India is forming a 90,000-strong ‘Strike Corps’ in the north east), and there have been major deployments of combat aircraft to upgraded air bases.  The sinews of war-readiness are tightening;  the muscles are being flexed.  Only the minds remain in limbo. 

It is apparent that both governments are intent on reinforcing their positions concerning sovereignty to the extent that compromise involving exchanges of territory — for example, recognition by China that Arunachal Pradesh is a State of India in exchange for acceptance by India that Aksai Chin is Chinese — is becoming ever less likely.  But such agreement would be a massive step forward for both countries, and for the world. 

India would be well-advised to bear in mind Maxwell’s wise observation that “the lessons [of the 1962 war] are that China is conflict-averse and will do all it can to reach peaceful solutions, but it can't be pushed around and will never back away from defending what it sees as its basic security concerns. If the issue becomes fight or surrender, the PRC will always fight.”  That’s the last thing any of us would wish.