India, China thaw is good but dangers still lurk in relationship

If the recent past is anything to go by, it does not take long for tension to return triggered by a fresh set of developments on the virtual border between the two countries

Modi-Xi
Though India is only the 12th in the list of countries that do business with China, in real terms, its importance is higher than what its position suggests. PTI file.

China has partially disengaged its troops from the border in Ladakh, and it’s all good. New Delhi is in the process of clearing a slew of FDI proposals from Beijing, the media is going gung-ho about how the freeze has thawed and business is back on track with India’s mercurial neighbour.

According to reports, a Chinese official has indicated that President Xi Jinping may even visit Delhi for the BRICS (organisation comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit later this year.

Sections of the media have focussed on the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the Pangong Tso (lake, in the Tibetan language) area while only reporting in passing India’s concomitant disengagement from the strategic heights it occupied on the southern bank of the lake, near Mount Kailash.

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China’s withdrawal is, no doubt, a positive development as it reduces tensions on the border and in its relationship with India. But the real relief will come only when the Chinese troops back off from the areas they have occupied on the border since May 2020. Hot Springs, Gogra Post, Demchok and Depsang Plains to the north are crucial areas where the troops still need to disengage.

In the case of Depsang, reports have pointed out that the Chinese troops have been in the area since 2013 and their presence could threaten India’s access to its strategically located airfield called Daulet Beg Oldie (DBO).

The other grey area concerns India’s disengagement from the heights near Mount Kailash to the south of the Pangong Tso. These heights that India occupied in August 2020 halted China’s southward movement and resulted in a standoff that lasted until the recent disengagement. The question is: the next time round, what if China decides to move into the area that India has withdrawn from? There are no easy answers.

By the time, India wakes up to the transgression, the Chinese troops will already be there as they have the requisite technology to move fast in the tough Himalayan ranges.

Also read: India, China withdrawing troops from Pangong Tso lake: Chinese military

At present, these worries seem relegated to the backburner as the official mood in both countries is one of rapprochement. India’s former Army Chief and Union Minister for Surface Transport, Gen V K Singh’s contentious statement a couple of weeks ago where he appeared to let China off the hook on the transgressions was clearly a precursor to the thaw that followed. As if on cue, once the Pangong disengagement completed, reports appeared signalling India’s willingness to clear at least 45 major investment proposals from China.

The return to normalcy between India and China is good news, but the challenge is to ensure that the relationship remains on an even keel. If the recent past is anything to go by, it does not take long for tension to return triggered by a fresh set of developments on the virtual border between the two countries.

For example, the next round of talks on disengagement from the Gogra Post is to begin soon. Chances are it may not pose a major challenge.

The stumbling block will be in the talks to disengage from the Depsang Plains since China, according to some reports, has occupied that area for the last eight years and the strategic interests are much higher as it is south of the Karakoram Pass and to the west of Aksai Chin. It also overlooks the highway connecting Tibet to Xinjiang province. Depsang’s strategic value cannot be understated for all these reasons and more.

Also read: Despite border tensions, China retains top spot as India’s trade partner

In the current context, whatever resolution happens in the Ladakh region to India’s west and in the Arunachal Pradesh area to the east it is at best only a band-aid solution in the absence of a mutually-recognised international border.

Until the two countries arrive at a negotiated settlement, irrespective of whatever has been proposed earlier or using earlier proposals, uncertainty and mutually-exclusive claims will continue depending on the political expedience of the governments in New Delhi and Beijing.

And, this is bound to cast a shadow on whatever progress is made in other areas of relationship between the countries. The elephant in the room is the irrefutable fact that China and India will remain neighbours forever and the sooner that fact is accepted the better it is for the two.

The present thaw, for example, is attributed to China’s long-term economic interests in India. Though India is only the 12th in the list of countries that do business with China, in real terms, its importance is higher than what its position suggests.

For Beijing, which in the last couple of decades has established strong bonds with countries in South Asia including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, the only stumbling block is India. Unlike the others its relationship with India is forever stained following the 1962 conflict.

The inherent suspicion in sections of India’s ruling elite vis-a-vis China is something that Beijing would need to take into account and the best way to obviate this fact of history is to put its best foot forward.

China, however, is far from taking this approach as seen in its actions on the border. At the same time, it has made no secret of its wish to have India in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that would result in much greater trade involvement.

In the case of India, since the economic reforms of 1991, trade has opened up with China to an extent where it is difficult for any government in New Delhi to ignore ground realities. Following the Galwan clashes in June 2020, after all the manufactured outrage, all that the Modi government managed to do was to ban some apps and put on hold a few projects while introducing rules making it difficult for Chinese companies to do business with India.

In the latest figures for 2020, China remained India’s largest trading partner with $77.7 billion worth overall business.

In other words, India risks unsettling its own economy if it attempts to block China’s business involvement. The range of dependence is varied and cuts across crucial areas including heavy machinery, pharmaceuticals, telecom and infrastructure projects.

The conclusion is too obvious to ignore, which is in a globalised world, it is better if the governments of the two countries wake up to the fact that friendly relationship is beneficial rather than mutual animosity. And the key to it is simple: permanently resolve the border dispute.

 

 

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