At a height of 14,000 feet, Nathu-la was freezing cold with icy winds blowing relentlessly. Peace reigned in the rarefied atmosphere, amidst the spectacular Himalayas. The sky was crystal clear, at its azure best. On a visit to Sikkim during Christmas last December, the border demarcating India and China was relaxed, unlike now.
There were scores of Indian civilians excited on seeing China so close. One of them wished a passing Chinese soldier a “Merry Christmas”. He smiled, nodded and moved on. The minimal interaction brightened the mood in the crowd.
A thin rope is all that divides the two Asian neighbours. All one had to do was lift a leg over the rope and hop onto the other side to be in China. Of course it is easier said than done. You spot a stern Indian soldier on this side and his equally grim Chinese counterpart on the other and quickly dismiss any idea of monkeying around on one of the world’s longest borders stretching across 4000 km, disputed for the most part.
Ideally, there should have been no hostility between two countries that share a civilisational relationship over centuries, sharing cultures, religion and cuisine among others. But that is not the case. For several decades, the two have found themselves politically in opposing camps marked by a war in 1962 whose scars still run deep.
At the same time, since the 1990’s India and China are huge trading partners (worth nearly $ 90 billion) with sizeable stakes in each other’s economies. China is India’s largest trading partner. The not-so-infrequent border flare-ups between the two are full of paradoxes – almost like wrestling with one hand while simultaneously exchanging greetings with the other.
In fact, analysts point out that both countries use the unresolved border dispute as leverage to each other’s advantage. More often than not, it almost seems choreographed rather than being spontaneous.
The current round of physical clashes on May 10 at the Naku-la sector near Sikkim’s Nathu-La crossing and in eastern Ladakh, for instance, comes close on the heels of the controversy over Taiwan’s plea for observer status at the World Health Organisation which China opposes. In the days preceding the clash, India had indicated it would back Taiwan while China had warned New Delhi not to. Eventually, under Beijing’s pressure, the Taiwan issue was put off at the WHO meeting on May 18. Since then, there has also been a downplaying of the clashes on the border with Beijing taking a conciliatory position.
The current stand-off may die down, but the border dispute will continue to simmer. The ground reality in the Himalayas makes it difficult to draw a physical boundary between the two countries given the hostile and unpredictable mountainous terrain. The border, therefore, at a micro level is notional as the thin rope in Nathu-La indicates. This leaves scope for soldiers of either countries to either saunter into territory (inadvertently or deliberately) that the other side sees as trespass.
Oftentimes, a trouble-shooter system devised by the two countries in the form of meetings between border personnel or the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) comes into play and ticklish issues get resolved at a local level. Rarely do the disputes spill over attracting wider attention.
The genesis of the dispute is the boundary line drawn up by the British negotiator Sir Henry McMahon in 1914, at a meeting in Shimla to discuss the Tibetan issue among representatives of British India, China and Tibet. At the meeting, the British recognised Chinese control over Tibet while Britain presented a formal boundary, or the McMahon line, to demarcate the border between India and China. Though the deal was agreed in principle, China walked out without signing the agreement.
For India, from then, the McMahon line became the formal boundary between the two countries. The Chinese questioned the locus standi of the British to draw such a line and refused to recognise it. There has been no change in its position until today.
During the brief period of bonhomie between the two countries after India’s independence, the countries came closest to resolving the border dispute when China, in 1960, offered a territorial swap. As per this, India would have had to give up Aksai Chin in the west in return for China giving up claim to territory in the east, in the Arunachal area.
The offer was not taken up by India, and two years later the dispute escalated into a full-fledged war with China. The war dried up any mutual feeling of trust and since then the relationship has been marred by suspicion on both sides. India, for one, has never been able to live down its defeat to China in that war. Fortunately for India, China moved back its troops from areas in the east it had occupied during the war instead preferring a negotiated settlement to the dispute.
Lurking in the background is the Tibetan issue that has made a resolution difficult. According to some analysts, China may prefer to keep the pot boiling and let India be preoccupied by the border dispute rather than resolve it because peace can be problematic. In the Chinese view, if the dispute is resolved and peace reigns it may give India the space and time to interfere more actively in Tibet.
Already Tibet is a sore point in relationship between the two, as India hosts the Tibetan government in exile at Dharamshala besides accommodating an estimated 150,000 exiles from that disputed region. Potentially, India too can irritate China by using the Tibetan issue to embarrass the government in Beijing.
For India, resolving the border dispute can be problematic as that will involve giving up territory in the western Ladakh region – an idea that any elected government in New Delhi may find difficult to sell to its people.
Over time, the extant dispute has therefore turned into an issue of convenience for the two countries, as both fully understand they have little stake in going to war with each other. So, an unwritten line limits the extent to which border disputes can be ratcheted.
Further, India may be loathe to accept this but the fact is China has made enormous jumps as a global political, military and economic power. For instance, in Doklam in June 2017, India objected to Chinese construction activities resulting in an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff – the worst confrontation since the 1962 conflict. The BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi had come to power in 2014 and possibly wanted to display its “muscular nationalism”.
After 72 days, as tensions increased, New Delhi backed off unilaterally. China continues to retain its position and the infrastructure it constructed in the disputed Doklam region, a fact acknowledged in September 2018 by India’s parliamentary standing committee on external affairs.
The long border, a veritable grey zone between the two countries, is always open to the possibility of a flare-up for a variety of reasons. The latest in eastern Ladakh and Naku-La is ostensibly the result of building activity by China and India on their respective sides of the perceived border. The “consultative” mechanisms and extraneous coincidences like the Taiwan issue have come into play and the stand off is being defused for the time being. Until the next one comes along…