High stakes in the Himalayas | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 07, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:09 PM, July 08, 2020

High stakes in the Himalayas

Border clashes reflect shared suspicion at best and animosity at worst between neighbouring states. The Indo-China border clash is a classic example. India claims the McMahon Line drawn in 1914 including Arunachal Pradesh as its border with China in the north-east and the Johnson Line drawn in 1899 including Aksai Chin in the north. Since China never recognised either of these colonial maps the border remained contested ever since.

Neither has any clear policy on how to mark the border and where. In its absence, both insist its version of the LAC (line of actual control). This led both to clash over it several times. Although an unmarked border is a recipe for clashes, they nevertheless reflect tension on so many other issues of mutual interests, some in the open and some in the background. Though the frequency of the friction has increased in recent times, neither wants to escalate it to a full blown war even if there is no dearth of hostile jingoism on both sides. It seems the only visible policy is to continue with the claim and counterclaim until an accord is reached on multiple key but fuzzy issues in other areas. There is so much at stake. With this background it seems both are testing each other's resolve at the border.

Apart from the fact that there were fatalities on both sides the whole episode is shrouded in such rhetorical statements from both sides that it is very difficult to take an objective view of what really happened. However, two clear statements from the top seem intriguing. On May 14 after one of the off and on border skirmishes, Indian army chief blamed aggressive behaviour by both sides ("Army chief says LAC tensions being resolved along guidelines given after India-China summits", The Print). And on June 19, Prime Minister Modi said, "nobody has intruded into our border, neither is anybody there now, nor have our posts been captured" (The Wire). This is a clear indication that the brawl took place in China's side of the LAC, which India claims is theirs. The PM's office has not retracted this statement. Does it mean India is trying to change the status quo? If so then it's a repetition of India's "Forward Policy" in the late fifties that among many other factors ultimately culminated in the 1962 war.

In the late fifties, India, believing the above mentioned lines to be its international border, started building outposts in the forward regions. Since China didn't recognise the lines right from the start it objected. After many rounds of talks at different levels right from the top down, China offered a compromise to give up claim on Arunachal Pradesh which it considers to be South Tibet; in exchange India should give up claim on Aksai Chin in the north.

India refused, and set a precondition of China giving up Aksai Chin for any further negotiation. (China's Decision for War with India in 1962, John D Garver in New Directions in the Study of China's Foreign Policy). A deadlock ensued, and after a lot of jostling in the border region it came down to a war that ended very badly for India. For the next half a century the border dispute continued to remain calm but unresolved. In the past several years, however, dynamics have changed. India has grown stronger both militarily and economically compared to 1962, and it can now count on the support of the lone superpower of the day. So naturally India may feel confident to try to change the status quo and if possible recover some of its lost ground. It will also regain some of its prestige lost in 1962 while at the same time tell China unless it attends to Indian concerns in several other areas it runs the risk of facing a hostile India and perhaps eventually a formidable frontline state of US's China containment policy.

In 1962, three key hazy issues played a vital role behind the scene in the hardening of position on the border issue in both states. Because India had given refuge to the Dalai Lama and moral support to the Tibetan insurgency China wrongly concluded India wanted to grab Tibet, moreover, it was also concerned that India was trying to harm its prestige in the third world. India wrongly assumed if it kept on erecting the border posts China will not fight back because Aksai Chin was Indian territory, which of course China considered a colonial border and never accepted ("India's China War", Neville Maxwell). Though such conjectures were never part of any official negotiations, they were discussed in the corridors of power in both the states ("China's India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World", Bertil Lintner). Such gross misconceptions contributed in triggering the war.

This time also the border issue hides the tussle over a range of burning issues that are never mentioned in the official dialogues but looms in the background, which each expect the other to understand. Differing perceptions on these become a source of tension in both states. If they are not amicably settled, conflict resolution on the border issue will be a far cry. 

First, Kashmir being a highly sensitive issue for India; it expects China to have a hands off policy on how India deals with it, especially in its border regions. Second, India wants China to recognise the McMahon Line as the international border. Third, India's huge trade gap with China keeps widening each year; unlike the US it can't start a trade war but expects China to address it positively. Four, India is wary of China's strategic alliance with Pakistan and wants a freehand in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. These are India's wish lists. But it is also aware of China's economic strength and its dependence on it. On June 17, just a day after the brawl in the border, India received a credit of USD 750 million from the Chinese development bank. While China's sharp response is a way of telling India not to get too cosy with the US, it also needs India's vast market for investments as well as selling its products. Can either do without the other? Negotiations on the non-border areas are urgently needed.

Is India willing to become the frontline state of the US's imperial game plan of containing China that may not only ruin the entire subcontinent but well lead to an Asia wide destabilisation? The US has been goading India for some time to become just that, but India till now was unwilling to fall in line. On the other hand, is China seriously willing to push India into such an alliance with the US that may lead to facing the Quad in China's eastern seaboard while simultaneously facing a fearsome enemy to the south? If both India and China are unable to find some common ground, God help us all.

Taking sides in this battle of nerves between two giant neighbours is a luxury Bangladesh can't afford. Rather as a friend, a trading partner, a close neighbour to both, it can only wish that good sense will prevail and both sides find a solution in negotiations rather than in conflict.


Ali Ahmed Ziauddin is a researcher and activist. Email: aliahmedziauddin@gmail.com

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