From Buddhism travelling to China from India in the ancient days and the "Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai" slogan in the heydays of friendship, to the scuffle in the Galwan valley earlier this month that led to casualties on both sides, India and China's bilateral relationship has been through highs and lows over the centuries. But the modern day spats between the two countries are rooted deeply in the colonial legacy left by the British.
India and China are divided by a tricky border, which can be sub-categorised as the western, central and eastern sectors. While the problem with the eastern border can be attributed to the 1914 Shimla Convention and the creation of the McMahon Line, the problem in the western frontier goes back another half a century.
The disputed region of Galwan Valley where the recent fray broke out between the two countries is close to Aksai Chin, a region claimed by India and administered by China. And this has a lot to do with how the British rulers marked, unmarked and demarked the area over decades for almost a century.
Following the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar, when the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was established which included Ladakh, WH Johnson—a British officer—was tasked with demarcating the boundary. In 1865, he suggested a border that presented Aksai Chin as part of Kashmir. This was later endorsed by Sir John Ardagh in 1897, the then British Director of Military Intelligence.
In his book, India's Armed Forces: Fifty Years of War and Peace, Ashok Krishna, a retired Major General of the Indian Army wrote, "British expeditions penetrating the uninhabited wastes of the mountains north of Kashmir found that the choice of boundary lay between the Karakoram range of mountains, which formed the watershed, and the Kuen Lun range, some 70 miles farther north. In order to secure the high ground, defenders are generally tempted to push their defences forward. Hence, the British Director of Military Intelligence, Sir John Ardagh, urged in 1897 that the line of the Kuen Lun should be claimed. This had been recommended by an officer of the Indian Survey, Johnson, who had led an expedition to the area in 1865… It was, therefore, known as the Johnson-Ardagh Line."
However, there was a problem. The British Viceroy Lord Elgin objected to it. He felt that maintaining India's claim to the area might create difficulties with China and suggested an alternative: the Macartney Line.
Hung Ta-chen, a senior Chinese official, shared the region's maps with the British consul general in Kashgar, George Macartney, in 1893. According to Ashok Krishna's book cited earlier, the new line "skirted the northern edge of the Karakoram mountains, but left the plateau between them and the Kuen Lun to Tibet, and, therefore, to China". In 1899, this line was presented to the Chinese by a British diplomat and soldier, Sir Claude MacDonald, as the Macartney-Macdonald Line. China however, did not reply to this, but it was adopted by the British. It was assumed by some quarters that the Qing government in China accepted the boundary.
What followed in the next few decades was uncertainty. The British, while until 1908 accepted the Macartney-Macdonald Line as the boundary between India and China, officially acknowledged the Johnson-Ardagh Line after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that led to the fall of the Chinese central power. And in 1927, the British government again decided to "readjust their version of the frontier", as mentioned in India's Armed Forces: Fifty Years of War and Peace. And even at the time of India's independence in 1947, the British had not been able to resolve the demarcation of the western border between India and China. Nor did the British discuss this with China or Tibet.
And border disputes between India and China on all three frontiers, especially the western and the eastern frontiers, continued.
True, India was the second non-Communist country, after Myanmar, to recognise the People's Republic of China in 1950. And even before that, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's show of sympathy for the Chinese—sending a special medical team to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938 and the boycotting of Japanese goods—demonstrate the soft corner India had for its neighbour, struggling for freedom like itself.
But it all took a u-turn in the fifties, when both countries tried to define their borders after finally breaking free from British imperialism. The border disputes became more apparent after India prepared a concrete map marking all frontiers in approximation of the Johnson-Ardagh Line in the west and the McMahon Line in the eastern parts of its border with China. Similarly, China Pictorial, an official Chinese monthly magazine, in July 1958, published a map of China, depicting—according to The Indian Express as published in an article titled, "Why Ladakh matters to India, China: history, geography, and strategy" dated, June 19, 2020—"large parts of the North East Fr ontier Agency (NEFA) and the Himalayan territory of Ladakh as part of China".
Despite the common anti-imperialist sentimentality and the show of support for each other during trying times, the colonial legacy of the British finally prevailed. With tensions brewing across the border, it didn't take long for full-fledged war to break out in 1962: the First Sino-Indian War. A sort of a demarcation, which later came to be known as the Line of Actual Control—a contested and vaguely marked border between India and China, based loosely on the multiple lines the British had drawn between the two countries—was formed following the 1962 war. But bloodshed over disputed borders did not stop just there.
It was followed by the Second Sino-Indian War in 1967, also known as the Nathu La and Cho La clashes, a series of skirmishes that took place between September and October in the eastern frontier. According to an article titled, "India-China Border Dispute: A Conflict Explained", published by The New York Times on June 17, 2020, at least 1,000 Indian troops and around 800 Chinese military soldiers died in the 1962 war; and the 1967 war claimed the lives of around 150 Indian soldiers and 340 Chinese troops. Although that was the last time before the June 15 clashes soldiers had been killed on either side, the disputed border remains a bone of contention for the two Asian giants, much to the dismay of the region.
For one, both India and China are major players in the social-economic landscape of the region. Countries such as Bangladesh, which consider both India and China as important neighbours and share strong bilateral ties with both, would not want tensions to escalate further between the two.
The economic fallout from any unrest between India and China would have major consequences for all the countries involved in trade with these two nations—almost all of their Asian neighbours. In 2019, Bangladesh's exports to India crossed USD one billion, according to the Export Promotion Council of India, as reported by a local Bangladeshi financial daily. During the corresponding period, China's imports from Bangladesh was USD 1.4 billion.
For now, the fire seems to have receded to some extent—despite the fears of the neighbouring countries, cooler heads seem to have prevailed. Both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, in trying to deescalate the situation have demonstrated their maturity, prudence and wisdom as leaders of two of the fastest growing countries in the world, and nothing less is expected from them, given the important positions they hold in regional and world politics.
The nationalist agenda of both the governments makes it very challenging for them to assuage the concerns of their equally nationalist peoples, but pursuing the June 15 incident with attacks and counterattacks or severing of economic ties cannot be the solution.
While some elements in their knee-jerk reactions are calling for India to cut-off trade ties with China—and as a consequence of this the Indian Railways has indeed "scrapped project contracts awarded to multiple Chinese companies" as reported by TRT World—neither country should follow this path.
If anything, now more than ever, both countries should focus on strengthening their economic relationship to cushion the damages caused by their military misadventures in the Galwan Valley. More economic gains, happier people and prosperity will act as healing agents to tend to the deep wounds both have endured for decades, especially in the latter half of the last century. And both, along with their neighbours, including Bangladesh, should work together to strengthen regional bodies such as BIMSTEC, ASEAN, AIIB and other economic platforms for stronger multilateral ties.
India right now might be feeling threatened by the Belt and Road initiative of China. The latter too is viewing India's move last year to repeal Article 370 of the Indian constitution—bifurcating Jammu and Kashmir, and changing Ladakh's status to a separate union territory from a region in J&K—as a way of asserting Indian control over the disputed region. India's recent construction of the 255-km Darkbuk-Shyok-DBO road along its side of the LAC has also raised concerns for the Chinese. In a complex geo-political environment these concerns are perhaps inevitable. But while suspicion on the political front runs high, both countries must do everything they can to rise above them and find areas of common interest, especially in trade.
According to a recent report by The Indian Express, titled, "Why China trade ban will hurt India more", China accounts for five percent of India's exports and 14 percent of India's imports, while India's imports from China account for three percent of China's total exports and China's imports from India are less than one percent of its total imports. This reveals the room for more trade that can be engaged in by these two nations to further bolster their economies. Pulling the plug on this would be damaging for both the countries, especially when both are grappling to contain a fast-spreading pandemic. The Indian and Chinese economies have had to take the hit of Covid-19, and trade disruptions between the two would only harm both the peoples—pharmaceuticals and related raw materials feature prominently in their trade.
Sending martial art trainers to the Tibetan plateau to train the troops, as China reportedly did immediately before the recent clashes broke out—under a 1996 agreement none of the countries can carry guns or explosives in the area—or flying fighter jets over the flashpoint Himalayan region in an exhibition of its military prowess, as India did a few days back, are not acts of conciliation.
And to add to the worries, a Reuters report from last week suggests that China has built infrastructure in recent days, including bunkers and storage units for military equipment. Even as late as last month, those structures were not there. According to a BBC report, Indian defence analyst Ajai Shukla tweeted that "there is a large Chinese camp in the Galwan Valley, 1.5km into the Indian side of the LAC [Line of Actual Control]". And while neither India nor China has commented on this, the region remains nervous due to these developments.
China should immediately disengage its troops along the LAC in the western sector to fulfil its June 6 commitment, and both countries need to bring down the number of their military forces and armaments along the disputed Himalayan border according to bilateral agreements between the two countries. Any structure or infrastructure that can be cause of concern or dispute should be immediately dismantled by both countries. India and China need to engage in high-level diplomatic negotiations and determine their own borders, and build on the ancient heritage of shared prosperity they have. And it is high time both countries seek peaceful means to resolve the differences.
A war, overt or covert, during a pandemic will push the region back by decades, and Asia cannot afford this. Everything that can be done, should be done, and by all, to prevent a conflict between India and China. Otherwise, the region will become the collateral damage in the fight between the two giants, thanks in part to the legacies left behind by the colonisers.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem