Resolve the border dispute, don’t just “manage” it - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 13 August 2014

Resolve the border dispute, don’t just “manage” it

By Ajai Shukla
China-India Brief #33
Centre for Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
Available at:

The election of every new government in New Delhi generates speculation over the possibility of a new Indian approach towards China. Narendra Modi’s election as India’s new prime minister has occasioned such conjecture, especially given his public acceptance of the “China model” --- firm governance, infrastructure building and the creation of manufacturing jobs. In July, Modi had a long and cordial meeting with China’s president, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil. Modi’s foreign policy emphasis on India’s neighbourhood makes it inevitable that China would be high in his priorities.

Like his predecessors, Modi believes that resolving the Sino-Indian territorial dispute is an essential pre-requisite for unlocking the full economic potential of the relationship. “If India and China could amicably resolve the boundary question, it would set an example for the entire world, on peaceful conflict resolution," he told Xi in Fortaleza.

The Chinese president, less keenly focused on the boundary question, invited India to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November, and to “deepen its engagement” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation --- which India desires. Xi acknowledged Indian concerns about an unfavourable trade balance with China, endorsing New Delhi’s longstanding plea that facilitating the import of Indian software services to China would make the trade relationship more equitable. Like Chinese leaders before him, Xi appeared to regard the border issue as too complex to tackle successfully; and, therefore, best placed on the backburner while Sino-Indian relations are taken forward through commercial ties and people-to-people interaction. This is a mistaken perception.

Modi correctly assesses that the poison of mutual suspicion, unless drained, will prevent the relationship from blooming. As an elected prime minister with years of experience in democratic politics and in tune with the mood of his people, Modi knows that, as long as the border remains contested, he will face public scepticism of, and opposition to, every step that brings India closer to China. As a politician who has played the nationalist card opportunistically, he understands that his political opponents will unhesitatingly play the same card against him.

This vulnerability gets highlighted after every border incident, when the Indian media whips up sentiment against “Chinese aggression”. This feeds on the angst from India’s humiliating defeat in 1962, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) routed ill-prepared and badly positioned Indian forces in the disputed regions of Ladakh and the North East Frontier Province (later Arunachal Pradesh). The Indian narrative, entrenched in the national psyche, is one of “Chinese deceit” and “back-stabbing”. Few notice that the 4,057-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC) --- the de facto border --- is one of India’s most peaceful frontiers. Instead, relatively inconsequential border incidents serve as reminders that China is now unwilling to settle the border on terms that then premier, Zhou En-lai, had proposed in the late 1950s; and other leaders had offered into the early 1980s --- viz, an “east-for-west” swap, with China keeping Aksai Chin while India retains Arunachal Pradesh, or South Tibet as Beijing calls it. Having hardened that position, China today demands Indian “concessions in the East”, which is widely interpreted as a demand for the strategic Tawang area. It would be politically inconceivable for any Indian leader to hand over to China this tract, thickly populated by Buddhists of the politically influential, and strongly anti-China, Monpa tribe. India would see it as loyal Monpas being thrown under the wheels of the Chinese bus.

Chinese public opinion plays a smaller role in shaping Zhongnanhai’s position on the border, since the controlled media can be held off from reporting on this. Yet, successive Chinese leaders have seen greater benefit in “managing” the border, rather than resolving the fundamental dispute. True, the LAC has not seen a shot fired in almost four decades, and peace has been institutionalized through a series of agreements: the 1993 “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control”; the 1996 “Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control”; Standard Operating Procedures framed in 2005; and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013. Even so, China is miscalculating in choosing to manage, rather than resolve, the boundary question.

This is so for two important reasons. First, Beijing gravely underestimates the Indian consensus on refusing territorial concessions in Arunachal Pradesh. Second, no strategic advantage that Beijing could derive from controlling Tawang would compensate for having a permanently alienated India along the Tibet border. It would be almost as short sighted as Beijing’s decision to attack India in 1962. On the other hand, a border settlement with India would dramatically reduce the likelihood of India joining hands with the US against China; defuse the permanent threat to China posed by a restive Tibetan exile community in India; and open the floodgates for Chinese infrastructure companies to participate in major projects in India.

Notwithstanding Beijing’s current position, China’s leaders could some day see the advantages of a comprehensive, “east-for-west”, border settlement. New Delhi is being lax in failing to prepare Indian public opinion for the jolt of ceding territory to China and reshaping the map of India. The first step towards this would be to abandon the Indian narrative of victimhood in 1962. India and its people must begin to accept the unpalatable truth --- that, through the 1950s, India was arbitrary, implacable and bull-headed in refusing to mutually delineate the border, even though it lacked the military muscle to back its stance of “no negotiations with the Chinese.” While Beijing was short-sighted in choosing war with India, New Delhi’s provocative “Forward Policy”, which involved pushing troops into disputed areas, may have left China with little choice.

Who will bell this Indian cat? Fortunately, there is a convenient narrative that the new government has at hand --- the Henderson Brooks Report (HBR), which, in the aftermath of the 1962 defeat, scathingly indicted India’s politico-military leadership, blaming Indian miscalculation and incompetence more than Chinese deviousness for the debacle. Disseminating that message across India would be essential for any territorial give-and-take with China.

Unwisely, New Delhi has chosen not to bite the bullet. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, who had promised earlier this year to make public the Henderson-Brooks report, has inexplicably changed his mind. Last month, he told parliament that there was no plan to declassify the report. This is unwise, even though there is no acceptable border settlement on the table just yet. India’s leaders need time to prepare public opinion, and New Delhi benefits in no way from maintaining entrenched animosities.

The leaders in both capitals need to arrive at a shared vision for settling the border question. Beijing and New Delhi must work together to overcome the biases of history and open new vistas for both peoples to usher in an Asian century. 


  1. I agree with you that this dispute needs to be settled once for all. However I also believe that both countries have more or less held onto the positions they claimed prior to 1959, except minor territorial gains PLA has made to safeguard bigger strategic vulnerabilities.

  2. It will be impossible for any government to cede the land and change the map of India. All over the world, Akshi Chin is shown as disputed while there could be no people movement in AP due to the existing agreement. China should return the Akshai Chin.-Period. China took Tibet, How much else they want. Most of Tibet's transportation work used to done through India before 1950's. China's intention can be gauged with the kind of land/sea disputes it has all around. China will explode itself oneday due to lack of freedom.

  3. The Arms Import lobby is waiting to trigger something in LAC. This post of yours is great reading. India must propose something as suggested by you, may be also something near Mount Kylas.

  4. India did not lose the 1962 war. Instead, India successfully replused the Chinese invasion. After China's surprise attack (in which it overwhelmed Indian troops outnumbered 8 to 1), the Indian parliament announced that it would retake every inch of Indian territory. Subsequently, the chinese troops retreated back into Chinese territory. India did not lose any territory in this war. Rather, Indian won the war as it succeeded in retaining its territory.

  5. China should give up Tibet. Period.

  6. Did Modi really say the below??

    " 'If India and China could amicably resolve the boundary question, it would set an example for the entire world, on peaceful conflict resolution,' he told Xi in Fortaleza."

    That's something Nehru would say. LOL.

  7. If logic was ever used in such disputes, the Indian sub continent would be more advanced than Europe and US together.


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