A war was fought 60 years ago that continues — to a considerable extent — define the relationship between the two Asian giants

by Jaideep Saikia

One of the most important security challenges of modern India is the continuing impasse that characterises the India-China boundary. A war was fought 60 years ago that continues — to a considerable extent — to define the relationship between the two Asian giants. Indeed, there have been attempts from both sides to bury the past and make a new beginning that would become the “path cordiale” between the two countries. After all, not only are both countries being pushed to the brink of greater alienation and consequently severe economic and military strain as a result of the animosity, but deviation from aspects that should have occupied both the country’s growth trajectory. It must also be comprehended that there are extra-regional powers that would like to keep India and China at loggerheads. It suits the purpose of such powers because China’s continued involvement with the border with India will not allow it to focus on its primary objectives including Taiwan.

But to hark back to history, there were attempts by China to equitably solve the boundary question by seeking to engineer an East-West Swap. The swap proposal was simply China retaining the territories—including Aksai Chin—in the west while India keeps everything it possesses in the east. Most observers of the India-China boundary are of the opinion that such a “package proposal” that bases itself on the “as-is-where-is” line is the most pragmatic of solutions. Indeed, in the words of CV Ranganathan, India’s ambassador to China from 1987 to 1991, “the record of over five decades since India’s independence and China’s ‘liberation’ shows that the Indians and Chinese need to break out of a historical pattern—in which they have unilaterally projected their best hopes and their worst fears upon the mixed realities of the two countries” (Chapter on China in “External Affairs; Cross-Border Relations” Lotus Collection, 2003, General Editor: JN Dixit). To that end (and once again quoting Ranganathan) “both India and China would have to give up the high degree of self-righteousness that has marked the attitudes of both sides when they first confronted their differences in the later 50s of the last century”. As the celebrated India-China observer and author of the book “Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century”, John W Garver has written, “Both the (proposals) seem, to this author, to have been sincere efforts to improve Indian-Chinese relations fundamentally”. In this context it must be recorded that China was faced with “multiple grave security concerns along its eastern frontier — with the United States in Korea, the Taiwan Strait, and Laos. Each of these regions was tense and required substantial deployments of Chinese forces…The Great Leap Forward had gone awry…In this situation Mao did not want to add hostility with India to the list of problems confronting China. Thus he ordered Zhou to propose concessions…” (Ibid, Garver, Page 101).

It would also be of interest to the reader that top Chinese scholar and boundary expert, Wang Hongwei (who wrote an article in 2003 along with this author titled “Giants at Peace”) had stated that “Non recovery of the entire southern slope (south of the McMahon Line: Author) could not really be considered “disgrace (for the Chinese: Author) by selling out territory because China’s case for ownership of all that region was actually rather weak”.

However, the fact remains that the Chinese have been shifting their goalposts. The shift in Beijing’s position coincided with the Sumdorong Chu crisis. It seems that China “intended to underline its new, active claim in the east”. The proposal of April 1960 which Ranganathan states was an “opportunity lost for the settlement of the boundary” and which Nehru had “turned down” because “he was egged on by some hard-line cabinet colleagues and some vocal right wing political parties” (Ibid, Page 140). But the “package proposal” was repeated in 1979 when the then Indian foreign minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China. An Indian Express news item of 22 February 1979 states that Vajpayee informed the Indian parliament that “his talks with Chinese leaders had “unfrozen” the border issue which has bedevilled relations between India and China for 19 years.” It has been stated by observers including Ranganathan that “during that visit when he (Vajpayee) met Deng Xiaoping, the latter repeated in broad terms what Chou-en-Lai offered in 1960”. But as aforesaid, Beijing had shifted goalpost which according to former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran — during a webinar on India-China boundary which was hosted by this author on 30 August 2020 — was a clear departure from the earlier Chinese accommodative disposition. The reason for this departure was because of the enhanced strength that had come China’s way vis-a-vis India. One does not have to master rocket science to comprehend that China is willing to make concessions only when it perceives India to be in a relatively strong position, or when its own position is weak.

Therefore, the most important aspect that needs to be examined is (a) why the Chinese went back on the “package proposal”. The matter is even more bewildering as Shyam Saran had stated (in the webinar above) that the Chinese had added a rider that the Indian side should be happy with the East-West Swap proposal because the “eastern side is far better endowed with natural resources as compared to the west”. This about-face needs serious examination along with an analysis of (b) what should henceforth be the Indian stand that would make Beijing revisit and once again offer the East-West Swap proposal?

In order to understand the above, it is important to closely study the reasons for which the 15 June 2020 intrusion in Galwan as well as the one in Yangtse on 9 December 2022 took place. This author has made a careful study of both the incidents and has come to the conclusion that the intrusion in Galwan was primarily geared towards messaging (a) the United States that it could not use India as a countervail to China (b) caution India’s neighbours that India cannot be relied upon for their security and most importantly (c) to straitjacket India to its land commitments and from attempting to venture into the maritime domain that the People’s Republic wants to be their sole preserve. It is another matter that the Indian state (read: Indian armed forces) was able to call Beijing’s bluff and Galwan (notwithstanding the fact that certain military gains were “achieved” by China) did not translate into the larger strategic objectives that were sought.

In Yangtse the Chinese objective was different and had to be comprehended in light of the new Chinese “Land Border Law’ which came into effect from 1 January 2022. In the opinion of this author, Beijing was constructing a “Second Great Wall of China” and was consolidating its land boundaries. Walls, it must be realised, are built to keep away invaders. The Great Wall of China was constructed to stave off invasive attempts by nomadic hordes from the Eurasian Steppe. Therefore, the Great Wall of China — constructed from the 7th century BC — is for fortification. But it also implies that China would not “cross the wall” onto the other side. Indeed, therein lies the reason for the enactment of the “Land Border Law”. But in the bid to seek correct consolidation, China wants escarpments which would constitute its “Second Great Wall”. Yangtse (as was described by this author in an earlier column) is an eyesore for the PLA. The elevated position in which the Indian Army stands characterises an unacceptable platform for the fortification it seeks. Hence the attempt to occupy the spur on the night of 9 December 2022.

But the most important question before the Indian state is how to get China to resurrect its East-West Swap proposal. Serious analysis states that Beijing has to be forced into it by showcasing India’s prowess. However, the power differential between India and China is vast and it would not be possible for India to catch up with China’s economic or military might. The answer, therefore, is only in India creating deft moves that forces China to acknowledge India’s aggressive moves in global fora. Quad, entering into military alliances with China’s adversaries and conducting exercises such as “Yudh Abhyas” or “Exercise Malabar” are good openings. The last Indo-US “Yudh Abhyas” conducted in Uttarakhand’s Auli in November 2022 rattled Beijing, and over two decades ago (2002), during this author’s visit to China, Think Tank leaders in Beijing informed him that they were very uneasy about India aligning herself with countries such as the United States. Sensing an opening this author had countered by querying as to why China was supporting India’s arch enemy, Pakistan. The answer was “Oh, never mind Pakistan. India and China should befriend each other on their own terms. Pakistan must not be allowed to come between two brothers”. It was obvious that India’s proximity with China’s rivals perturbs Beijing. The stratagem that India should adopt should, therefore, be to build a “position of strength” by exploiting China’s Achilles Heel, her nervousness as a result of India coming into alliances with its opponents. This is particularly so at this time when China braces herself for a Taiwan scenario. The “position of strength” that would be garnered should accompany “Track II” level overtures that must also forcefully suggest Chinese revival of the East-West Swap of 1960 and 1979. It must become the “Indian Way” to advantage herself by arraying careful “chess pathways”.

As the present Indian external affairs minister, S Jaishankar has written in his tour-de-force “The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World”, “The India Way, especially now, would (should: this author’s emphasis) be more of a shaper or decider rather than just be an abstainer”. The Himalayan move in the chessboard would be able to engineer such a smart manoeuvre.

The author is a conflict theorist and bestselling author. Views expressed are personal