A month ahead of Li Keqiang- the new Chinese premier’s planned visit to India, Chinese troops yet again played their game by sneaking into Indian territory. This time, unlike earlier incursions, they pitched tents in the Depsang Bulge area of Ladakh. While several flag meetings on the ground and certain diplomatic pressures helped persuade the Chinese troops to retreat, some analysts confronted that it also called for the dismantling of the Chumar bunkers in Ladakh that Indian armies had built earlier.
Though the recent border standoff between the Asian giants eased, Chinese experts warn of more incidents like these against India. Initially, when the Depsang Bulge incident happened, the government of India downplayed the incursion. This may be because India wants to prepare for a grand red carpet reception for the visiting Li. But with the seriousness of what happened in Depsang Bulge and its future implications on India’s security, both the civilian and the military leaders were on their feet to discuss possible ways to push back the intruding Chinese troops.
The Sino-India border problem is a long pending predicament, existing in the heart of the relationship between the two countries. Despite the rhetoric slogan of mutual cooperation between the two nations, the border issue is considered the most important problem, which needs to be resolved. However, it is difficult to do so considering the legacy attached to the border. Historically speaking, the India-China border sharing started only after China’s brutal occupation of Tibet in 1959. So it is considered as a contemporary and newly-formed border.
For centuries, India and Tibet shared their physical border all along the Himalayan ranges, which act as a natural barrier. But since India inherited the British legacy after its independence, the complexity of the border became a headache for Independent India. In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, Great Britain played many ambiguous games along the borders, which helped facilitate their control over Asia. For instance, British India had different versions of the border on the western sector. This multiplicity of borders created a complexity in choosing the line of actual control. So far, both India and China have not shared their border maps. At least we know that India has something to validate their stand on the border, but does China possess any historical map to show their border with India? In 1914, China was involved in the Shimla Conference but was not a signatory to the agreement in sharing the border called the McMohan Line. Tibetan Minister Lonchen Shatra was the plenipotentiary of the Independent Tibetan government.
Even after a series of India-China border talks, no tangible solution is in sight. Now, with the recent border incursion, it is high time that India examines why border talks with China are not working and why Chinese troops frequently enter into its territories. Since 2010, Chinese incursions have happened more than 500 times. While observing the nature of Chinese incursions over the years, China seems to be getting serious with the borders which they want to claim by force and not by talks. They know that talks will not help them as they don’t have sufficient or valid claims over the territories. Rather, their physical presence may empower them to control the area and they did it this time. While still examining India’s politico-public sentiments on the border issue, they are waiting for statements like ‘not even the blade of grass grows’ there, that can create a space to roll a welcome carpet to the intruding Chinese troops.
Earlier in 2009, Chinese helicopters crossed into Indian airspace and dropped expired tin cans. Later, they violated the international border and painted boulders with Chinese characters. The flag meetings may have defused the current problem, but for a long term resolution of such border issues, India needs to be careful of its softness towards China. Until it resolves, there is a possibility that such border incursions will create major political, diplomatic and security problems in India.
Why are the Sino-India border talks not working?
Historical Challenges:India is so far adopting the British legacy over the border, while China does not, which creates a problem in understanding the Sino-India border. As mentioned earlier, India and Tibet used to share the historical border and China came to the scene recently. The current evolution of the Sino-India border remains problematic from all fronts. It is therefore to be considered a historical challenge which could be interpreted as a clash of legacy v/s non-legacy. As Chinese experts have suggested, greater wisdom, determination and courage is needed for the proper settlement of the border problems. It would be interesting to question them of their wisdom, determination and courage for intruding into Indian territories, which they claim not as disputed, but as their own territory. This is visible enough if one sees the banner that the Chinese armies hold at Depsang, which says “You’ve crossed the border, Please Go back”.
Lack of political will:China has resolved most of its border problems with other neighbouring countries, except India. It is the lack of China’s political will, that is deliberately being used by the Chinese leaders to antagonise India. Since both the countries are rising powers with considerable military, diplomatic and economic potentials, standing neck to neck with each other as a competitor if not as an enemy. With the prevailing border problem, China plays the carrot and stick game with India. It is evident that China has nothing to lose and clearly stands in the advantage position, ready for claiming the disputed areas like Tawang. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, earlier reiterated that Tawang belongs to India. Interestingly, border infrastructures are more sophisticated in China than in India, which could poise a military threat to India.
Party’s Command: Mao’s declaration of Tibet as a palm and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and North East Frontier Association (NEFA, the modern Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh) as its five fingers still runs high in the mindset of Chinese political leaders. With the recent territorial disputes with Japan, China claims that territorial integrity is their core interest. China will not go loose on the command of their helmsman and are serious about their expansionism. Such rhetoric chants of Chinese leaders became policies, as history witnessed. With Xi Jinping’s new slogan of the Chinese Dream to cultivate mass nationalism, the Sino-India border issues could become problematic in the future.
While observing the recent episode of incursion, many Indian experts, leaders and the media spoke, wrote and expressed their opinions. But many of them did not touch the crux of the problem and minimised the role which Tibet can play in resolving the border problem in the future. In all the above points in which the border talks failed, the Tibet issue takes centre stage. The Chinese troops might have retreated this time, but they will come back again. In order to have a lasting solution, India must highlight the Tibet issue. Until now, the Tibet issue was buried under and not highlighted whenever the Sino-India border problems cropped up. Resolving the Tibet issue will certainly help India’s security and sustainability on the border, which is vulnerable to China.
The Sino-India border issue has its inherited roots with Tibet, as they shared a historical border for thousands of years. Tibet has established a cultural affinity and bond with the Himalayan people and it is in India’s advantage to address the Tibet issue on the discussion table, especially at this critical period of Tibetan history. Not only on border problems, but also to safeguard India’s ecology, the Tibet issue must be raised with dignity and power, without the fear of objection from the Chinese counterparts. But while talking of India using Tibet as an asset or a liability, it is important that such a usage should consider the aspirations of the Tibetan people.
(The author is Media Co-ordinator, Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. However, this article is the personal opinion of the author)