The Resolution of the Sino Indian Boundary Question

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 2, May - Jun 2018
Page No.: 
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An insight into the vexed boundary question between the two nations and the way forward
Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, PVSM, AVSM, SM (Retd)
Friday, May 25, 2018

The informal meeting at Wuhan on 27 and 28 April, between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping, two of the world’s most powerful leaders is indeed historic in many ways. Wuhan provided the perfect setting and optics for the two leaders, both endowed with extraordinary communication skills, to reset the stressed India-China relations in an effort to create conditions for the Asian Century, global peace, progress and prosperity. The connect of Wuhan with chairman Mao Zedong could not have been lost on PM Modi.

There are eight significant takeaways from the meet, however, two of them directly relate to the longstanding vexed “Boundary Question”. This is the key issue and the primary concern of the two leaders and the two nations.  India and China share a 3488 km long disputed border though as per China’s stated stance the disputed border is only 2000 Kms. China also lays claim to  a little over 110,000 Sq kms of India’s territory. The Sino-Indian border is a peculiar set of contradictions, being the longest disputed border in the world as also the most peaceful disputed border, with the last shot in anger fired in October of 1975. A fragile peace  exists ever since, with the disputed borders being the ever present potential driver for conflict between the two nuclear armed neighbours - home to one third of humanity.

The 73 day Doklam standoff between the Indian Army and the PLA and the subsequent buildup of infrastructure and deployment by PLA in North Doklam led to the world’s two largest armies mobilizing part of the forces ostensibly  to conduct large scale training exercises including ‘Gagan Shakti’. There was thus an urgent need to lower the temperatures and ensure continued peace and tranquility along the 3488 km India-China border. Besides being a definite political compulsion for both leaders, it was also a win-win situation for not only India and China but also for the two leaders personally.

For PM Modi, Peace and Tranquility (P&T) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is an imperative to give an impetus to the much hyped national initiatives of development which unfortunately have not yielded the desired results. The defence budget too has been at its lowest adversely impacting defence preparedness, on account of money required for competing priorities of development and job creation. More importantly the increased PLA transgressions post Doklam do not augur well politically with the 2019 elections being not too far. Another incident similar to those at Doklam / Chumar by China will give the opposition a platform to attack the BJP in the upcoming elections, something which it can ill afford. The BJP is determined to win the 2019 elections at all costs and hence any perceived weakness in the face of Chinese aggressiveness along the borders will be detrimental to NDA forming the government. China too on the other hand cannot let India challenge its PLA and power as demonstrated by a resolute response by India in Doklam. The main aim of the meeting thus is to ensure continued P&T along the LAC, till a mutually acceptable solution is worked out which of course is easier said than done.

On the vexed ‘Boundary Question’ the Indian position has been consistent and clear seeking a common understanding of the LAC. The LAC is based on perceptions and there is no common understanding of the LAC on both sides thus leading to transgressions and ‘face offs’ threatening P&T, with an ever present possibility of a skirmish. The long-standing position of both India and China for many years was consistent stating that the “Boundary Question is a complex historical legacy which will take time to resolve and should not hamper the China-India relations.” Differences should not become disputes is what India propagates.

While India continues to maintain this position there has been a major shift in China’s position which has mostly gone unnoticed and hence has apparently not been factored in our China policy. Xi Jinping though appointed in the 18th congress in November 2012 assumed the mantle of being the supreme leader of China, wearing the three all-important hats of Chairman CMC, President of China and the leader of the Communist Party on 14 March 2013. Post the 19th Congress in October 2017 Xi  it is an accepted fact that Xi Jinping is emulating Mao Zedong and aspires to be the core leader of China following in his footsteps. Mao Zedong’s philosophy laid down that China should have inclusive land borders. It is again a matter of debate that he laid down inclusive land borders and not maritime boundaries by default or by design. Implementing Mao’s diktat, China has successfully resolved land borders with 12 of the 14 countries peacefully and through negotiations, the two exceptions being India and Bhutan. Within two weeks of assuming the mantle of being the supreme leader of China in March 2013 President XI changed China’s established position on the India-China ‘Boundary Question’. For some unknown reasons the significant change in position went mostly unnoticed and unanalysed among the strategic community and the media. Much of what has followed during the last five years of President Xi’s tenure with his India Policy can be attributed to the change in this established position. 

On 28 March 2013 President Xi Jinping met the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Durban on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit. Changing a long-standing position on the Boundary Question Xi said “China and India should improve and make good use of the mechanism of the Special Representatives to strive for a fair, rationale solution and framework acceptable  to both sides As Early As Possible”. The decades old position till then had been that the “Boundary Question is a complex historical legacy which will take time to resolve” and should not hamper the China-India relations. ‘As Early As Possible’ was a departure from the past and should have rung many a warning bell in India, somehow it did not. This was also reiterated and restated during the meetings between President Xi and PM Modi. The events that followed which have rocked the India-China relationship and nearly shattered the fragile P&T along the LAC need to be analysed in the context of Xi Jinping’s desire for an early resolution of the ‘Boundary Question’.

The 28/29 Mar 2013 meeting between the two leaders was followed by a 20 day long ‘face off’ between the two largest armies in the world, at Depsang in Eastern Ladakh, wherein the PLA disturbed the status quo and equilibrium, pitched tents on the Indian side of the LAC near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) on 14 Apr 2013. The face off ended on 5th May when the PLA withdrew to their positions maintaining status quo, avoiding an embarrassment which could have led to the cancellation of PM Li Keqiang’s first visit abroad – he was scheduled to visit India in mid- May that year. 

The many events to follow indicate that the military and diplomatic coercion by China is aimed to pressurize India to negotiate for an early settlement of the Boundary Question. This also includes the PLAs incursion into Chumar which coincided with the first visit to India of President Xi. There were major expectations of improved relations between the two Asian giants with PM Modi personally hosting President Xi in his home state of Gujarat. This visit was also among the first and most important high profile visit of a head of state to India during PM Modi’s tenure and much was expected in terms of outcomes. Some strategic analyst misreading the indicators termed it as an internal struggle wherein the PLA acted in a stand-alone mode saying Xi may not be aware of the intrusions. This assessment was totally incorrect and if there was any doubt this got corrected on Xi’s return to China. On his return on 22 Sep 2014 President Xi addressing the PLA said “PLA should improve their combat readiness and sharpen their ability to win a regional war in the age of information technology”. It is another matter that Xi and his delegation could not have expected a firm and a forthright stance from PM Modi on the border incursion at Chumar and again at Doklam leading to the PLA withdrawing to their earlier positions. The key question which needs analysis and answers is simple, what next? Indian and PM Modi’s interest is P&T and a common understanding of the LAC, where as China and President Xi will seek an early resolution of the Boundary obviously to their advantage. The significance of Wuhan and the Mao connect can not be a coincidence, it is an obvious indicator.

PM Modi and India should be more than content in having ensured continued peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with the two leaders agreeing to issue “strategic guidance to the respective militaries to strengthen communication to build mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in managing borders” as reported in Times of India of 29 April.

A fair and mutually acceptable resolution to the Boundary Question remains the only solution to improving India- China relations and this can only be achieved by two powerful leaders with the backing of the people. For India and PM Modi it is an opportunity, the timing is right given the emerging geo-political, geo-strategic and geo-economic situation globally. China seeks to challenge US for global leader status and will not like India, a balancing power in the emerging Geostrategic construct, to be aligned with the US. India and China do have congruence and convergence of interests and shared concerns. Hence it may not be such a bad time for India to resolve the Boundary Question with China and focus on the nations long term peace stability and development. However, India should do so from a position of strength safe guarding its national interests. A win- win for India - China is the way forward and what better than exploiting the foundation laid by the two leaders at Wuhan.