Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Coming full-circle in the Sino-Indian relationship

Almost 30 years after India and China agreed relations would not be held hostage to the territorial dispute, it remains a source of mistrust and hostility.

Pangong Tso, a lake in Kashmir, August 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Pacific Press/Umer Asif)
Pangong Tso, a lake in Kashmir, August 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Pacific Press/Umer Asif)

Despite the recent BRICS Summit's theme of a 'stronger partnership for a brighter future', the two-month stand-off between China and India at the Doklam plateau (which China refers to as Donglang) has confirmed a bitter truth – the territorial dispute is still a constant thorn in the Sino-Indian relationship.

Looking back

This notion runs counter to the conventional wisdom on the evolution of the Sino-Indian relationship in the post-Cold War period. In 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Beijing ushered in a new era for the relationship, in which both sides agreed to not let relations be held hostage to the territorial dispute. A string of agreements (in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013) signalled efforts to de-escalate tensions along the disputed border while working towards a peaceful and mutually amicable solution. This included recognition of the needs of 'settled populations' in seeking a final settlement to the boundary dispute, which alluded to both sides recognising the de facto borders along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Further gestures, including reopening border trade along the Nathu La, Lipu-Lekh and Shipki La passes and confidence-building measures in the form of joint military exercises, signalled the emergence of a more robust relationship. Even China's 'all-weather' relationship with Pakistan became detached from the broader contours of the Sino-Indian relationship – most visibly demonstrated by China's neutral position during the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan. As both countries developed a convergence of interests on issues ranging from climate change to anti-terrorism cooperation and calls for a multi-polar world order, rhetoric of 'Chindia' and an emerging 'Himalayan Consensus' gained momentum.

This is not to say that disagreements did not arise. As the bilateral relationship transcended the territorial dispute, new sources of tension emerged amid both countries' rise as major regional and global powers. These ranged from a growing imbalance in their economic relationship to a nascent maritime rivalry, a competition for resources in distant regions of the world, and a latent contest for primacy in Asia and on the world stage.

Border troubles resume

However, events in Doklam and the disputed border (notably in Ladakh at Depsang Valley in 2013, the Chumar area in 2014, and most recently at Pangong Tso) challenge the narrative that the territorial dispute has been shelved or no longer matters to the bilateral relationship. Despite 19 rounds of talks under the Special Representatives' mechanism since 2003, even the basic issue of demarcating the LAC remains unresolved. Moreover, the fact that the Doklam crisis was the first border skirmish that involved a third party (Bhutan) while occurring near an area (Sikkim) that is an undisputed portion of the Sino-Indian border and in close proximity to India's strategically vulnerable Siliguri Corridor (or so-called 'Chicken's Neck') demonstrates that the territorial dispute has become more intense and complex in recent years.

The territorial dispute is clearly still a pressing issue, and has served to undermine other areas of interaction in the bilateral relationship. This is evident in restrictions by India to admit Chinese investment in strategically important sectors and geographic areas amid an underlying climate of mistrust rooted in the unresolved boundary dispute. As both countries have acquired more tools and platforms to interact with each other, the territorial dispute has also been projected to regional and global levels. In 2009, China sought to block a loan from the Asian Development Bank to India as the loan included funding for Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as 'South Tibet'. More recently, India boycotted China's Belt and Road Forum on the grounds that one of the main projects under this initiative (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) traverses the disputed territory of Kashmir. This has created a 'nested security dilemma', whereby core grievances (such as the territorial dispute) 'spill over' into areas beyond the confines of the bilateral relationship.

There are various explanations for the reinvigoration of the territorial dispute in recent years. China's growing concern about Tibet in the aftermath of protests in 2008 prompted Beijing to tighten its grip over the region and reaffirm its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, an area historically of secondary importance to Beijing relative to Aksai Chin (Beijing earlier offered a territorial swap that would entail China relinquishing its claim to Arunachal Pradesh in exchange for retaining control of Aksai Chin). For India, the territorial dispute also acquired newfound importance in the context of China's rapid development of border infrastructure, as well renewed support for Pakistan's position on the Kashmir dispute (as illustrated by the issuance of stapled visas for Indian civilian and military personnel from the state) and water disputes arising from China's status as an upper-riparian state.

Other analysts attribute the more confrontational relationship on the border to structural reasons, as the rise of both countries as major powers contributes to more assertive foreign policies, fuelled by growing nationalism and efforts to reclaim 'lost territories'. Third parties have also come to drive tensions in the bilateral relationship, such as China's deepening relations with countries around India's periphery and India's improving relations with countries that have traditionally maintained adversarial relations with China, such as Japan and Vietnam. Notably, the rapprochement in the India-US relationship, particularly following the conclusion of the civilian nuclear agreement, is regarded by some analysts as a turning point in the Sino-Indian relationship (as China came to see India in more ominous terms). Subsequently, perceived efforts by the United States to contain China's rise as part of its strategic 'pivot' or rebalance towards the Indo-Pacific under the Obama Administration (of which engagement with India was a crucial component) exacerbated these concerns.

Looking ahead

Despite the 'expeditious disengagement' from Doklam at the end of August, it is apparent that border tensions between China and India are far from over. The vitriolic language during the crisis, particularly in the Chinese media, indicates the bad blood under the surface of the seemingly cordial bilateral relationship. Moreover, on the Doklam dispute, the balance of interests was clearly tilted towards India – in future border conflicts where China has more fundamental interests at stake, de-escalation may be harder to achieve.

Both countries had a vested interest in de-escalating tensions this time. For China, this was related to more immediate concerns, such as the upcoming 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and the potential for India to boycott the recently concluded BRICS Summit in Xiamen. For India, the reasons to de-escalate are rooted in more fundamental concerns. India's position today is that of China two decades ago, when Deng Xiaoping's dictum of 'biding time' dictated that the country keep a low profile and not rock the boat on the world stage while leveraging its 'period of strategic opportunity' to focus on building its 'comprehensive national power'. India has similar considerations today. In the context of the government's strengthened mandate and its growth and development-driven agenda, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a target for establishing a 'New India' by 2022. Included in this vision is maintaining a stable periphery, evidenced by the government's 'Neighbourhood First' and 'Act East' policies. Economic development is also key to bringing about sustained improvements in the Indian Army's operational effectiveness and capabilities. Thus, it is in India's interest to avoid a major flare-up with China, for the time being.

At the same time, China and India's status as a major regional and emerging global powers rest on their ability to take a firm and principled stance on their perceived norms, values and national interests. For India, this includes not only defending its own territorial integrity, but also that of its allies (Bhutan in the case of the Doklam dispute, as per the terms of the 2007 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty). In this context, the Modi government will continue its policy of improving relations with states along its periphery, both on economic grounds in terms of improving regional connectivity but also on strategic grounds in terms of countering China's perceived encirclement. It will also strengthen border infrastructure in order to counter China's 'coercive diplomacy'.   

In the case of China, sovereignty is also a key consideration in its territorial dispute with India (particularly as it relates to Tibet). Echoing its tactics in the maritime domain, Chinese efforts to consolidate its claims on land entail incremental advances, using a combination of civilian and military resources and employing psychological, media and legal warfare (referred to as the strategy of 'three warfares'). This approach has also entailed China driving a wedge between India and Bhutan, a tactic similar to that employed against ASEAN member states in the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea. On Doklam, China has not shown any intention of altering its claims, stating that it will continue to 'exercise its sovereign rights', which means continued patrols in the disputed area and strengthening its military logistics and manoeuvrability in the adjoining Chumbi Valley leading up to the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction.

China is also employing 'historical conventions' to consolidate its claims, namely the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention, with respect to Doklam (though Bhutan was not a party to this convention). At the same time, China challenges the validity of the 1914 Simla Accord (the basis for the disputed McMohan Line in Arunachal Pradesh) on the grounds that it is a colonial-era agreement. Beijing also notes that the Chinese nationalist delegation had only initialled but not signed this agreement, though China did subsequently accept the McMohan Line along the China-Burma border in 1960.

However, for both countries the territorial dispute is also tied to defending their perceived conceptions of regional and global order. In the case of China, India is the only major power to not attend its Belt and Road Forum in May 2017. For India, this opposition and efforts to propose alternative regional initiatives, such as India's Project Mausam and the Cotton and Spice Routes, as well as the India-Japan Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, reflects an effort to prevent the emergence of a Sino-centric regional and global order.  

Domestic politics will also dictate when the next flare-up occurs in the bilateral relationship. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 coincided with a period of growing radicalisation in China's foreign policy, as reflected in the 'Great Leap Forward' and Sino-Soviet split. In this context, war with India offered a means for Mao Zedong to consolidate power. Similar compulsions face China today – any signs of President Xi Jinping's grip on power weakening could serve as a potential catalyst for foreign adventurism.

The success of the recently concluded BRICS Summit demonstrates that China and India will continue to cooperate on issues of global governance. Nonetheless, the unresolved boundary dispute will continue to impose limits on the level of cooperation between both countries. The fact that both sides claimed a tactical victory from the Doklam crisis raises the prospect of more assertive behaviour in any future skirmishes. This raises the urgency of negotiating new border management mechanisms that take account of the possibility of instabilities involving third parties and cross-domain escalation (for instance, in the cyber or maritime arena).

Thus, the promise of Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Beijing in 1988 remains unfulfilled – the disputed border continues to lie at the heart of the bilateral relationship. Efforts to 'transcend' the territorial dispute have been futile and it remains a persistent source of mistrust and hostility in the relationship. This will deter deeper integration and cooperation in other arenas where both countries share the stage, such as BRICS.

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