Tensions between India and China are not new. The two countries which share the world’s longest unmarked border fought a full-fledged war in 1962 and have since engaged in several small skirmishes. As a result, the theory that Sino-Indian clashes are flashes in the pan and unlikely to lead to more extensive fighting has become a widely held consensus. India has always taken a multifaceted view of China. Yet, broadly speaking, over the past seventy years, the relationship has evolved in different phases. China has been perceived in many ways by many audiences in India. Countless observers at the time and historians in reminiscence have tried to trace the atrocious relations between the two Asian countries. Partisans from both sides have attempted to show their own country in the best light. Responsibility and culpability have been shunted across the Himalayas in both directions. The problems that plagued the Sino-Indian relationship accumulated over the period from 1954 to early 1959.
The first tension between the two countries lasted for a decade, from the founding of People Republic’s of China from 1949 to 1959. During these years, India regarded China as a fellow Asian country that had emerged from imperial control and stood ready to craft a new future. Although the political systems of the two countries were rather different, many Indians, including the topic political leaders believed that the countries had lots of avenues for liaison and learning. This period came to an end in 1959, when the border dispute came to the force and the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, Tibet, to take refuge in India.
Over the next three years, these tensions rose to a boil and culminated in the Sino-Indian War of October-November 1962. During the same period, public and elite clairvoyance of China turned sharply negative. For many Indians who lived through the defeat of 1962, Communist China came to be seen as an aggressive neighbour that sought to humiliate a democratic, non-aligned India. It took almost three decades for China-India relations to recover.
The most recent phase, over the past twenty-five years, has been marked by India’s admiration for China’s developmental accomplishments. India also has questions about what China’s rise means for the international order and itself.
Even if the archival record is incomplete, original documentation from both sides and other countries helps to shed some new light on the story. The Tibetan Uprising the late winter and early spring of 1959 aggravated the situation. The mutual militarization of India’s border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region logically followed from these developments but also caused armed conflict between India and China in the late summer of 1959. From the fall of that year to the spring of the next, both sides publicly marked their border and territorial claims in anticipation of negotiations. And finally, by April 1960, Zhou travelled to Delhi hoping to find a settlement in talks with Nehru.
The story of the disintegration of Sino-Indian friendship unfolded in concentric circles. At its centre stood developments in Tibet which remain the source of political and scholarly disputes to this day. In the second circle ranks the relationship between India and China, which had its roots both in the development of their interactions over time as well as in the domestic sources of each country’s foreign policy. Finally, there is the wider world, not only the Asian-African movement of which India and China were prominent members, but also the international system dominated by the Cold War, in which the Sino-Indian relationship was embedded.
Since the last three weeks of May, the India-China border dispute continues in the eastern parts of Ladakh. There is the mobilization of a conspicuous number of Chinese soldiers and military equipment in some areas on the LAC in Ladakh. The most profound issue is in the area of Pangong Tso and its northern banks, where Chinese soldiers have moved up to line they discern to be the LAC. India also records transgressions by the Chinese side, which are often in these disputed areas. As per the data, only Pangong Tso is an area where the two sides have different “perceptions” of the LAC.
Border tensions between India and China turned pernicious after the two countries’ security forces clashed in one of the disputed areas in the Himalayan mountains, killing three Indian personnel. Tensions between the two armies have been running high on the border since reports of a scuffle between the soldiers of both sides at Pangong Tso and Naku La came in early month. The Army, in a statement Tuesday, said there were casualties on both sides. Meanwhile, Beijing prompted India to strictly impede its frontline troops from crossing the border or taking any unilateral action that may snarl up the border situation.
Recent news tells us that 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a border clash with Chinese troops. There were casualties on both sides which led to the killing of the soldiers. Beijing’s foreign minister says the situation is stable, India’s defence minister has mourned the deaths but nationalist sentiment online is raging.
Various leaders have expressed their grief on the recent India-China dispute, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh called for a strong response from the Centre to the repeated blitz by the Chinese into Indian territory while Congress demanded that all political parties be briefed on the ground situation. He also said that the whole nation today stands with the Indian Army in their hour of grief. Congress leader, Shashi Tharoor expresses shock, urges Centre to handle the situation resolutely whereas Congress senior spokesperson and party’s deputy leader in Rajya Sabha, Anand Sharma said that they have been requesting the government to urgently take the nation into confidence. They demand that the government should immediately convene a meeting and brief the leadership of political parties about the ground situation. General VK Singh expressed his condolences on the demise of the soldiers during the dispute.
What are the risks to broader Sino-Indian relations?
Neither side wants or can afford a war, making deliberate escalation unlikely. But it’s not out of the question. The probability of China resorting to force remains low given the costs of war, but this depends on how far China wants to go to show that it is serious about defending what it considers Chinese territory, and how strongly it is willing to push back against challenges in its neighbourhood.
India has done well in not only combating the coronavirus internally but also assisting nations in the region and beyond, including the US, in a much-needed outreach, enhancing its goodwill and linkages. The world order after Covid-19 is an opportunity for India to position itself as a global leader, asserting its just and rightful place. India will be the ‘balancing power’ and hence, should leverage its position with China. If ever there is or will be a historic opportunity for the two Asian giants to resolve the contested boundary, it’s now, an opportunity provided by the pandemic.