India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond
Jabin T Jacob ·       

Published work of any kind on China or on Sino-Indian relations by Indian scholars and analysts is to be welcomed, if nothing else because they are not produced as often enough as the importance of China for this country deserves. Everything from scholarship to television coverage in India today continues to be dominated by Pakistan and the West giving the short shrift to equally important events and views from the east. While there is increasing cognizance of the significance of China and the challenges it poses to India in some sections of government and academia in this country, this acknowledgement remains substantially limited by institutional constraints and overshadowed by mindsets set in stone that refuse to forget old slights or review received wisdom. It is in this context that Mohan Guruswamy and Zorawar Daulet Singh perform a signal service by trying to explain in a simple, lucid style the origins of and perceptions on the boundary dispute between India and China.

The work delves into history but also tries to contextualize the dispute as it stands today in a world where both China and India are rising powers. Despite the improved bilateral relationship backed by growing economic and trade linkages, and the need for increased cooperation at multilateral forums on a range of issues from regional political crises to climate change, India and China remain mired in a legacy of mistrust and suspicion at the heart of which lies the boundary dispute.

As the authors note, it was a lack of understanding of “each other’s border psychologies and strategies” (p. 4) that led India and China to the conflict of 1962. Today, the psychologies and strategies of both have certainly changed and evolved and yet it is far from certain that either side understands the other side any better and if one might push things a bit further, it is unclear if either side even has a clear roadmap or set of goals as to what its own aims are. Clearly, despite the large-scale infrastructure construction in Tibet and the resultant increased mobility and access accruing to China’s PLA, the events of March 2008 and the continuing unrest in Tibet create problems for China’s military planners as much as it does for its political leadership. Clearly, no country can pursue aggressive military action against an adversary if its own backyard is not secure. On the Indian side, while infrastructure development has picked up pace in recent years in response to Chinese efforts, it still proceeds far too slowly and there are clearly limits to activity premised only on a military rationale. The challenge is to tie such construction also to economic goals and taking into account issues of accountability and sensitivity to local governments and populations. Thus, each side faces its own set of problems that make pursuing a strategy of conflict eminently unfeasible and yet neither seems as yet to consider the possibility of cooperation across the disputed boundary.

According to the authors, some sort of a solution to the boundary dispute has to be achieved first before either nation can stand its military down or any sort of long-term cooperation is possible between India and China. And the solution, they say is for both sides to agree to a swap of territory or in other words accepting a solution on the ‘as is where is’ basis. At the same time they harbour no illusions that the solution can be anything but a political decision to be made by both sides. History, according to the authors cannot be the basis of a settlement as they point out unequivocally that India’s claims to Arunachal Pradesh “does not rest on any great historical tradition” just as “the Chinese too have no basis whatsoever to stake a claim…” (p. 43). Similarly, the authors are also critical of the legalistic view pursued by India of the boundaries being inherited from the British empire and therefore inviolable, without giving thought to the fact that it was precisely such reference to imperial acquisitions that the Chinese would find most objectionable (pp. 82-86).

While the core of the book is indeed a historical exposition of the dispute with little by way of new insights, the usefulness of the book lies in putting together an accurate, fairly objective account that serves as a useful primer for both the scholar and practitioner on the one hand as well as the lay reader on the other. Particularly useful is the way in which the dispute’s genesis in the pulls and pressures of imperialist Britain’s policies is brought home to the Indian reader who is prone to regard the Sino-Indian differences over the boundary as one of long historical standing or as being attributable purely to Chinese cunning or betrayal. At the same time, the authors do not hesitate to state their own views on what needs to be done with regard to specific issues such as Tawang (pp. 29-33).

The work also points out several issues that Indian scholars need to further examine. One such is the exact thinking in New Delhi that led to the Sino-Indian Agreement of 1954 in which India appeared to have signed away more than it received in return (pp. 55-57) as also the decision to pursue a forward policy in the late 1950s that increasingly lost any military logic. And perhaps more studies need to be carried out in due course of the causes that that led to diplomatic rapprochement between India and China that culminated in the Rajiv Gandhi visit of 1988 and resulted also in the major breakthrough agreements on the boundary of 1993 and 1996. Indeed,  more important in the larger picture, than understanding the Sino-Indian dispute itself, is to comprehend the process of Indian decision-making on China, to examine whether the miscommunications between branches of the executive or the blatant disregard of the views of one by another that led to “the debacle of 1962” still continue. The authors, meanwhile, have clarified that the Parliamentary resolution of 1962 did not necessarily tie the government’s hands in achieving a settlement of the dispute with China that involved ceding territory (pp. 123-24).

By sub-titling their final chapter, “Mutual accommodation and accommodation of reality,” Guruswamy and Singh are clearly pointing out the only way to achieve progress towards not just a resolution of the dispute but achieving better all-round Sino-Indian ties in an increasingly globalizing and inter-dependant world. China has in many substantial ways moved beyond using the Pakistan card against India taking into account hard economic realities and the growing economic and political clout of India both in South Asia and outside. This change of views within China needs to be acknowledged by Indian policymakers and analysts even as they take note of the rise of China’s own international profile and military might.

The book could have done with better copy-editing and there is some amount of repetition as in for example stating how Major Bob Khating raised the Indian flag in Tawang and how this could be interpreted as a response to the Chinese takeover of Tibet (p. 31 and p. 43). And while the authors need to be complimented for providing maps where possible, it would perhaps have been better if the maps were reconstructed for the purpose of this book providing greater detail and consistency. By providing a substantial appendix of all the major political documents signed between the two countries since 1988, the book also considerably enhances its reference value.

As the authors state at the outset, their analysis of the dispute owes a great deal to the works of prominent Western scholars of the dispute and the latter’s studies of Chinese language sources and views of Chinese events and actions. What this brings home forcefully is the clear lack of substantial and original Indian scholarship on China based on an independent examination of Chinese sources and material. If warning be needed about the consequences, the authors cite Roderick MacFarquhar pointing out the Indian failure in the run-up to 1962 ‘to anlayse Chinese domestic and diplomatic developments’ (p. 74).

The reference to Chinese historian, Ge Jianxiong’s questioning of his government’s historical claims over Tibet (p. 44-45, 48) accentuates this point still further. Clearly, there is a substantial amount of scholarship in China that both accepts and questions the official line and attempts to reconstruct history accordingly. Scholars outside China, including Western ones, are only vaguely aware of these trends. What this implies for the Sino-Indian boundary dispute, that remains at the centre of Sino-Indian relations, as well as other substantive issues of international affairs and political, economic and social transformation in China, are matters that India has to develop the capacity and scholarship to study directly. Hopefully, Guruswamy and Singh’s book will provide both the government and analysts in India inspiration enough towards achieving this end.