India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement
In the debate over whether the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship will evolve into a friendship or rivalry, one of the most discussed topics is the border dispute between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and India. Most scholars of the topic tend to focus on how the border was formed during the time of the Raj, the initial engagement between China and India over the matter including the 1962 Border War, the continuing dynamics of the rivalry between the two countries, or all of the above. As such, it would be a tall order to step up and add something new or attempt to reinvigorate this discussion. Yet this is exactly what Ranjit Singh Kalha has sought to do with his book India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement.
Though inevitably a lot of old ground would be covered in any account of the dispute between the two countries, Kalha has made an admirable attempt to address the often neglected areas of the dispute rather than rehashing the already well-documented history surrounding the Simla conference and the 1962 War. As a former Indian representative to China during the 1970s and 1980s, the author naturally focuses on discussing instead negotiations and the geopolitical situation, and draws extensively from a range of diplomatic communications, policy papers and treaties in order to support his arguments and includes several such sources as annexures. However, Kalha does provide some interesting analysis as to the underlying motivations behind the leadership’s decisions in both countries, he largely relegates himself to detailing the history and providing commentary on notable events. It is a little disappointing for the already informed reader that Kalha has missed an opportunity to engage in a more rigorous study of the causes behind the boundary dispute.
In essence, Kalha argues throughout the book that the main issues preventing a settlement are similar to the ones that started it; namely the two sides’ disagreement over the very facts of the border’s formation and China’s concern over several geo-strategic factors, in particular, possible Indian interference in its restive Autonomous Region of Tibet (ART). After first clearly outlining his definitions and understanding of how borders generally function and become disputed in international affairs (a creditable step which is often neglected by other writers on the topic), Kalha begins his study in the post-World War II era so as to dedicate his discussion to the negotiations conducted by the existing countries rather than their previous regimes. Initially the author begins his discussion with a brief overview of the international diplomatic approach towards the emergence of PRC and the incorporation of the ART during this period, focusing particularly on the attitudes of Britain, the US and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union, who all tacitly or actively supported China’s behaviour for their own reasons. This is used largely to help justify India’s own acceptance of Tibet’s annexation and initial enthusiastic embrace of the PRC, which is largely the topic of the extensive third chapter.
Chapters four and five address the emergence of the border dispute and the subsequent negotiations that eventually led to China famously decided to ‘teach India a lesson’. Though Kalha goes into some impressive detail to discuss the diplomatic events that surrounded this time there is little new information or perspectives in this discussion for anybody who is familiar with the topic. It is in the subsequent chapters in which the author addresses several aspects of the border dispute that are rarely studied in detail, allowing him to make a meaningful contribution to the narrative of the Sino-Indian bilateral relations. Chapter six, for example, provides a detailed account of the seldom studied diplomatic proceedings over the border immediately after the 1962 War and during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War. Likewise chapter seven discusses the seldom discussed skirmishes on the Sikkim border and the changing geopolitical situation that prompted both China and India to resume relations and dialogue, which Kalha is keen to note was only effectively, not officially, severed after 1962.
Given that the author was intimately involved with the resumed negotiations in the 1980s, it is somewhat disappointing to see the discussion of this period largely glossed over, with a mere six pages dedicated to exploring the proceedings of the eight rounds of talks. However, Kalha does provide a detailed discussion of the often neglected 1986-1987 Wangdung incident that threatened to plunge the two countries back into the tense stand-off or possibly conflict before then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit in December 1988. Kalha clearly identifies this visit as the initiative that not only defused tensions but marked a turning point in the negotiations. The last two chapters are dedicated to discussing recent events and assessing why the border remains unresolved, covering the progress in negotiations that has resulted in some tangible developments to demilitarise the border and reduce tensions, the varying continuing issues that cause tensions to flare and mutual suspicions to remain that remain a key cause behind the glacial pace of the settlement efforts. Ultimately Kalha concludes that it is the PRC’s suspicions of India’s potential geopolitical ambitions as well as its desire to utilise the border as a means of coercive diplomacy and keep India contained to the subcontinent that has made them reluctant to reach a settlement, ensuring the stalemate would continue indefinitely.
Though the scope and attention to detail provided in this book is impressive, anybody who is hoping for a nuanced and objective discussion on the issues surrounding the border dispute will feel disappointed. Though he claims to have “tried hard to not to be subjective and swayed by emotion” (p.xi), Kalha frequently ridicules the Chinese position or actions with an indignant and sarcastic tone, usually glossing over or even completely ignoring the faults in India’s position. For example, when discussing the failure in the initial negotiations in the early 1960s, Kalha places the blame squarely on China’s inability to provide details of its position to India’s satisfaction whilst completely ignoring the absolutist stance and intransigence in India’s negotiation style and provocative ‘Forward Policy’ that at least equally contributed to the rapid deterioration of relations. Similarly, when discussing the resumption of the negotiations, Kalha blames the subsequent deadlock solely on Chinese tactics despite (even by his own account) the Chinese showing a degree of flexibility. The sole Indian contribution in these negotiations the author provides is the insistence that at a minimum China accept the McMahon Line, and the only Indian concession mentioned is that they were willing to change its name. The only exception to this treatment is the discussion of Nehru’s initial efforts and ploys at negotiation which Kalha derides as nearly comical in its ineptness. Though he largely avoids engaging in the bombastic vitriol of some Indian commentators, Kalha’s blatantly partisan and disingenuous approach is notable throughout the book. Such a stance is surprisingly undiplomatic and unbecoming for a former emissary and sadly detracts from the quality of his arguments.
All in all, India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement is an eloquent outline of the Indian perspective of the border dispute and the factors that have thus far prevented its resolution. To his credit, Kalha has engaged in some strong detailed discussion, particularly of the Tibetan factor’s pivotal role and the cut and thrust of the day-to-day bilateral engagement between the countries. Sadly, this is undermined by the author’s wanton bias, spending the majority of his argument attacking the PRC’s position and actions, which may be nationalistically satisfying but unfortunately does little to provide fresh insight into the dispute.