India’s ‘Namaste’ to Chinese soldiers across the border at Nathu La promised much but, says Nicholas Nugent, only a meeting of minds will lead to a breakthrough

India’s long Himalayan border with China is frozen in time as well as altitude. Fifty-five years ago the two countries fought a brief war on two fronts across this ill-defined and un-demarcated frontier. After a month of fighting, China retreated from what India regards as its North East region and India temporarily acquiesced in what it called China’s ‘land grab’ in Kashmir, in the North West. The two countries have been separated since then by a ceasefire line, the so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC), rather than by an agreed international frontier.

China believes India has secret plans to restore a degree of independence to Chinese-ruled Tibet

In summer 2017 tensions mounted in the middle section of the borderline. India suspected that China was building a road across the Doklam plateau, an area claimed by mutual neighbour Bhutan and patrolled by the Indian army. Bhutan is an independent kingdom which, for historical reasons, enjoys the protection of India. It has yet to exchange ambassadors with China, from whom it is separated by the Himalayan watershed. India feared the Doklam road would bring China’s People’s Liberation Army uncomfortably close to the 20km-wide corridor of land it calls ‘the chicken’s neck’ connecting India’s West Bengal to its seven north eastern states across the top of Bangladesh.

The stand-off, the worst border crisis between the two large nations since the 1962 war, ended after two and a half months when China backed off, though the underlying territorial dispute has not been settled. It caused the closure of nearby Nathu La crossing point between India’s Sikkim state and China. Hence the significance of defence minister Ms Nirmala Sitharaman’s friendly gesture to Chinese soldiers on a visit to the pass five weeks later. The Times of India described it as ‘a sign of normalisation of bilateral ties after the tense 73-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops’.

The Dalai Lama during his visit to Tawang in April 2017
The Dalai Lama during his visit to Tawang in April 2017

Nathu La (4310 m or 14,140 ft) had been the only trade and transit route between India and China along the entire 3488 km un-demarcated border, which stretches from Myanmar in the east to Pakistan in the west. Border postsare fortified defensive positions rather than crossing points. The only other significant crossing point is at Lipulekh (5344 m or 17,500 ft), where India meets Nepal and China, which has been open each summer to allow Indian pilgrims to visit the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar in Tibet.

Altitude is the main reason these Himalayan crossing points are not open for regular trade. Another is the suspicion both nations have harboured towards each other since the 1962 war, during which around 3000 Indian and 720 Chinese soldiers died. Thewar left India with ‘a bloody nose’ from which it has never fully recovered. India’s former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, who was earlier ambassador to China, wrote recently of India’s ‘unfamiliarity with Chinese culture and ways of thinking’. In his recent book,How India Sees the World, he went on: ‘Indian leaders failed to pick up cues and oblique hints which if understood accurately may have led to a different outcome than humiliating defeat.’The war was the main reason that India became a nuclear power in 1974, ten years after China.

India fears that China wants to occupy the tribal regiononce known as the North East Frontier Agency or NEFA and now called Arunachal Pradesh. China’s suspicions towards India derive from it granting refuge since 1959 to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s erstwhile ruler, and hosting his government in exile. It believesIndia has secret plans to restore a degree of independence to Chinese-ruled Tibet. India says it accepts China’s control over Tibet, though remains troubled about China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls ‘Southern Tibet’. It does not know whether China has designs on the entire province of nearly 85,000 sq km or just the Tawang salient adjacent to north eastern Bhutan, the site of a monastery said to rank second only to Lhasa’s Potala in Tibetan Buddhism.

Last April India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang and recentlyalso facilitated a tripthere by the US ambassador, which annoyed China. China’s construction of a road across the plateau of Doklam – or Donglang as it is known in China – worried India,which maintains a strong military force at all accessible points along this high altitude frontier.

Rival suspicions derive from the failure to demarcate borders in colonial times when Britain held sway over India and theborder territories of Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan. Britain agreed ‘spheres of influence’ with Russia where Afghanistan meetsCentral Asiabut frontiers with China along the Karakoram and Himalayas were never agreed. High altitude surveys by British explorers in the later 19th and early 20th centuries did not gain the force of treaties because China had yet to assert central control over Tibet and Xinjiang, then known as Eastern Turkestan.

China says it largely accepts the McMahon line as the frontier in the sector between Bhutan and Myanmar butthe two countries differ over whether the borderline in the western sector, east of the Siachen glacier, should follow the watershed of the Kunlun range, as India argues, or of the Karakoram, as China maintains. China controls the virtually uninhabited Aksai Chin region,a desolate area larger than Belgium or the island of Taiwan which India claims, and has built a road through it connectingXinjiang to Tibet.

To complicate matters, India is also in a border dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan, which has given a chunk of western Kashmir – which it controlled and India claims – to China.

Frosty relations between India and China have not impeded the development of bilateral trade. China is India’s largest trading partner, and while India comes only eleventh in China’s list of partners annual trade between the two valued at around $75 billion is large by any standard and heavily in China’s favour. Almost all goods exchanged between the two countries travel by ship rather than across their land border.

CLOSE TIES: Indian PM Narendra Modi enjoys good personal relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping
CLOSE TIES: Indian PM Narendra Modi enjoys good personal relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping

There is an economic case for India to open a land route to China, as Pakistan and Nepal both have to their trading benefit. China has ambitious plans too under its modern Silk Road initiative to build a road through Myanmar to Bangladesh and perhaps ultimately to India. China is also keen to provide rail links to Pakistan, as well as Nepal, which would give this landlocked country an alternative opening to the sea than through India. A railway connecting China to north eastern India could transform this relatively underdeveloped region.

China’s ambitious ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative isan attempt to recreatethe Silk Road trading routes of ancient times. One of the most famous Silk Road routes connected India to China across the Karakoram pass, which has been closed since Indian independence seventy years ago. It linked India through Turkestan to the ancient Central Asian cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.

Frosty relations between India and China have not impeded the development of bilateral trade

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys good personal relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping. While he has been happy to engage in the BRICS forum linking Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, attending its summit in Xiamen, China, in September 2017, he has declined invitations to take part in China’s new ‘Silk Road’initiative. One reason is that the planned railway to the Pakistani port of Gwadar would run through disputed Kashmir. China’s ambassador in Delhi, Luo Zhaohui, said recently that the route could be changed to ‘deal with India’s concerns’.

For India the Chinese frontier is a barrier rather than a means to trade. It talks only of fortifying the border and plans to equip its border force with snow scooters and other all-weather equipment. Attempts to resolve border differences are handled bilaterally at ‘special representative’ meetings which take place alternately in Delhi or Beijing. Ahead of the most recent talks in Delhi in December 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred to the recent clash, telling his Indian counterpart that ‘lessons should be learned to prevent similar incidents from happening again’.

The Doklam stand-off makes any improvement in relations more unlikely than ever –meaning that two nuclear powers will continue to confront each other along one of the world’s longest and least defined frontiers.

Nicholas Nugent is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Asia and the former Soviet Union. Previously on the staff of the BBC World Service, he has written books on India and Vietnam and contributed to others on Indonesia and Myanmar. He is working on a history of the Spice trade.


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