Bhat Mukhtar & Mubashir Shah
In International relations there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. Peace is a pre-requisite for development of any county/region. The current border row between India and China can be traced back to border tensions that began in 1914, when representatives from Britain, China and Tibet gathered at Shimla to negotiate a treaty that would determine the status of Tibet and effectively settle the borders between China and British India. The Chinese, balking at proposed terms that would have allowed Tibet to be autonomous while remaining under Chinese control, refused to sign the deal. Britain and Tibet then signed a treaty establishing what would be called the McMahon Line, named after a British Colonial official, Henry McMahon, who proposed the border.
India maintains that the McMahon line, a 550-mile frontier that extends through the Himalayas, is the official legal border between China and India. But China has never explicitly agreed to it. Now the two largest South Asian countries find themselves, once again, at odds over the border.
The Chinese have insisted that Tibet was never independent and could not have signed a treaty creating an international border. In the 1962 war, Chinese troops crossed the McMahon line and took up positions deep in Indian territory, capturing mountain passes and towns. The war lasted one month but resulted in more than a thousand Indian deaths and more than a hundred Indians taken as prisoners. Recently, the India-China border tension turned deadly for the first time in more than four decades. Thousands of Chinese and Indian troops are in a standoff in the Ladakh region high in the Himalayas since early May. After reaching an agreement to de-escalate on June 6, the mutual withdrawal of troops from the Galwan Valley went dramatically wrong on June 15, with Indian army officials reporting clashes that resulted in twenty deaths. Instead of retaliation, Indian PM Modi emphasised that India wants peace, but if provoked, will give a befitting reply.
Both countries’ troops have patrolled this region for decades, as the contested 2,200-mile border is a longstanding subject of competing claims and tensions, including a brief war in 1962. The border, or Line of Actual Control, is not demarcated, and China and India have different ideas of where it should be located, leading to regular border transgressions. Often, these don’t escalate tensions; a serious border standoff like the current one is less frequent, though this is the fourth since 2013. The Ladakh region is especially complex, with particularly unusual features. China began building a road through the area in 1956 – linking Tibet to Xinjiang – and has occupied it since 1961. There is also territory that Pakistan ceded to China in 1963. Surveying and mapping the region’s terrain historically proved immensely challenging. A forthcoming history of the Ladakh region points out how colonial-era efforts to survey this area using natural features such as watersheds as focal points did not always align with cartographic needs for precision, and, importantly, ideas of where a country’s territory begins and ends.
There is no clear reason why tensions have escalated now to their worst in decades, with the first fatalities in forty-five years. Some explanations circulating in the Indian and international media cover a broad range: China was unhappy with India’s actions in August 2019 to end Jammu and Kashmir’s traditional autonomy, or creation of the UT of Ladakh, etc. PM Modi said in his June 17 address that India’s sovereignty is supreme, indicating that accepting a territorial shift in China’s favour likely will not be his next step. New Delhi will likely assess other non-military policy options. The recent call to boycott Chinese products have gained mass appeal in India, but the government may take further steps, such as increasing scrutiny on inbound investment from China, similar to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States review process. Consequently, world trade will become a victim of it. Thus, the need of the hour is to de-escalate the tensions and move towards a peace process.
The writers are Junior Research Fellows at Kashmir University