Let’s get the nuggets of wisdom out of the way. India and China have been indifferent neighbors in history with the high Himalayas intervening between them. The Indic and Sinic cultures are competitive, as clearly visible in Southeast Asia. Both countries offer competing models of development to achieve economic growth and social justice, distinguishing between the democratic and totalitarian paths. And, finally, history informs us hat large civilizational nations cannot be cordial neighbors, a modicum of normality is all that is possible in their relationship.
Whether this modicum of normality has been reached lies in the eyes of the beholder. For the proposition it is argued that India-China trade has burgeoned from $ 2 bn. in 2000 to an expected $ 60 bn. in 2010, exceeding the trade between India and the United States. Detractors argue that India-China trade is heavily weighted in China’s favor, in that its exports cover a wide range of industrial products while India’s exports largely comprise iron ore, establishing a colonial pattern of trade. China is taking steps to widen its services sector where India is presently advantaged by rapidly expanding its general and technical education facilities, while India is yet to reform and expand its elitist higher educational institutions. Furthermore, China has taken recourse to the advantages of scale in industrial production, while India seeks to emphasize social costs, thereby ensuring sub-optimal economic decision-making.
But it is their political-strategic interactions which reveal major disagreements, focusing on their contentious border dispute. It had triggered the Sino-Indian border conflict in 1962, leading to a long period of estrangement. Bilateral relations only revived after Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing in 1988. Thereafter, two landmark border management agreements were negotiated in 1993 and 1996, and a joint mechanism was devised to discuss the border dispute through accredited representatives. Some 13 rounds of discussions have taken place to date, but without any noticeable results, leading pessimists to conclude that these meetings are quite pointless, while optimists claim they have ensured that national differences have not escalated to conflict. In truth, no resolution of the border problem is possible unless enabling political decisions are taken in New Delhi and Beijing to moderate their maximalist positions.
The present tensions derive from a spate of belligerent statements by China that question India’s territoriality. China has aggressively begun asserting its claims to Arunachal Pradesh, and had refused a visa to an Indian official there, scheduled to visit China in an official delegation. Very recently, China objected to the Indian Prime Minister visiting Arunachal Pradesh, and, more recently, has protested against the Dalai Lama’s program to visit the Buddhist monastery in Tawang. China has also stopped stamping visas on the passports of Indian residents in Jammu and Kashmir wishing to visit China, but attaching the visas on separate forms to be detached on exit. Further, China has been indulging in “cartographic aggression’ by excluding Jammu and Kashmir but including Arunachal Pradesh in Chinese maps. India sees these several incidents as concerted assaults on its territorial integrity.
The question of moment is why China has chosen this juncture to heighten India-China tensions. Many hypotheses are possible. Like Beijing’s concerns with Indo-US relations, consolidated by their extraordinary nuclear deal. A popular impression in India is that China indulges in these dramatics periodically to keep India off-balance and distracted from its nation-building tasks. In my view, the Chinese angst is related to the Dalai Lama’s forthcoming visit to Tawang in November. He had visited Tawang earlier in 2003 as part of his ecclesiastical duties. Then, why is Beijing upset now?
Here one must recount the tangled history of Tawang. Both Neville Maxwell (India’s China War) and Maj. Gen. D.K. Palit (War in the High Himalayas) have agreed that Tawang had always been under Tibetan control. Tibetan dzongpens were the local administrators. They were evicted in 1938 by the British, but returned later after Lhasa lodged vigorous protests. In 1951 the dzongpens were again evicted as part of a general policy by independent India to push its borders northwards beyond Se La to secure a more defensible border along the McMahon Line. Lhasa had protested again, but was ignored by India. However, Tibet had been occupied by China in 1950. Curiously enough, the Chinese did not protest, and it is possible that this failure is now being rectified. Any statement by the Dalai Lama during his visit to Towang, even of a religious and non-political character, would invest greater legitimacy to India’s possession of Towang, which the Chinese will find irksome. These are surmises. But in the absence of any authoritative statements by both countries on this issue, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Towang has become a struggle in the shadows.
Meanwhile, the recent Manmohan Singh-Wen Jiabao meeting in Thailand occurred in a cordial atmosphere. Apparently Arunachal Pradesh and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Towang were not discussed; therefore, nothing was resolved.