It is critical for China and India to move towards cooperation, resulting in a win-win paradigm of an Asian Century
The on-going stand-off between India and China in the Doklam region has fuelled debate and controversy. Belligerent statements abound in both Indian and Chinese media, hinting at an impending and inevitable conflict. India has clearly stated that it seeks to end the present imbroglio through negotiation. However, China has officially issued a 15-page document justifying its stance in the current stand-off and demanding immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Indian troops in Doklam. A conflict between India and China would have deleterious impact on the economies, societies and people on either sides of the border.
In addition to being completely futile, an armed conflict could derail the hard-earned process of normalisation of the relationship between India and China. A meaningful movement to normalise relations began in 1989, a full 26 years after the Sino-Indian war in 1962. Since then, the two countries have signed five major agreements that include Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) 1993; Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field along the LAC in 1996; Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of CBMs in 2005; Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs 2012; and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2013.
Past agreements have merit
In the absence of a clear geometric line, the India-China border remains notional and subject to respective national interpretation. There have been a number of claims, counter-claims, intrusions, and withdrawals in the past. However, other than the Sumdorong Chu incident in 1986 and Depsang in 2013, border issues have been resolved in a relatively peaceful manner. So far, 19 special representative meetings on border dispute settlements have been held between the two nations, thereby indicating protracted negotiations.
India’s former foreign secretary and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, in his book “Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy” mentions that “With China, the LAC is a concept; neither the LAC nor the boundary is agreed upon by the two countries, let alone delineated on a map or demarcated on the ground. Yet this is probably India’s most peaceful border in the last 30 years, with no terrorists or cross-border firing. The last death on the border was in October 1975 at Tulung La, and that was by accident”.
The historic agreement in 1993 provided an orientation and direction that was fundamental to the negotiation process. Its Article I states that “India-China boundary questions shall be resolved through peaceful and friendly consultations. Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means. Pending an ultimate solution to the boundary question between the two countries, the two sides shall strictly respect and observe the line of actual control between the two sides. No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control.”
The 1996 agreement indicated a movement towards a “No War Pact”. The agreement very specifically pointed out details entailing the reduction in deployment of both Chinese and Indian forces, and major categories of armaments like combat tanks, infantry combat vehicles, guns requiring bullets of a calibre equal to or higher than 75mm, mortars, surface-to-surface missiles, and surface-to-air missiles. In the words of Menon, besides the bilateral commitment to maintain the status quo on the border, these agreements, “effectively delinked settlement of the boundary from the rest of the relationship and delinked it also from the maintenance of peace on the border. Both countries also formally renounced the use of force to settle the issue”.
The 2013 agreement also made a step towards delineating comprehensive border defence cooperation. This included jointly combating the smuggling of arms, wildlife articles and other contrabands, and natural disasters or infectious diseases.
Besides conducting joint military training exercises, India and China agreed that “in case a doubtful situation arises with reference to any activity by either side in border areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control, either side has the right to seek a clarification from the other side”. Doklam has to be viewed through this perspective. Established systems and tested mechanisms are in place to address any contentious issues between the two countries.
On the other hand, since 1984, Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of boundary talks. They also have a comprehensive agreement on border areas signed in December 1998. Under Article 3, both sides agreed “that prior to the ultimate solution of the boundary issues, peace and tranquillity along the border should be maintained and the status quo of the boundary prior to March 1959 should be upheld, and not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border”.
Friendship remains strong
India and China have made great progress from the frigid period between 1962 and 1988, characterised by development on all fronts. These deepening relationships include trade, investment, tourism, professional exchanges and technology transfers. Trade between India-China has gone from a mere US$49 million (Bt1.6 billion) in 1990 to over $70 billion today. There are over 12,000 Indians studying in China and a variety of technologies in China are sourced by India.
The opening of several border trade routes has revived the historical connections once again. Their partnership in global negotiations such as climate change, fruitful participation in new regional initiatives like BRICS, Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation, and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the establishment of global institutions such as the China led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS-led New Development Bank are fast leading to new narratives that have departed from the hegemonic discourse of developed market economies.
Both India and China now have huge cross-border connectivity projects viz, One Belt One Road Initiative of China, Act East Policy of India, and Asia-Africa Growth Corridor of India and Japan. All these would connect Asian, African and European economies, with the potential to transform entire dynamics, shape and contents of regionalism and cross-continental integration.
It is critical for these two Asian giants to move towards cooperation and integration instead of a competitive-rivalry framework. This would result in a win-win paradigm of an Asian century. The bilateral parleys that have been occurring over the last 30 years have been reinforced by exchanges between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, there are a number of forces – rumour-mongers, war jingoists and intolerant institutions – that are trying to drive a wedge between the two countries.
These negative forces thrive in a situation of instability and conflict. A majority of the countries in South Asia share a common border with both China and India; as such they will have to calculate the costs of conflicts on societies, economies and geographies. Regional civil societies therefore, must come together to prevent conflict.
Lama is a High-End Expert in the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, China