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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 42, October 11, 2014

India - China: Economic Development and the Boundary Problem: Xi’s Visit

Saturday 11 October 2014

by V. C. Bhutani

The economic discussions between Xi and Modi and the $ 20 billion Chinese forthcoming investment in Indian infrastructure and other projects naturally and rightly received a lot of appreciation and attention in India. Several analysts have said that India should work to attract investment from the USA and other Western countries too, in addition to investment from Japan and China. Modi has an opportunity to set the country on an upward economic trajectory by working towards 10 per cent annual growth of the Indian economy for at least a decade: he can make this possible by removing permit raj and bureaucratic hassles and ensuring ease of business.

From the moment of Xi’s arrival, though, news about Chinese transgression at Chumar in Ladakh area also made the headlines and gave the media an opportunity to provoke fears that another Chinese invasion was about to come. To be sure, that’s how ordinary Indian citizens of an older vintage think about China. The moment they hear someone talk about China, they right away think of 1962, which they have lived through. Younger people may not see 1962 in the same light. But they should know that there is some such thing as the Sino-Indian boundary question which has a certain centrality in the Indian people’s perception because for them 1962 was real.

Xi and Modi have said that they shall seriously pursue this question and push negotiations towards a solution of the problem.

It is in order to remind ourselves that Chinese armed forces in all the services number a mind-boggling 1.6 million, with enormous reach of its nuclear weapons and ICBMs. It’s a matter of imagination why China needs such a large standing Army and armaments to meet the demands of internal peace-keeping and external threat. No one has suggested that China faces a security threat from any source but still Xi told the PLA Generals to be ready and prepared for regional war: perhaps Xi has no imagination of a WWIII. How and where China can use its large standing Army remain moot questions.

It is also in order to point out that no one in his senses seriously thinks that China is likely to provoke a military showdown with India. In my humble view, this is unlikely in the foreseeable future. China needs a continued and prolonged period of peace to pursue its economic development further and to get on with its other objectives in international relations. A war with India will arrest China’s economic development for a considerable period of time and throw into a limbo any other nation-building plans that it may have made. Besides, the rest of the world is not likely to take a kind view of a Chinese war against India: it may adversely impact China’s economic relations with other countries. It is unlikely that China shall begin a war with India.

Additionally, India 2014 is very different from India 1962. Military development and growth of the three services and developments in the nuclear field have made war with India an unattractive option. A war will produce a stalemate: neither side can hope to decisively defeat the other. China can hurt India a lot, but India too can hurt China—if not equally then, say, about half as much. Even that may be an unacceptable level of damage. There are no advantages that China can hope to reap from a war with India at an acceptable cost.

It is nobody’s case that India might start a war with China. I would beg of my countrymen to think objectively and not be carried away by lop-sided presentation of news like Chumar—now or in the future.

Having said this, it is perhaps appropriate that we should talk about the boundary question. It will serve no useful purpose to go into the history of the question or of the rights and wrongs on either side. We have a situation on our hands and lots of people in both countries have been studying the problem during the last 50 years and more. Everything about the problem has been carefully studied by scholars, think-tanks, diplomats, and others in both countries and by some in other countries. By now both governments’ officers know what the problem is and where the boundary ought to be. If the two governments’ officers are given a green signal by their political leaders that they should meet and produce an agreed draft of a boundary settlement, perhaps the officers shall do so without taking too much time. What is needed is a political decision by the two governments that the boundary question should be settled. It seems that leaders in both countries see now that it is time to solve this problem. Promises and prospects of investment and profession of friendship shall not take away the centrality of the boundary question. Without a boundary settlement, India—China relations shall not achieve their natural level.

I beg to submit that we cannot hope to introduce earth-shaking changes in the LAC, however well or ill-defined it may be. In the main, the two sides should agree to confirm the present LAC in all sectors as the IB, with rectification here or there. India cannot hope to recover Aksai Chin from China and China cannot hope to take Arunachal Pradesh from India. The problem does not lend itself to a military solution. That’s the bottom-line of the question.

The LAC is really not a line. It is a region where the two sides have conflicting claims to territory but in practice they have been able to devise means of ensuring peace and tranquillity on the borders through CBMs. Agreement on the parameters of the settlement of the boundary question needs to be kept in mind. The officials will have to devise a boundary line which observes those parameters.

The boundary at present is not demarcated. Therefore, technically, there can be no violation of boundary and no transgression. At the same time, it is interesting that we have not heard of an Indian transgression of the boundary at any time.

Tawang shall not be ceded by India. It was not for nothing that in 1914 it was given to India by an Indo-Tibetan boundary agreement, when China was not in the picture and did not have a hand in the making of that agreement. Perhaps an arrangement could be devised by which Tibetan ecclesiastical interest in Tawang could still be preserved while it remains on the Indian side of the boundary.

Xi and Modi will have to prepare public opinion in their countries to accept a settlement on these lines. There is no sense in whipping up ultra-nationalistic fervour in either country.

The author, an international affairs specialist, is a retired Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.