Can a Handshake Thaw India-China Relations?

When India and China embraced each other as brothers in the early 1950s – a truly historic achievement, no one applauded Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong/Zhou Enlai as smart leaders. But the Nixon-Kissinger and Mao/Zhou duo were hailed for their epoch-changing handshake in the early 1970s; likewise, Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping ended the Chinese-Soviet bitter feud, and the two communist nations held their first leadership summit in 30 years in 1989.

Will the political leadership of Asia’s two giant nations step forward and once again embrace one another? Will Simla – an Indian Himalayan city that hosted the historic 1914 Simla Conference, now spelt as Shimla – ever host an India-China Friendship summit? Will such a move be hailed as smart? Or, is mutual trust the prerequisite for restoring political normalcy between India and China?

Lingering Border Dispute a Territorial Issue

In his most recent remarks on the ongoing simmering tensions between India and China, in response to a question if China had occupied Indian territory, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said: “Issue is not about territory… any expectation the relations would somehow normalize while the border situation is not normal, is not a well-founded expectation.” Skeptics and/or cynics will interpret the above remark as meaning the border dispute between our two countries was never a territorial issue.

In fact, some critics of India’s China policy even maintain that neither bloody fist-fighting in Galwan Valley (2020) nor the 73-day standoff in Doklam (2017) or for that matter the border war in 1962 had anything to do with the conditions on the border. Instead, simmering tensions on the border all over the past 70 years or so have been caused due to the shifting strategic interests of the two backward societies with growing economies. This, critics further state, in turn, cannot be separated from a survey of the historically evolving geopolitical ambitions of the two countries, and their respective ties and arrangements with other powerful states.  

Blaming History for Their Own Failure

Attributing the border war in the past and simmering tensions along the border today to deep “historical roots” may not be fully justified. However, this is not to deny what most experts in both India and China, and abroad agree, that is, the main reason for the escalating tensions is that the national border is not yet clearly demarcated. Besides, calling history – in particular the colonial past – as too complicated a factor is only making matters worse between the two fast-growing Asian neighbors.

It is precisely this complex understanding of the “deeper and wider historical context” that has rendered both countries to remain stuck in the past. Not surprisingly, a recent book on how to understand the India-China border describes their territorial dispute as sui generis

Furthermore, it is this inability to break free from the so-called “complicated history” mindset, as has been argued, that is preventing India and China not only from developing newer perspectives on how to resolve the stalemate but also did not let the two countries “get rid of the colonial past in the early days of their founding.” It was this failure to rise above their colonial-era worldview that in spite of both the nations’ desire to maintain friendly relations, they could not sustain their sincere attempt at forging brotherly ties. And, instead went on to spill each other’s blood in less than 5-6 years of advocating “India and China brotherhood.” 

Territorial Ambitions or Strategic Perspectives

At least if not at the official level, in the mainstream media and academic discussions in the two countries, “strategic ambitions” have been given more credence over the “divergences on   the McMahon Line” and Tibet/Dalai Lama as among the fundamental reasons for the border war in 1962. And undeniably also for the relentless incidents of hostilities as well as simmering tensions on the border since the war. As one Hamburg-based Asia specialist at the Institute of Global and Area Research pointed out in a research paper on the occasion of 50 years of the war in 2012: “China was willing to even accept the McMahon Line as the border in exchange for India giving up Aksai Chin. [Aksai Chin] eventually came under Chinese control when it annexed Tibet.”

“But it’s not about acquiring territory, it is more because China needs this area (Aksai Chin) to build its transportation links connecting the west and other provinces,” Bates, the German researcher went on to observe. A similar view dominates the debates among scholars in China. Considered one of the most influential voices within China (and well-known to the Indian China experts community) on the India-China border problem, Professor Liu Zongyi of the South Asia Research Centre at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, has been advocating for years that on the issue of border dispute, “strategic ambitions” have been taking precedence over objectivity.

Dominant Discourses in China and India

In a widely read (re-printed or reported by most national dailies in India) opinion piece in 2012, Liu had emphasized that more than the divergences on the McMahon Line, it was India’s support to Dalai Lama’s uprising in Tibet that had alarmed China vis-à-vis India in 1959 and thereafter. Liu wrote: “After India provided shelter for the Dalai Lama in exile in 1959, China had to handle the boundary issue with India from a strategic perspective.” [emphasis added]

More recently, in India too, a section of the public discourse representing the establishment view on the issue nearly echoes the strategic ambitions mindset. Rejecting a call for a dialogue between the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Indian ruling party BJP’s ideological mentor – Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, an RSS representative wrote: “It is flawed assumption that the reason for conflicts between the two nations is mistrust between India and China. It was China’s sabotage in the 1960s that led to the war with India. The CPC has not shown any change in its expansionist worldview.” [emphasis added]  

Will India and China Shake Hands?

To sum up, what is worrying is that deepening mistrust between the two nations, rising ambitions to become “strong power” and “world power” respectively, and both countries accusing each other of unchecked belligerence to nibble away at each other’s territory, etc. have led to increased frequency of armed skirmishes on the border in recent years. And military experts, diplomacy specialists, and scholars on both sides have not only ruled out peace and tranquility returning on the border in the short-run, but have warned of a further escalation in the frequency and intensity of such hostilities.

Though it is not known how much China has been spending on building infrastructure along the border, according to Jaishankar, India’s spending has risen more than three fold in the past eight years. Speaking on the occasion of three years since the Galwan incidents recently, Jaishankar said: “The average border infrastructure budget in 2014 was less than USD 40 billion. Today, it is USD 140 billion.” In such a situation, and in the absence of positive thinking on both sides, it is near impossible to think of an enduring settlement of the border.

The need of the hour is to show courage, as Liu Zongyi mentioned in his op-ed piece in 2012: “In disputes and conflicts between two countries, we shouldn’t purely place the blame on one side.” For all these past decades both India and China have been fighting on the ground as well in the mind. But they haven’t made any progress in bringing about a change in the situation. On the contrary, things have only further worsened between the two. Instead of putting the blame on “complicated history,” it is time both New Delhi and Beijing should be thinking innovatively to create history. A handshake is the only way forward.