With India and China interacting over more than 3,000km of undefined frontier, friction is constant and that one day it would break back into border war has seemed inevitable. Two great Indian delusions have created this situation.
The lesser of these was the outright falsehood spun in the shock of immediate and utter Indian defeat in 1962’s Round One border war with China, when, after the hesitant launch of an Indian offensive to drive the Chinese out of India-claimed territory on the Chinese side of the McMahon Line, the pre-emptive Chinese counter-attack had in little more than a month crushed the Indian Army. It enabled the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to vacate all the territory it had occupied with nothing more than the minatory – and humiliating – warning to India, “don’t challenge us again”.
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The absurd myth of an “unprovoked Chinese aggression” which had taken India by surprise was promulgated to resurrect the broken image of “Pandit” Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister personally and pre-eminently responsible for the national disaster. Although long ago exposed and belied internationally, in India the myth has fermented in high military as well as political circles a longing for revenge.
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The underlying and greater delusion is that India’s geographical limits are set by millennial historical forces. The process of boundary formation established and required by the international community (negotiation to achieve agreement on border alignment and cooperation to demarcate the agreed alignment on the ground) thus becomes otiose for the Indian republic. India, having “discovered” the alignment of its borders through historical research, need only display them on its official maps and those would become defined international boundaries “not open to discussion with anybody”, as Nehru put it in a notorious order in 1954.
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He applied his own ruling literally and categorically, rejecting Beijing’s repeated calls for negotiation; and every one of his scores of successors in the Indian leadership has clung, or felt nailed to, that obdurate and provocative stance, in effect claiming the sole right unilaterally to define China’s as well as India’s borders. Every generation of literate Indians is inculcated with that false sense of national oppression by the cartographic image showing broad areas of Indian territory “occupied” by China, with reminders that Beijing’s maps reveal an intention to seize even more.
The Sino-Indian interface along the undefined and contested frontier is consequently and constantly a source of international friction, waiting only for incidental sparks to set off martial conflagration.
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Border war was narrowly averted in 1987 when a belligerent Indian Army commander, General Krishnaswamy Sundarj, having been foiled in his plan to render Pakistan a “broken-back state”, turned his attention to the China border. He massively reinforced positions there and in deliberate provocation pushed numerous posts across the established McMahon line of actual control. China reacted with matching troop concentrations and air force inductions, and warned India to desist from its aggressions, which, in the late summer of 1987, it did, probably under US pressure.
The heat went out of the confrontation but the Indian Army was left in a grossly unbalanced situation, with great troop concentrations beyond normal supply reach. That predicament induced a new Indian government, under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, to negotiate in 1993 India’s one and only border agreement with the PRC: jointly to observe the line of actual control (LAC) and to reduce force levels to a practical minimum. Later, developments fell far short of what the treaty required.
The current confrontation in the Sikkim sector might appear to have similar origins in military rather than political assertions, with India’s army chief, General Bipin Rawat, beating his chest with boasts that India can fight and win on “two and a half” fronts simultaneously.
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But the context points to deeper factors. India has recently been goading China in what can only have been a purposeful series of actions. Rather than let the LAC mature with the passing years, India has been needling Beijing by taking such doll figures as the Dalai Lama and loud-mouthed American diplomats into the disputed border region India proclaims to be its state of Arunachal Pradesh, and megaphoning the false claim that the McMahon alignment represents a legal boundary rather than a historical but contested claim. The McMahon Line in fact rests on a British diplomatic forgery, long exposed. This may be another indication that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided that India’s interest will be served better in an aggressive American alliance rather than in a neighbourly relationship with China.
The sudden convergence of Indian and Chinese troop concentrations around the current military confrontation in Doklam illustrates again the truth of Curzon’s observation in his Oxford lecture that borders can be “the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the modern issue of war or peace”. There is a spicy historical irony here because this confrontation is precisely sited in the single, tiny Sino-Indian border sector that was long ago treaty-defined and demarcated.
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In 1890, rational self-interest brought the mighty British Raj to sit down in conference, as if on equal terms, with the ruler of the Lilliputian Himalayan state of Sikkim, agree on the alignment of the state’s border and jointly mark that out on the ground. Time, weather and probably local human mischief will have obliterated the border markers but the careful verbal description in the Treaty prevails to prove that the local Indian commander, with or without higher orders, has blatantly moved forces into what is now Chinese territory. Beijing, sorely chafed already by India’s recent repeated provocations, appears to have decided that this is too much, and has itself adopted the absolutist Nehruvian position of “no discussion without withdrawal”.
The Indian attempt to depict this confrontation as tripartite should be disregarded. Bhutan is not an independent actor, is rather an Indian glove-puppet. A brigade group of the Indian Army, permanently stationed in Bhutan and now reinforced, is an ever-present reminder to Bhutan’s ruling group of what happened to Sikkim when its ruler aspired to independence – speedy annexation.
Thus this still petty armed confrontation has a real and potentially enormous explosive potential – Round Two of Sino-Indian war. The way out, and ahead, lies where it always has been, in the opening of comprehensive, unconditional Sino-Indian boundary negotiation. What bars the way is the requirement of Indian policy reversal, which in the current bellicose mood and twisted popular sense of injury in India would require heroic bravery of leadership.
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There is an example of just such an action, which seeded what now appears to be the key geopolitical factor of the age, the Sino-Russian alliance: Gorbachev’s reversal of the Soviets’ no-negotiation stance in the border dispute with China, blooded in the Zhenbao Island battles of 1969. From the long-extended negotiations to compromise severely clashing territorial claims emerged a mutual confidence and trust that, annealed by common exposure to American hostility, set into an alliance just short of formal declaration. Should a leader ever emerge in India with the courage and vision Gorbachev showed, such too could be a Sino-Indian future.
Neville Maxwell, who covered the 1962 China-India border war as the South Asia correspondent for The Times, is the author of India’s China War. In March 2014, Maxwell leaked the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report, an Indian government report from 1963 examining India’s defeat in the Sino-Indian War that is yet to be declassified.