India, China officials cautious over border issues
The latest row between India and China over the controversial border crossings by Chinese military forces reflects long-lasting and unresolved issues between the two countries.
However, it looks highly unlikely to escalate significantly or undermine cooperation between the two vast nations across a wide spectrum of areas.
India’s Home Affairs Minister Mullappally Ramachandran told the Rajya Sabha, the main house of the parliament of India in New Delhi, that the Chinese Army had crossed the Sino-India border into India more than 500 times in the past two years.
Ramachandran informed the parliament in May that the government had documented 228 cases of transgressions of the Indo-China border by the People’s Liberation Army in 2010 compared to 213 cases in 2011 and 64 cases in the first four months of 2012.
The government’s decision to go public with its complaints is expected to raise diplomatic temperatures in New Delhi and Beijing. The announcement may reflect a desire by the government to reassure voters of its continuing tough stand on the issue.
The next general elections, while not imminent, must be held by May 2014.
The announcement may also reflect a growing sense and frustration in the Indian government and foreign ministry that China will continue to block India’s efforts to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]. India enjoys observer status with the SCO and in the past Russia has supported India’s efforts to become a full member. But China, while stopping short of vetoing these efforts, continues to block them indefinitely.
The reported Chinese incursions and India’s highly public latest response to them do not reflect any escalation in tensions between the two most populous nations in the world. Instead, they confirm the stresses felt on both sides by unresolved border issues that go back to the 19th century.
Border set by Britain in 19th century
In 1897 the British Empire, which then ruled India, unilaterally proclaimed a border with China and Tibet in the highly inaccessible Himalaya Mountains that successive governments of China have never accepted. The government of China at the time, then ruled by the Dowager Empress Cixi of the Qing dynasty, was not even consulted.
Today, India’s official position remains that China is continuing to occupy 15,000 square miles of Indian territories. Beijing, on the other hand, insists India continues to hold claim to almost 40,000 square miles of territory that belongs to it. The older demarcation between the two giant nations is not even described as a border. Instead, it is acknowledged as the Line of Actual Control [LAC].
In this context, most if not all of the alleged Chinese incursions can be understood as efforts by China not to undermine relations with India, but as assertions of territorial rights maintained in border regions whose exact and final status remain unresolved.
Ramachandran acknowledged this underlying reality in his report to the Rajya Sabhra. “There are cases of transgression due to the perception of Line of Actual Control,” he said.
Ramachandran also acknowledged that tensions were not escalating in the disputed regions. He confirmed that no intrusions by Chinese military forces had taken place or been recorded along the common border or LAC during the past two years. He also announced forces of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police had been deployed to serve along the border.
Arackaparambil Kurien Antony, India’s veteran and highly respected defense minister since 2006, made the important admission to the same session of parliament that China was not increasing or advancing its military presence in any way in the disputed regions.
“The number of incidents of Chinese transgression beyond our perception of LAC during the last five years has generally been as per the established pattern,” he said.
Anthony said that even the LAC between India and China is not commonly agreed upon. He said the governments of both countries remain determined to send military patrols into the specific areas they regard as their own territory, regardless of the perceptions and publicly insisted-upon boundaries of the other sides.
“Indian security forces patrol up to all areas that fall within the Indian perception of LAC. Specific incidents of transgression due to differences in perception of LAC are taken up with the Chinese side through established mechanism such as hot lines, flag meetings, border personnel meetings and normal diplomatic channels,” he told parliament.
“Effective border management is carried out through surveillance and regular patrolling by forces to prevent transgression from the Chinese side,” he said.
China claims Indian troops crossed border
Beijing lost no time in responding to the Indian government’s accusations of border crossings. Two days later, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei re-emphasized China’s continuing commitment to peace and stability along its long-disputed border with India.
“The Chinese side always abides by relevant agreements with India. … The Chinese position on China and India boundary question is clear and consistent. China is always committed to [upholding] bilateral agreements aimed at ensuring peace and stability at the border areas,” Hong told reporters at a press briefing.
Meanwhile, the state-controlled Global Times cited Wang Dehua, a prominent analyst, as claiming that India had committed twice as many incursions into territory also claimed by China over the past two years.
“If Indian troops were held accountable for crossing into China’s territory, the number of transgressions by Indian side could be more than double that during the same period,” Wang said.
The Himalayas border regions dispute looks unlikely to escalate, given the determination of both governments to avoid conflict. Analyst Debasish Roy Chowdhury writing in Asia Times Online in February noted, “The two sides have put in place elaborate mechanisms to sort out the differences in the event of conflicting perceptions on the border alignment and prevent such altercations from snowballing. This is why not a single shot has been fired across the LAC since New Delhi and Beijing signed the 1993 Confidence Building Measures on the border.”
Underlying India’s concerns, however, is the major infrastructure build-up and investment China has poured into its border areas close to India, including Tibet.
Indian Defense Minister Antony told the parliament in May that China had leaped ahead of India with its build up, and India has to expand its defense expenditures especially in its neighboring state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Antony also told parliament the government already granted him the go-ahead to create two new mountain divisions and deploy a Special Forces battalion, an artillery brigade and an armored regiment for deployment in the northeast sector.
Antony enjoyed the bipartisan support of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which approved funding for a new Himalayan region build up.
Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, the opposition leader in parliament, told the same session of the Rajya Sabha that China had drawn far closer to Pakistan in recent years. Because of this, “our defense strategy has to be planned, particularly when you find Chinese troops present in PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) and in other areas,” he said.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said that “overall our relations [with Beijing] are quite good,” but he acknowledged that “the border problem is a long-standing problem.”