Spotlight on Geopolitics

Whilst the world’s attention was recently focused on a relatively minor incident involving disputed islands in the South China Sea, the 4,000-km disputed border between India and China is quietly being beefed up militarily by both sides. In the words of M. Taylor Fravel, borders specialist with MIT, the border in question is “the most continuously negotiated border in modern history”.

Tensions generated by the Indian-Chinese border, which in 1962 erupted into full-fledged war between the two countries, date back to the times of the British Raj. Indeed, in 1914 the border was arbitrarily established by the simple drawing of a line on a map by Sir Robert MacMahon. Following this, in 1914 the British, on behalf of the Indians, signed the notorious Simla accord with the Tibetan government, which had briefly declared independence from China. Republican China had refused to take part in the talks and never recognised the loss of southern Tibet – a territory the size of Austria that goes these days by the name of Arunchal Pradesh – to the British colony, India.

After independence from Britain, India split along confessional lines, with Pakistan and Banglandesh appearing on the map. To date, India went to war in 1965 with Pakistan over Kashmir in the north, and with China over Aksai-Chin (a territory the size of Switzerland occupied by Chinese troops in 1962), as well as over Arunchal Pradesh (a Buddhist territory rich in forests and agricultural land).

The inconclusive conflict of 1962 ended with the two armies retreating behind the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which roughly follows the infamous MacMahon line. Since then, there have been incursions and so-called border violations in their thousands, as the old MacMahon line allowed for a 10 km “give-or-take” corridor the length of the entire border.

Relations between the two superpowers remained largely frozen until the eighties when both Deng Xiaoping and the Indian leadership realised that the two countries have to finalise their border disputes once and for all. Thus in 1993, the two sides agreed to adopt the CBM (Confidence Building Measures) agreement, which provided for non-aggression, notification of large troop movements and the establishment of a 10 km no-fly zone for military aircraft.

Negotiations between China and India continued, with the signing in 2005 of a “strategic partnership for peace and prosperity” by Wen Jiabao and Indian premier M. Sinh. The partnership is aimed at ensuring that border disputes are solved amiably and would not degenerate into a second border war between the two countries.

Latest developments

The neo-conservative Bush Jr. administration in Washington decided to befriend India and use it to contain China’s rise. It agreed to overlook India’s violation of the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty and the US replaced India’s traditional ally, the defunct Soviet Union, as the country’s new strategic partner. According to Washington Times editorialists, India started to be groomed by the State Department as a “new Australia” in Asia, in spite of the Indian political leadership’s deep suspicion of the US – a 50-year ally of Pakistan.

In 2007, the US military’s involvement with India culminated with joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, in which Singapore, the Australian and Japanese navies also took part. In 2009, India acquired 3.5 billion dollars’ worth of arms from the US, greatly alarming China.

Beijing describes India’s new foreign policy as based on the principle of “befriending the far and attacking the near”. Since the 1980’s the Dalai Lama – the old CIA protege – was reactivated and encouraged to tour world capitals in support of a Tibet cause, as the 1914 border accord had been signed with a de facto Tibetan state that had never been recognised internationally and disappeared after a few years.

The Indian public is continuously bombarded with news about so-called Chinese violations of Indian borders and of a Chinese military build-up of the border zones. In fact, as the same Taylor Fravel of MIT points out, China has successfully concluded permanent border agreements with all its neighbours except India and Bhutan. Its upgrade of military facilities does not target India in particular, as it encompasses the full length of China’s borders.

The anti-Chinese rhetoric has recently culminated with an article published by Baharat Verma, editor of the Indian Defense Review, in which he predicted that by 2012 China will attack India over the disputed territories. The scare tactics might, however, have been employed by the defence establishment in order to obtain the funds needed to renew its antiquated equipment. Thus, on October 7, 2010, India has signed a pre-contract agreement with Russia for the supply of between 250 and 300 latest generation Sukhoi fighter jets at an estimated cost of some 30 billion dollars, or 100 million USD per jet. Some fighter jets were already dispatched close to Arunchal Pradesh and 100,000 mountain troops were also sent to the area.

Meanwhile, Indian military officials and foreign policy pundits are claiming that China has replaced Pakistan as India’s biggest threat. Tensions, however, are mitigated by the fact that bilateral trade between the two countries is booming. If in 1990 this was worth 270 million dollars, the figure has reached around 60 billion dollars in 2009-2010. Clearly, India’s politicians and business establishment have a strong vested interest in normalising relations with China, whose economy is 4 times larger than India’s and is growing at a faster pace.

The Obama administration has fortunately abandoned the Bush administration’s reliance on India as a centerpiece of the US’ geostrategic realignment in Asia. President Obama is on record for saying that China and not India is the US’ main partner in Asia, provided the country abides by its self-imposed “peaceful rise” strategy.

India and China, however, still have the largest unsolved border issue in the world, with the potential to degenerate into full-fledged war at any time. If one takes into account the fact that the two countries are the largest and most populous in Asia and that they are both economically strong and nuclearly armed, one could more easily realise why the resolution of the issue cannot be delayed much longer without enormous risks for peace in Asia. (sources: Hindustan Times, Pakistan Daily, Arunchal News, People’s Daily, WSJ, Newsweek, The Australian, Washington Times, Japan Times)

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