An Intelligent Person’s Guide to the India-China Border Issue

Manoj Joshi's 'Understanding the India-China Border' is a fine book that deserves a wide audience.

As a leading defence correspondent, Manoj Joshi has been reporting on India-China relations for three decades. His book on the border issue, Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in the High Himalayas, is essential reading for the citizen struggling to understand the reasons for the armed clashes that have bedeviled our ties with China in recent years.

Joshi’s survey of the border problem from the early 1950s to the present is based on a comprehensive study of the literature available in the English language, supplemented by his insights as a journalist. For the Chinese perspective, he draws mainly on the memoirs of Dai Bingguo, Beijing’s special representative for the border talks. The book went to press before the appearance of two recent books – Shyam Saran’s magisterial How China Sees India and the World and Vijay Gokhale’s insightful After Tianmen.

“The Sino-Indian relationship,” states Joshi, “is actually a complex question where there are some constants like the boundary dispute, the United States and Tibet, and a number of variables at a given time, like the economic condition, domestic political situation, geopolitical orientations and so on.”

Manoj Joshi
Understanding the India-China Border: The enduring threat of war in the high Himalaya
HarperCollins, 2022

In 1993, India and China concluded the ‘Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity on the Line of Actual Control’, pledging to “strictly respect and observe the Line of Actual Control”, pending a final settlement of the border issue. They also agreed to keep their military forces in the areas near the Line of Actual Control to minimal levels, respecting the principle of “mutual and equal security”. In 1996, India and China took a further step forward, concluding an Agreement on Confidence Building Measures which, inter alia, provided for force limitations and required both parties to refrain from opening fire in the vicinity of the Line of Actual Control.

The two countries, however, had differing perceptions of the precise alignment of the Line of Actual Control, with the Chinese interpreting it as the line prevailing in November 1959. Attempts to resolve the differences broke down in 2002, following an attempted exchange of maps of the western sector. After a quick look at the Indian map, the Chinese returned the document to the Indian side and retrieved their own map. The brief exchange of maps relating to the Line of Actual Control revealed that the areas where the two sides had differing perceptions were far more numerous than had been thought earlier.

Also read: Excerpt: Is There a Danger of War in the Himalaya?

In 2003, at India’s initiative, the two countries embarked on a new approach. In parallel with the earlier processes relating to LAC clarification and CBMs, they agreed to appoint special representatives tasked with working out the guiding principles and the framework of a settlement of the boundary question. By 2005, the special representatives were able to reach agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Border Question. The agreement envisaged a “package settlement” on the basis of “meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments to their respective positions on the boundary question.” It provided that “the boundary should be along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features” and, further, that “the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”. These provisions were widely interpreted in India as calling for a boundary along the Himalayan crestline and leaving unchanged the status of Tawang as Indian territory.

Yet, within two years, the agreement began to fall apart. In May 2007, China declared that the provision regarding settled populations did not apply to Tawang and reasserted its claim to virtually the entire territory of Arunachal Pradesh.

Manoj Joshi. Credit: Author

Manoj Joshi.

According to Joshi, China changed its position because of parallel developments in Indo-US relations, Tibet, and a global economic crisis. In April 2007, the US presented India with a proposal for a “decisively broader strategic relationship”, with military implications. In July, India and the US reached an agreement providing for civilian nuclear exports to India and promoting India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. 2008 witnessed a Tibetan uprising in China and world-wide protests demonstrations by Tibetan refugees. The global financial crisis that broke out in 2007 highlighted China’s new importance as an economic power. China decided that the time had come to bring to a close DXP’s strategy of “hiding one’s capacities and biding one’s time”. These were the circumstances in which Xi Jinpeng emerged as China’s supreme leader in 2012.

China’s massive infrastructure construction projects in Tibet, involving roads, airports and railway lines vastly increased its troop deployment capacity in the border areas.  India responded by developing its own infrastructure. The “two countries were involved in a classic security dilemma”, observes Joshi, with each side viewing the other’s move as a potential security threat.

Watch: Complacency, Indian Army’s Failure to Assess Intel Also to Blame for 2020 Ladakh Clashes with China

As Joshi points out, the “Chinese view their Indian interaction through the lens of their concept of “comprehensive national power”. In 1990, the GDPs of the two countries were equal; by 2021, the Chinese economy was five times larger than India’s, reflecting a wide technological gap. What are the prospects of a return to some degree of normalcy along the border areas? Joshi offers some complex and qualified observations, which should be read in their entirety.

This fine book deserves a wide audience.

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer.