Anyone who has at least some idea about the theory of international relations should remember the oft-quoted formula put forward by the father of British geopolitics, Halford Mackinder: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” For those who are sceptical about geopolitical constructs and terminology, this logical chain may seem like a meaningless shamanic incantation. Over the course of a century, “Mackinder’s formula” was repeatedly criticized, corrected, repudiated, anathematized, parodied and ridiculed. And yet, strange as it may seem, not only has this formula survived an entire century, but it is also perhaps more relevant today than it was a hundred years ago.
Of course, the question hinges on how we understand the concept of Heartland. Mackinder interpreted it as the geographical centre of Eurasia, or, more precisely, as the massive central and north-eastern part of the Asian continent, which on the whole coincided with the Asian areas ruled by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Today, it seems obvious that the “Eurasian core” must be sought south of the harsh, poorly developed and scarcely populated Siberian plains and barren deserts of Central Asia. Just like in the days of Mackinder, Siberia and Central Asia remain repositories of raw materials and energy resources. Just like before, these lands may be considered the “great natural fortress” of the land peoples, adjusted for the new arsenal of means of projecting military power that appeared in the 20th century. However, these lands did not become a true “axis of history”: contrary to Mackinder’s prophecies, their transport infrastructure remained incomplete and disconnected, while their role in the development of the Eurasian continent over the past 100 years has shrunk rather than grown.
At the risk of incurring the righteous indignation of the current geopolitical orthodox, let us postulate that the Eurasian Heartland of the 21st century is actually what Mackinder saw as the “inner crescent.” Primarily China and India, in relation to which the rest of the Eurasian massif – Russia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and even the extended European peninsula of the Asian mainland – act as continental limitrophe states. Despite the undeniable significance of these border states to European history, politics, economics and security, the fate of Europe depends primarily on how relations in the new Heartland (that is, between China and India) unfold. And the future of the whole world to a great degree depends on the fate of Eurasia. This is one of Mackinder’s main points, and it is by no means outdated.
The Prerequisites for Consolidation
It would seem that there are no fundamental obstacles to the consolidation of the Heartland: the interests of Beijing and New Delhi coincide on most major international issues. China and India have much in common. Both countries are, in their own way, historically stable and internally cohesive alternatives to Atlantic civilization. China and India are, along with the Arabic East (and to a lesser extent Tropical Africa south of the Sahara), the two most important points of the crystallization of “non-western” ideals. The fact that China and India are growing stronger is the most significant indicator that the “western” stage in the development of the system of international relations has drawn to a close.
As powerful drivers of economic growth both in Eurasia and around the world, both China and India are currently experiencing a stage of long-term economic, cultural and civilizational upheaval. Neither has fully overcome the deep trauma of national consciousness caused by their status as outsiders in global politics in the 19th and 20th century, and this trauma continues to have an impact on the historical narratives that dominate China and India and the foreign policy ambitions that emanate from these narratives. Beijing and New Delhi are “revisionist” players on the global stage in the sense that both China and India are interested in revising the old rules of the game that serve the interests of the “collective West.” China is leading a broad economic and financial offensive – from Central Europe to Latin America. India, lagging behind China in terms of foreign economic expansion, is focusing instead on closing the political gap by laying claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The two countries are exposed to all the standard “growing pains” – the negative side effects of rapid economic and social growth. Both China and India suffer from severe environmental problems, a shortage of natural resources, growing social inequality and widespread corruption. In addition to this, there are pockets of separatism and terrorism in both countries. China and India are also witnessing a conflict between modernization and traditionalist forces. The concept of “national sovereignty” is paramount in both states, and any attempt to interfere in their domestic affairs is met with hostility. People in both countries question the stability of the current model of socioeconomic development, and many fear or predict inevitable crises and upheavals in the future.
Historically, relations between India and China have always been less conflict-ridden than, say, the relations between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the west of the Eurasian continent. In a sense, it is fair to speak not only of the economic, cultural and spiritual compatibility of these two ancient civilizations, but also of the fact that these aspects have penetrated the other country and even complement one another. There are numerous examples of this – from the epic history of the Great Silk Road to the equally impressive chronicle of how Buddhism spread across Eastern Asia. In essence, the consolidation of a China–India Heartland would not mean the creation of something fundamentally new, but simply the natural reunification of a torn Eurasia, the restoration of a recently lost continental unity.
Hence, there are objective prerequisites for the consolidation of a new Heartland. It is worth adding here that, while recognizing all the difficulties and tactical losses, such a consolidation would serve the long-term interests of both countries. The implementation of the joint China–India project would contribute to the stabilization of the geopolitical situation in the entire Eurasian space and open up fundamentally new opportunities for transcontinental cooperation in various fields.
It would not be out of place to draw a parallel with post-War Western Europe here, when the reconciliation between France and Germany led to the launch of European integration processes. In turn, it was ultimately France and Germany that benefitted most from this process: the political will and the willingness to compromise demonstrated by the leaders in Paris and Bonn paid off time after time in the following decades.
The numerous benefits of consolidating the Eurasian heartland are too obvious to not be a subject of contemplation on both sides of the Himalayas. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi have, for at least the past six decades, developed more along the lines of a rivalry than cooperation – and this rivalry has on more than one occasion turned into direct confrontation. Why is this the case? Could it be the subjective mistakes of the leadership? Personal ambitions of leadership? The underhand practices of internal forces? The tragic accidents of history? Or perhaps there are some objective “ force majeure circumstances” that stand in the way of a new Heartland coming together?
The Dimensions of the Eurasian Schism
Let us start with what everyone already knows – the two countries represent very different types of government. The differences between China and India today are greater than those between France and Germany 50 years ago. While China is much farther away from Europe than India, it is, on the whole, considerably closer in terms of being a nation state in the European mould. Despite the fact that there are a significant number of national minorities in China and substantial regional differences, ethnic Chinese (Han Chinese) are a single people and make up more than 90 per cent of the country’s population. Of the 34 Chinese provinces, including the autonomous regions and cities of central subordination, only Taiwan falls outside the vertical power system of governance, for obvious reasons.
India does not have a dominant national people. In terms of its ethnocultural and linguistic diversity, the Indian subcontinent does not resemble a separate European state or China, but rather the European Union as a whole. And in terms of religious diversity, the multi-structural nature of the economy and the regional disparities, India goes way beyond the whole of Europe put together. India is made up of 29 states and seven union territories, which exist in a state of complex political interaction. India is essentially a grandiose integration project in South Asia that is primarily turned inwards rather than outwards. If we stretch the analogies somewhat further, we can say that, as a single state, China has the same problems in its dialogue with the eclectic and insulated India that centralized Russia has in its interactions with the amorphous and insulated European Union.
Evidently, the historical trajectories of the two countries have also diverged greatly, especially over the past 250 years. India was a British colony, and the nearly 200 years of British rule left an indelible imprint not only on the country’s political system, but also on its culture. China, on the other hand, has never been colonized by a foreign country. While British democracy was a “system-forming” factor for independent India, communist China regarded the Soviet Union of the 1950s as a model to be emulated. Despite the fact that both countries have moved far from their original models of the mid-20th century, there are no grounds to suggest that their political or economic systems have drawn any closer.
In theory, the China–India partnership could even benefit from the fact that their political systems are so different: China would assume the main role in its interaction with various authoritarian regimes, while India would take the lead when it comes to developing ties with western liberal-democratic regimes. In practice, however, the dissimilarity of the systems hinders cooperation and, more importantly, mutual understanding. In is noteworthy that Beijing has found it far easier to establish relations with Moscow in the 21st century than with New Delhi, although the history of China–Russia relations is far more dramatic and controversial than the history of China–India relations.
Since China and India are the two largest countries in continental Asia, competition for natural resources, foreign markets, control of transport corridors and influence over common neighbours is inevitable. The close proximity of the two major powers gives rise to border disputes: the countries share 4000 km border, and the problem right now is not even about resolving territorial disputes, but merely about preserving the territorial status quo and preventing an escalation. The sides feel tempted to support various instruments of influence in each other’s territories. What is more, the question of what best meets the development needs of other Asian countries – Chinese socialism or Indian democracy – remains open.
Trade between China and India is growing at a rapid pace; however, both India and China are more focused on global markets than they are on each other. And for decades they have been purchasing the main resources needed for modernization – investments and modern technologies – from the West, often competing directly with each other for them. Bilateral trade remains asymmetrical, with Chinese exports to India far outweighing its imports from that country. Moreover, Chinese economic activity in India is far from always seen by the latter in an exclusively positive light.
A stable balance of powers between China and India in Asia is hindered by the fact that, right now, China is stronger than India both economically and militarily, and this asymmetry is likely to persist for the foreseeable future. A consolidated Eurasian Heartland would be less of an equal partnership than that of France and Germany in the second half of the 20th century.
India is still dogged by painful memories of the 1962 Sino–Indian Border Conflict. The model of Asia and a “closed” system is thus advantageous for Beijing, with China’s dominance in this system being in no doubt. For the same reason, New Delhi is interested in an “open” Asia, in which the asymmetry in the balance of powers between China and India could be compensated by introducing external players (who are, of course, on India’s side) into the mix.
The Interests of External Players
The interests of the United States in Asia are obvious and depend very little on the change of administration in the White House, although Donald Trump’s team has articulated these interests more clearly and more gruffly than its predecessors. Washington cannot but fear the consolidation of the European Heartland and will therefore continue to capitalize on the deepening contradictions in China–India relations. Naturally, it is trying to manage this process somehow without steering it towards a large-scale military conflict with unpredictable consequences.
Today we are witnessing an attempt by the United States to replicate the successful approaches of Henry Kissinger taken in the 1970s and to build a Eurasian geopolitical triangle. The difference is that the USSR is replaced by China, and China is replaced by India. This explains the increased attention of the United States to New Delhi and the persistent attempts to involve India in multilateral groupings that include allies of the United States that are located on the island periphery of the Eurasian continent, namely Japan and Australia (the concept of a “democratic Indo-Pacific”). If Washington had succeeded in achieving the sustainable institutionalization of these groupings in the form of a military-technical alliance similar to NATO, this would have created long-term guaranteed preventing the consolidation of the Heartland. However, at this juncture, any format of allied relations with Washington is politically unacceptable for the Indian elite, which is pushing for the preservation of the country’s strategic independence. What is more, India cannot sacrifice its continental Eurasian partners (primarily Moscow and Tehran) – not even for the sake of friendship with Washington.
The European Union is less interested in the preservation, much less the exacerbation, of the confrontation between China and India. Of course, the consolidation of the Heartland would present a serious challenge for Europe too, but one that is more to do with economics than geopolitics. The formation of a single Eurasian economic space would undoubtedly speed up the displacement of Europe as the economic centre of activity in Eurasia to Asia and reduce the role of the European Union in the Eurasian and global economies. On the other hand, China and India are two of the most promising foreign markets for the European Union, and the further development of these markets in line with the strategic interests of Brussels.
As far as the European Union is concerned, the main question is: On what basis can the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland take place? Of course, Brussels would like to see Eurasian consolidation based on European standards, in compliance with European procedures and in line with European standards. The worst option for Brussels would be the gradual “economic absorption” of India by China and the implementation of the Eurasian integration process based on something that is entirely different from the European vision (for example, on the implementation of the One Road, One Belt initiative).
Russia’s interests in the various development scenarios for China–India relations are the subject of heated debates within the country’s expert community. On the one hand, it is often argued that maintaining tension in relations between Beijing and New Delhi makes Moscow a more valuable partner for both sides. Right now, Russia’s relations with China and India are better than those between China and India, meaning that it occupies the most advantageous position in this triangle. Based on this logic, we can assume that the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland around the China–India axis would entail a further shift in the Eurasian centre of gravity towards the south of Russia’s borders. This would marginalize Russia even further as a participant in the Eurasian community.
On the other hand, it is safe to predict that attempts to capitalize on the contradictions between China and India will inevitably raise suspicions both in Beijing and in New Delhi, cause them to doubt the sincerity of Russia’s actions, etc. It is easy to imagine a situation in which Moscow will be unable to maintain its neutral position and be forced to choose between its two most important partners in Asia, and whatever choice it makes will inevitably entail major losses. Let us not forget that the escalation of the confrontation between China and India – a factor that stands in the way of the consolidation of the Heartland – would leave the door wide open for the United States, which is not likely to be among Moscow’s friends any time soon. Moreover, such an escalation is fraught with the risk of a major military conflict breaking out on the continent, and this would inevitably affect Russia’s security. To summarize the advantages and disadvantages of consolidation for Russia, the only reasonable conclusion is that the expected benefits of a consolidated Heartland clearly outweigh the potential costs.
Let us make it clear right away – whatever Russia’s role in the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland, it will by no means be decisive. China–India relations have their own internal logic and their own dynamics that no external player (be it the United States, the European Union or Russia) can change. It would appear that, as the stronger party in these bilateral relations, China should go the extra mile to reduce suspicion and gain New Delhi’s trust. We could argue about what steps need to be taken and in what order, but this, strictly speaking, is not an issue for Russian foreign policy. However, this does not mean that Russia does not have a role in this most important issue.
On December 1, 2018, an attempt was made on the side-lines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires to step up the activities of the mechanism of tripartite cooperation between Russia, China and India (the RIC countries) and resume the practice of regular high-level meetings after a 12-year hiatus. According to Vladimir Putin, these meetings should focus on various aspects of security and the fight against protectionism and politically motivated restrictions in international trade. Developing these ideas, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi identified four possible areas for cooperation: regional and global stability, economic prosperity, the exchange of experience in areas of mutual interest, and cooperation on how to respond to emerging challenges. Similar thoughts were expressed by the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, who stressed the special responsibilities of the three powers to support regional and global stability.
In recent years, the RIC format has remained in the shadow of the more representative five-party cooperation structure that includes Brazil and South Africa (together, the five countries make up the BRICS association). Without belittling the significance of the latter two countries, it is worth noting that the geographical expansion of RIC into BRICS entailed certain institutional costs: the two non-Eurasian countries had their own tasks and priorities that differed from the agenda of the original Eurasian members. The fact that the last presidential election was won by Jair Balsonara, a far-right congressman, the so-called “Donald Trump of Brazil” raises a number of questions about the future of the five-party structure. In any case, it would surely be a grave miscalculation for Russian policy to “dissolve” RIC into BRICS completely.
In all likelihood, in the near future, tripartite summits will be held on the side-lines of larger multilateral events (G20 summits, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Asia–Europe Meeting, etc.). However, if everything is limited to brief and infrequent interactions between leaders, statements of coinciding positions or even the signing of general political declarations, then this will do little in terms of the consolidation of the Heartland. It is necessary to articulate, in a frank manner, the existing differences with regard to the most serious problems facing Eurasia. The leaders of the three countries should focus on the problems that are standing in the way of consolidation of the Eurasian space.
At the same time, considering the fact that these trilateral meetings are inevitably short, the issues raised should be studied thoroughly beforehand by experts and the relevant ministries in the track 1.5 and track 2 formats and with a view to developing specific “road maps.” It is precisely the specifics that have traditionally been lacking in joint statements adopted at the end of the annual meetings of RIC foreign ministers. Another urgent task that could help solve the problem of trust between the Chinese and Indian militaries is the creation of a permanent tripartite mechanism for military consultations and the holding of regular military exercises.
A practical political trialogue could begin with an open discussion of such issues as the future of Syria and Afghanistan, which are of great importance for all three participants. Equally significant are the development of individual functional dimensions of the Eurasian Heartland – joint initiatives in the fight against terrorism, managing migration flows, food and energy security, issues of international information exchange and the development of artificial intelligence. It is from the widest possible set of such functional regimes, not from old or new rigid institutional blocs, that the new Eurasian Heartland should be built.
India and China are Arctic Council observer states. As one of the leading members of this organization, Russia could suggest to its partners that they discuss Arctic issues together so that none of them could have any suspicions about Moscow possibly harbouring a position on these issues that could be considered “pro-China” or “pro-India.”
And, of course, more active trilateral interaction on issues that go beyond the geographical boundaries of the Eurasian continent would serve as a powerful incentive for the consolidation of the Heartland. The future of multilateral arms control. The reform of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and other global organizations. The development of international public law in the 21st century. Climate change and environmental issues. The management of technological progress. If Russia, China and India develop a united position on these and many other issues, it will carry far greater weight on the international arena than the individual opinions of each of these countries.
Ultimately, the Eurasian Heartland of the 21st century is not just a geopolitical, or a geo-economic concept. It represents, to a certain extent, common or similar views of leading Eurasian states on the future of the world order and a strategy for restoring manageability to a world that is coming apart at the seams. It is a joint sense of global stability and a common readiness to look beyond the narrow horizons of immediate national interests. It is only in the presence of such a community that the new Heartland can become the “axis of history” the illustrious father of British geopolitics and member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom Halford Mackinder wrote about, albeit in an entirely different context and according to a completely different logic.
First published in our partner RIAC
Suga Faces A Tough Road Ahead Without Enough Political Juice
Authors: Alexandre Uehara and Moises de Souza
The quantity and dimensionality of problems inherited by a sober and discrete Yoshihide Suga as the first new Japanese Prime Minister in almost a decade will demand that “Uncle Reiwa,” as the statesman is known, employ the skillst hat he has so amply demonstrated in the past: the ability to negotiate and find elegant solutions to complex questions. Suga’s competence as a negotiator was recognized as an important factor behind the success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which entered into force on December 30, 2018. This agreement—considered doomed to failure after US President Donald Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the TPP in January 2017—succeeded largely thanks to the vital leadership and tenacity of Japan, with Suga playing a key role behind the scenes. Suga also took the lead during the EU and Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement signed in 2019, considered by many as another example of outstanding negotiating performance. With such a resumé, these skills and experience proved critical in Suga’s victory in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership race, enabling him to garner support from a wide array of sources, ranging from LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to various factions within the Komeito, a partner in the coalition government.
The question now is whether his past performance can be replicated as Suga targets the current challenges that so recently have fallen into his lap. He is taking the helmata delicate moment for Japan, with uncertainties that will force him to show, domestically and abroad, what kind of leadership Japan will enjoy after a larger-than-life figure like Abe Shinzo steps down. And these challenges are coming from all quarters: the economy, public health, and regional security, just to name a few. Each of them has the potential to shape the future of the nation and the reputation of its prime minister, and certainly Yoshihide Suga is no exception. On top of that, legacy problems remain. On the one hand, the implicit promise of continuity with Shinzo Abe’s policies played a crucial role in winning the LDP the elections: on the other, this very factor is an element of concern, since opinion polls were already detecting signs of decline in the popularity of Abe’s cabinet. If Suga has any political ambition left, he cannot afford to make any mistakes in the short- and medium-term.
On the domestic front, there are two important and interrelated problems: The COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. These coterminous phenomena essentially represent a contradiction between uncertainty and reality. While few in Japan are clear about whether the current pandemic will turn into an ongoing ebb-and-flow in terms of virus contagion rates, the economic impact as a result of the response measures is already real. The profound effects have been translated into a new period of recession this year, an experience with which the Japanese a real ready very familiar, given their recent past. To make matters worse, the medicine intended to heal the wounds of economic recession was neutralized by the virus. Operating under the old adage that you have to spend money to make money, Tokyo expended over US$5 billion, with plans to spend US$2 billion more in 2020,to prepare the city to host the Olympic Games. Prospects showed that these investments would pay off. According to a report published in June 2020, it was projected that the Olympics would impact the Tokyo economy alone to the tune of almost US$190 billion, with a spill over effect on the overall Japanese economy of nearly US$300 billion and a potential impact of 0.2% of its GDP.Based on the same prospects, Japan signed an accord in 2013 with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), assuming total responsibility to bear all the costs alone in the (at that time improbable)event that the games would have to be postponed. Well, in what one might call the Forest Gump Effect, to wit: “life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get,” the games were indeed postponed. Investors, according to reporting by Bridgestone, reported losses of around US$3 billion so far as a result of the postponement. It also affected the IOC, which registered losses of more than US$800 million. For Japan’s economy, Goldman Sachs is calculating losses of about US$5.1 billion in terms of domestic consumption alone. Suga will have to find a solution for this imbroglio, which even Abe could not or did not have time to figure out.
In the international arena, Suga—like all Japanese Prime Ministers before him—will have to walk a tightrope, executing a delicate balancing act between Beijing and Washington. So far, his biggest challenge is to find his place amid the rising tensions between Japan’s two most important trading partners. On paper, the logic is simple: Tokyo has developed initiatives to strengthen its alliance with Washington concerning security, without hurting its bilateral trade with Beijing. In recent decades, the latter has become increasingly economically important to Japan. In practice, this is not an easy job for two reasons: First, the erratic temperament of Donald Trump and the tendency of his administration to play hardball even when negotiating with partners. The trade deal negotiated in 2019 stands as a case in point: Essentially, Japan walked away from the negotiating table with a commitment to give the United States access to its agricultural market in exchange for a vague promise that the Trump administration would not consider Japanese auto imports a “national security threat.” On top of that, Trump made it clear that he still wants Japan to pay for the American military bases on Japanese soil.
The second reason comes from Japan’s powerful neighbour, with an increasingly assertive China under Xi Jinping. In November 2019, after China proudly displayed its new ballistic and hypersonic cruise missile system, Taro Kono (then foreign minister and now the minister for administrative reform and regulatory reform) publicly demanded that Beijing make its military budget and strategic goals transparent, to avoid raising the level of alarm and anxiety in the region.In addition, a few weeks after taking the center seat, Suga had to deal with the presence of two Chinese ships in the disputed waters of the East China Sea—a practice that has been taking place more and more frequently since Xi became chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. It is exactly these episodes of Chinese assertiveness that motivated Yoshihide Suga to choose Vietnam and Indonesia as the destinations for his first official diplomatic trip as prime minister. As much as Abe did, Suga intends to strengthen security ties with both Southeast Asian nations. This, tempered with a degree of restraint in the use of strong anti-Chinese rhetoric, is intended as a clear signal to Beijing: the rules of the game haven’t changed, with or without the presence of Abe Shinzo.
Using the same logic, Suga did not alter the basis of Japan-Taiwan relations that developed so fruitfully on Abe’s watch. In fact, besides workingfor close relations with Taipei, Abe also developed a friendship with Taiwan’s current President Tsai Ing-wen. Suga’s decision to appoint Abe’s brother, Nobuo Kishi, as defense minister was a clear signal to China that, with regards to Taiwan, it will be business as usual in Tokyo despite the transfer of power. It a secret to no one in Japan (orin China, for that matter) that Kishi enjoys close ties with Taiwan, a place he has visited several times over the years, including meetings with President Tsai, as representative of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The last visit took place on the occasion of the funeral of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in August 2020. Such proximity makes Kishi the most trustworthy channel of communication between conservative Japanese leaders and Tsai, as well as with the Taiwanese elite itself. In response to Nobuo Kishi’s appointment, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin saidin a statement that the new minister of defense of Japan must “abide by the one-China principle and refrain from any form of official exchanges with the Taiwan region.”
Few specialists in Japan believe that Yoshihide Suga will have as long a mandate as his predecessor Abe Shinzo. Despite being technically qualified, Suga still lacks enough political juice to retain the position of prime minister beyond the general elections that must take place in one year’s time. The tide may eventually turn in favour of Suga-san, depending on how well he and his new cabinet manage the daunting challenges that they inherited from the previous administration. More than mere negotiation skills are needed, however, and there is no doubt that Suga will have to make some tough decisions that will come to define, in a large measure, his political future post-2021.
Nepal-China Boundary Treaty: An example of peaceful Himalayan frontiers
Chairman Mao: How is everything with Your Excellency? Have all the problems been solved?
King Mahendra: Everything is settled.
Chairman Mao: Fair and reasonable?
King Mahendra: Yes. We all agree.
Chairman Mao: It is good that we agree. There is goodwill on both sides. We hope that will get along well, and you hope we shall get along well too. We do not want to harm you, nor do you want to harm us.
King Mahendra: We fully understand.
Chairman Mao: We are equals; we cannot say one country is superior or inferior to the other.
King Mahendra: We very much appreciate the way of speaking.
This was a snippet of the candid conversation between founding father of People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong and Nepal’s the then king Mahendra on the historic Nepal-China Border Treaty day of 5 October 1961. A book titled ‘MAO ZEDUNG ON DIPLOMACY’ has detailed this conversation. The conversation is mentioned under the topic of ”Talk with Nepal’s king Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva and the queen’ (page 366 and 367) in the book.
This famous diplomatic book of Mao was compiled by The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China and the Party Literature Research Center under the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and was published by Foreign Languages Press Beijing on 1998.
This conversation, from the verbatim records, speaks volumes about the level of trust and the height of friendship between two neighbors Nepal and China.
Nepal-China boundary: An example of speedy settlement
Nepal and China boundary settlement has reached 59 years of its signing ceremony at Beijing. It is an extraordinary example of speedy settlement. Nepal and China formally established diplomatic relationship on 1 August 1955.
Few years later on 21 March 1960, Nepal and China signed Boundary Agreement. Nepal’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Bishweshwar Prashad Koirala signed it during the official China visit. The friendly diplomatic dialogue of Koirala and Mao is also included in the book ”MAO ZEDUNG ON DIPLOMACY’ under the topic of ”The Sino-Nepal Border Must be Peaceful and Friendly Forever.”
On 5 October 1961, Nepal and China signed Boundary Treaty at Beijing during the state visit of the then king Mahendra. The 1414-kilometer-long border treaty protocol was finally inscribed on 20 January 1963.
The adjustment was made on equal footing by land-swapping with Nepal gaining more land than it gave. According to a working paper presented at ”International Cross-Border Conference on Border Regions in Transition (BRIT)-XII Fukuoka (Japan)-Busan (South Korea) 13-16 November 2012” by Nepal’s former Director General of Survey Department and the author of the book titled ‘Boundary of Nepal’, China had given 302.75 square kilometer more land to Nepal.
The paper says, ”the adjustment was made on the basis of ‘give’ and ‘take’ and the inclusion of some pasture land within Nepalese territory. With this principle, Nepal had given 1,836.25 square kilometer of land to China and Nepal had taken 2,139.00 square kilometer, as it has been added 302.75 square kilometer of Chinese territory into Nepal.”
Nepal-China border settlement is an excellent example of speedy border settlement compared to Nepal’s southern neighbor India. Since the formal diplomatic engagement of 1955, it just took around eight years to ink full-fledged technical border adjustment between Nepal and China.
Tragically, Nepal and India are at odds over the border demarked by 204-year-old Treaty of Sugauli. The recent issue of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura and new political map of Nepal unanimously approved by lower and upper houses of the federal parliament point to the long-pending friendly border settlements between Nepal and India.
Media myths on China’s encroachment of Nepal’s territory
Nepal and India has not resolved much of their border tensions since long. Lately, there are some media reports, mainly from India, about so-called Chinese ‘encroachment’ of Nepal’s territory. There was report about missed pillar number 11. However, it came out to be untrue with the finding of the pillar. After field inspection and technical studies, Chief District Officer of Humla district, Chiranjibi Giri, made it clear that the rumored border encroachment from China was not the fact.
Similar incident was reported few weeks ago when Nepal’s leading daily Kantipur claimed China’s encroachment of Nepal’s territory citing unverified Ministry of Agriculture, the ministry that has nothing to do with border issues. However, after formal clarification from Nepal Government, the report was found to be false and the biggest daily of the nation apologized.
There is a section in Nepal that desperately wants to draw parallel between factual Nepal-India border tensions with fictitious Nepal-China border rows. However, so far, this mission has proven wrong at times.
Nepal does not have any serious border tension with China. The only concern Nepal has it about China-India agreement to ‘boost border trade at Quiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass’ as said in the 28th point of the joint communiqué issued by visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang on 15 May 2015.
Nepal has diplomatically protested about this agreement by two countries as Lipulekh falls in Nepali territory not only based on the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 but also the Nepal-China Boundary Treaty of 5 October 1961. Given China’s generosity and friendliness towards Nepal, it is not a big issue to address. Nepalese citizens are optimistic on China’s support on Nepal’s sovereignty over Lipulekh.
Why doesn’t China take India seriously?
India needs to formulate a long-term strategy on China, lest it be lurching from one crisis to another.
Amid rising anti-China sentiment in the aftermath of the bloody border clash with China, India has announced a slew of measures to curtail Chinese presence in the Indian economy. Building on previously imposed restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, the latest round of regulations constitute banning over 200 Chinese apps and clamping down on Chinese investments in Indian startups. These measures, while drawing applause from Western governments such as the US and helping massage the nationalistic ego, have seemingly failed to irk the Chinese administration as much as India would have intended, let alone compel the PLA to pull back from the disputed areas along the long and undemarcated Indo-China border. In previous instances as well, India’s signalling to China of allying more closely with the United States in response to China’s aggressive posture on the border has failed to yield desirable results. This begs the question: why does not China take India seriously? The answer may lie in India’s China policy which can be described as reactive at best and incoherent at worst.
India’s Policy Conundrum
Although its geopolitical rise has been significant – next only to China, India still finds itself bereft of a world order concept or a guiding foreign policy framework. The lack of which, when it comes to dealing with China, has translated into a foreign policy muddle. Mohan Malik, for instance, points out that there are three schools of thought in India’s policy-making with regards to China – pragmatism, hyperrealism, and appeasement. Pragmatists maintain that India should balance China both internally (increasing its economic and military strength w.r.t. China) and externally (by forging alliances and enhancing interstate cooperation with other powers) while mitigating differences through economic and diplomatic engagement. Hyperrealists decry pragmatists’ optimism that increased trade and economic engagement can win over a territorially unsatiated China and instead argue for an unabashed encirclement strategy towards it with other China-wary powers. Appeasers posit that China is a benign and friendly power, meaning no harm to India and that it should be enthusiastically engaged. In trying to accommodate such plethora of views in dealing with China, successive Indian governments have found themselves muddling through one approach to another.
Current Government and Policy Flip-Flops
Following the Galwan clash, India appears to be hinting at a change of tack as evinced by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s repeated assertions that realism should shape India’s China policy and that peace and tranquillity on the border cannot be separated from the overall architecture of bilateral ties. India’s slashing of Chinese presence in the Indian economy suggests a move in that direction. China’s rather staid response to India’s manoeuvres stems from a general under appreciation of Indian resolve to follow through on such a policy initiative. China’s belief in Indian irresoluteness is not without basis either. The new dispensation led by Narendra Modi started off by trying to bring the “pragmatic” element more into play in India’s dealings with China. To this end, it resorted to a two-pronged strategy of bolstering strategic ties with other regional partners alarmed by China’s newfound boldness such as Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Australia among others and spurred up defense and strategic ties with the US, while simultaneously trying to improve relations with China by enhancing bilateral trade (which was already heavily-tilted in China’s favour). However, relations nosedived with the Doklam standoff in June 2017 which lasted for over three months. Cognizant of its power differential with China, and therefore not keen on antagonizing it any further, India broached the idea of organizing an informal summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and India’s PM Narendra Modi. As the two leaders met in picturesque Wuhan, India had by then made up its mind to drop the “pragmatic” yet somewhat “confrontational” approach and decided in favour of going full throttle with appeasement vis-à-vis China. Following the summit, the Indian government scaled down its contact with the Tibet’s India-based government-in-exile and refused to back Australia’s bid to participate in the annual Malabar exercise. What exactly did India hope to achieve with such tactics is anyone’s guess as China continued to brazenly oppose India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and block India’s efforts to get Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar admitted to the UN Sanctions list – eventually relenting on the latter (courtesy of US pressure) while continuing to hyphenate India’s cause with Pakistan’s in the case of former.
A Long History of Fluctuating China Policy
As a matter of fact, the blame for such a vacillating policy cannot be squarely put at Modi’s doorsteps. Historical precedents abound where previous Indian governments too have struggled to come up with a comprehensive and coherent strategy on China. Notable examples include Jawaharlal Nehru’s flip-flops on China threat which not only cost India loss of territory but also resulted in a personal loss of face for Nehru. Some twenty-five years later, Rajiv Gandhi who showed remarkable courage in standing up to the Chinese challenge in a serious military provocation along the eastern flank of the LAC let go of the chance to articulate India’s long-term strategy vis-à-vis China and instead sought a quick return to normalcy in bilateral ties following his visit to Beijing in 1988. A decade later, AB Vajpayee, after having justified India’s nuclear tests as a response to Chinese nuclear weapons, ended up describing China as a “good neighbour” in his address at the Peking University only a couple of years later. Indeed, India’s foreign policy history is riddled with complacency on the part of successive Indian governments in dealing with its largest neighbour, and a continual cause of strategic concern.
It is clear that unless India does away with policy ad-hocism and sticks with a clear, long-term China policy,it would not be able to effect a change in China’s attitude towards itself. In this regard, Jaishankar’s recoupling of economic and trade ties with the larger border question is a welcome move, but a lot would depend on how determined India is to persevere through the demanding nature of realpolitik.
- Mohan Malik’s article on three schools of thought on India’s China policy: accessible at: https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a591916.pdf
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