The situation on border is still tense and India requires a serious review of its foreign policy against China which has been consistently negating the traditional positions of the two states on borders. After the Galwan episode China dares again in Sikkim at Naku la but to face a bitter pushback. On January 21, 2021 the incident took place at Naku La (a pass in the northern Sikkim). Sikkim is a small state located between Nepal and Butan that merged with India in 1975 after a decisive referendum. The development took almost three decades for China to pass recognition in the year 2003. India and China share a long 3488 kilometers long border and Sikkim lies about 2500 kilometers (1500 miles) to the east of Ladakh. The border at Sikkim has witnessed a huge defence built up and military training exercises over the last few years, especially in the aftermath of Dokhlam crisis of 2017.
The Ambiguous Borders
The border between the two states is not fully demarcated and the process of clarifying and confirming the Line of Actual Control is in progress but to evade a conclusive agreement. McMohan line (850 kms. or 550 miles) drawn by British in 1914 at Simla determines the borders in the east. The dispute in the western zone of Ladakh Aksai Chin and Galwan and Pangong Tso owes to the failure of the British empire to demarcate a clear border line between the empire and China. In the pre-independence era two border lines were proposed known as ‘Johnson Line’ and ‘Macartney -McDonald Line’. The Johnson line (proposed in 1865) shows Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir i.e. under India’s control whereas Macartney-McDonald Line (proposed in 1893) places it under China’s control. While British initially remained silent over the former but in the light establishment of a Soviet Garrison near Sinkiang, as part of the larger game plan against the Soviet communists, they decided to officially follow the Johnson line that placed the huge land chunk of Aksaichin with India. However, the British failure to draw an agreed upon line with China passed a disputed legacy to India in 1947. And as Steven A. Hoffman remarks this ‘British ambiguity’ about Indian frontiers with China, paved the way for this post-colonial dispute. Since China followed a distinct policy over Tibet denying it an independent existence it unilaterally tried to impose the solution with Tibet and India which have resulted in intermittent conflicts between the two states.
The Chinese position on Tibet has turned more critical as US President Donald Trump has signed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020 (The Hindu). This gives United States’ Tibet policy a ground from where the US can clamor for its long commitment to support the cause of Tibet and the Tibetan government in exile (Central Tibetan Administration, CTA). The Act will now make it the official policy of the US Government to derail any Chinese proposition of interfering in the religious life of the Tibetans especially, the selection of the new Dalai Lama. It also supports the cause of Central Tibetan Associations government-in-Exile at Dharamshala, India. If the US can be so decisive about its Tibet policy why can’t India. India too has to review and reformulate its Tibet policy in view of the recent Chinese misdemeanors around the borders.
Modi’s Foreign Policy & the Indo-Pacific
After the latest border standoff Modi’s foreign policy has scored significantly as states like the US, France, Japan, Australia have turned pro-Indian against China. At the subcontinental level, however, it has faced the brunt of smaller states like Nepal, Maldives and Srilanka who have been under Chinese influence due to its ‘debt trap diplomacy’. India has to realize this realistically how China is undermining its position in the subcontinent. Its relations with Maldives, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Burma, and the Indian Ocean island states are currently satisfactory. The Chinese concern in South Asia is governed by its $62 billion dream project of CPEC that links Xinxiang province with Gwadar port. It runs through Karakoram area of Pak Occupied Kashmir, an officially claimed territory by India. In 2018 India even turned down the Chinese proposal of changing the name of the project as per Indian wishes. In the wake of the troubled waters in South China Sea and strained ties with Taiwan, South East Asian states and Hong Kong disorder CPEC provides a safe route for China to connect with South Asia, Middle East and Africa. Modi government has counterbalanced the Chinese overtures by following a more assertive approach in foreign affairs especially in the ‘Indo-pacific’ where it transforms the ‘look east policy’ into ‘act east policy’, secures a deal to build Sabang Port of Indonesia near Malacca strait, enters into oil exploration in South China sea with Vietnam and secures an understanding on strategically important Cocos island with Australia. He is the biggest challenge to China’s ambitious BRI project since the road to Indian supremacy in the continent runs through its veins (Thakur 2019).
The current BJP government has effectively checked the ‘strategic maneuvers’ of economically expanding and territorially asserting China at Doklam in 2017, Nakula in May 2020, at Galwan on June 15, 2020 and now again at Nakula on January 21, 2021. Since China has not dropped its ‘inching forward policy’ against its neighbors India needs to give a serious rethinking to its China policy. While China lays claim to Galwan and consider Arunachal as part of South Tibet India has to reexamine its policy of appeasement as has been charged by many. The policy of derecognizing of Tibet as part of China and claiming territories to the north of Aksaichin under Johnson line, officially followed by British in 1942, should be on the cards.
India has been following the ‘One-China policy’ (a policy that believes that there is only one sovereign state under the name China, as against the view that there are two states, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) also called Taiwan) since 2003 when China also recognized Indian integration of Sikkim. The recent US Act over Tibet and Indo-US strategic partnership troubles China and China has counseled India to stick to the ‘One China policy’ and refrain from entering into any agreement with Taiwan. Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of China calls the Tibetan Government in Exile based in India at Dharamshala “a separatist political organization”, working towards Tibetan freedom, a gross violation of Chinese constitution. China also expects India to dissociate itself from any collaboration with Taiwan government. In the meantime, the meeting between Lobsang Sangay of CTA and the US diplomat Robert A Destro also worries China that takes it as a step against the US commitment of not supporting the cause of Tibetan independence and TGiE (Tibetan Government in Exile). Since China doesn’t honour the Mac Mohan line and the western borders India’s sticking to the principle of ‘one China policy’ that considers Taiwan as part of PRC appears off the mark and deserves a withdrawal. Sympathy with the citizens of Hong Kong and Nepal over occupation of its territories by China (Rui village and 11 more strategic points) should be vocal and India should attempt at building a joint surveillance and monitory system over the borders of these smaller neighbors as a means of collective deterrence.
Although India and China are officially committed to the One-China, One-India policy, the latter has never kept the words thorough its border prickings. Today, when India is troubled by the question of Kashmir China has more sores at its end in the shape of South China Sea, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, issues with Japan and South Korea and Southern Magnolia. It provides significant leverage to Indian foreign policy school to probe for the ‘appropriate policy exchanges’ to undermine the Chinese position on its borders and South Asia. Alas! The policy of placation doesn’t give way to the counsel of Kautilya and Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, who had advised Prime Minister Nehru to be aware from the Chinese expansionism and stand for Tibetan security to develop a buffer between the two states. India has emerged strongly out of the pandemic and its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ (free supply of vaccine to all the neighbors except Pakistan) would surely strengthen its ties with them. China has been critical of this benevolence but despite of Chinese propagation against the vaccine about 92 countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bolivia, have approached India for commercial supply of vaccines (News18). The foreign policy decisions on QUAD, Indo-Pacific, One China Policy, Tibet and South China Sea are primary keeping in view the new NAM policy which is fraught with dangers .
- News 18. January 26, 2021. “Covid Diplomacy: How India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ Jabs Have Put China on the Ropes”.https://www.news18.com/news/india/covid-diplomacy-how-indias-vaccine-maitri-jabs-have-put-china-on-the-ropes-3339179.html
- Thakur, Harish K. 2019. “Understanding the India China Border Fiasco: The Unfair Timing and the Befitting Reply”. Iablis (Globkult). https://www.iablis.de/iablis/themen/2020-schach-dem-wissen/forum-2020/644-understanding-the-india-china-border-fiasco-the-unfair-timing-and-the-befitting-reply.
- The Hindu. December 28, 2020. “Trump signs Tibet policy to preempt Chinese move on Dalai Lama’s succession”. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/trump-signs-tibet-policy-to-preempt-chinese-move-on-dalai-lamas-succession/article33435635.ece