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Why China is in no hurry to sort border dispute with India

By Sana Hashmi
June 01, 2015 08:54 IST
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As of now, in the case of China’s border dispute with India, China is not likely to lose much if it does not resolve the dispute.  In fact, the unresolved border dispute has much to offer to China, says Sana Hashmi.

India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s comments on the India-China border dispute on May 22 indicates that India is hardening it approach on the India-China border dispute. This seems to be in continuation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments made during his recent China visit.

Modi’s visit is being heralded as a watershed event in India-China bilateral relations, during which the issue of border dispute was also touched upon candidly -- a rarity in the Indian approach in dealing with the issue on Chinese soil.

Doval’s comments are of significance as he is also the Special Representative for India-China boundary negotiations. Doval, while addressing an audience at the annual K F Rustamji Lecture, stated that “China was ready to accept the McMohan Line on its border settlement with Myanmar but not with India”. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying replied to Doval’s comment by stating that China considers the McMahon Line as illegal and does not recognise the validity of the same.

For decades, China has been maintaining that it considers the McMohan Line as illegal. However, the facts state otherwise, especially in terms of China’s stand on the McMohan Line. Logically, if China is in disagreement with the very existence of the McMohan Line, it should be implemented uniformly with an active and constructive support of India and Myanmar.

Comparing Myanmar’s case with India

While both India and Myanmar inherited the border dispute from British colonialists, China’s approach towards Myanmar with respect to the border dispute is not to be compared with China’s border equation with India for reasons more than one.

Going back to history, it was Chinese first Premier Zhou Enlai who, while negotiating the disputed boundary with his Myanmarese counterpart, U Nu, suggested that the China-Myanmar boundary will be negotiated on the basis of the ‘customary alignment’.

The border agreement between China and Myanmar was settled on October 10, 1960, the same time when India and China began to hold talks and set up a joint committee to examine the factual data from both sides. It is imperative to note that most of the northern portion of the China-Myanmar border was based on the McMahon Line. In essence, China, accepted this alignment but it never referred to it as the McMahon Line, and rather referred to it as the customary boundary.

The primary reason behind such an act was that settling its boundary with Myanmar by accepting the McMahon Line as the legal boundary between China and Myanmar would mean that China recognises Tibet as an independent nation in 1914 when the Simla accord was signed. Of course, China does not want to convey this in any way. On the contrary, by resolving the border dispute, China wanted its neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Nepal and Afghanistan to recognise Tibet as a legitimate part of China. It was also to project its benign image at the regional level.

However, in India’s case, in the 1950-60s, granting of political asylum to Tibetans by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru closed all the doors for the resolution of the India-China border dispute.

Second, for Myanmar, settling the border dispute with China was more important than deliberating the importance of the McMahon Line. In fact, during the negotiation process in 1956, Myanmar chose not to put at risk its relation with China and preferred to hold talks in a quiet manner. Further, Myanmar was considerably accommodative than any other neighbour as it was more concerned about its regime’s survival.

Third, China’s approach while resolving the dispute with different countries in different regions has been sharply divergent. As of now, China has settled its border with 12 out of 14 neighbouring countries. While China has offered considerable concessions to the 12 neighbouring countries for securing its frontiers, it seems China is in no hurry to settle its border with India. The trajectory of China’s border dispute resolution reveals that there are two conditions for China to resolve the territorial dispute:

  • China resolves the dispute only when the opponent state is relatively weaker and China is in a better position at the negotiating table; or/and
  • China resolves the dispute only when its internal security is at stake.

As of now, in the case of China’s border dispute with India, China is not likely to lose much if it does not resolve the dispute.  In fact, the unresolved border dispute has much to offer to China. However, in the case of Myanmar, instability in Tibet and the flight of the present Dalai Lama to India compelled China to settle its border with western and southern neighbours. Another major reason for China to address the China-Myanmar border question was the presence of the bases of the Kuomintang forces (nationalists) in Myanmar along its border with Yunnan.

Settling the India-China border

India-China relations are marred by their long un-demarcated border. China still has several reasons for keeping the dispute alive, while India has more reasons to resolve the dispute at the earliest.

China was aware that resolving the dispute with Myanmar in 1960 would offer desired pay-offs to China and it was not wrong. It not only strengthened China-Myanmar border trade but also made China Myanmar’s only reliable partner during the nation’s self-imposed isolation period.

So far as the border dispute settlement is concerned, while an early settlement of the dispute is not likely, there are a few positive developments. In the past few months, no major border incursions have taken place. Further, it was the first time in the past decade that the high-level visit has been completed without any dramatic event taking place at the border. These developments still do not guarantee a speedy resolution to the prolonged dispute.

Thus, maintaining status quo is not only a requirement but a compulsion too.

Sana Hashmi is associate fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies.

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