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Galwan Valley: Revisiting the History of Sino-Indian relations

The two fastest-growing economies in Asia have shared a tumultuous past. Since age-old, India and China have much in common. Back in time, China and India even maintained ‘religious, economic and cultural’ ties. For example, Buddhism spread from India to China via the Silk Road in 67 AD. More recently, during the 1930s, marches were organised within India to support China’s freedom, and our country sent a medical mission to help its neighbours. In the early 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, devised the famous slogan hindi chini bhai bhai indicating India’s proclivity for cordial relations with China. 

Despite wholehearted efforts, India and China could not sustain their initial camaraderie. What, then, went wrong? Fast-forwarding to 2020, the current border clashes with China in the Galwan Valley call for attention and signal the possible escalation of military tensions in both countries. With the recent skirmish leaving at least 20 casualties, it becomes important to address India’s evolving relationship with its favourite frenemy. Against this backdrop, let us delve into the history of Indo-China relations since the independence of both countries.

Sino-Indian relations have always been characterised by territorial claims and tensions along the border. The hostility traces back to when India was under colonial rule. The British and the Chinese, at the Simla Conference in 1914, negotiated the border separating Assam from Tibet. This was the McMahon Line. The Chinese, however, never accepted the frontier and till date, clashes occur as a result. 

Another point of contention is the ‘Roof of the World’. Tensions over Tibet are recurrent and never-ending. Years ago, Tibet was an independent country of strategic importance and served as ‘a buffer state between India and China’. It had recognised Chinese sovereignty but was an autonomous region led by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader. In 1950s, China claimed Tibet to be historically part of their empire and annexed it. This evoked a bitter response from the Tibetans and condemnation from the Government of India. However, both Tibet and India were pressured into accepting China’s autonomy in the former. Later, in 1959, in light of awakened tensions and the Chinese suppression of an uprising in Tibet, the Dalai Lama was forced into exile and was granted refuge by the Indian government. This was touted to be ‘the greatest escape in history’. Since then, relations have been unstable. 

The Indian reception of the Dalai Lama was not well-taken by the Chinese government. Mao Zedong, the Communist leader, criticised Nehru’s Tibet policy at the Politburo Standing Committee in 1959. He said: ‘Nehru miscalculated the situation believing that China could not suppress the rebellion in Tibet and would have to beg for India’s help.’ In a book published by him, he even accused India of causing the Lhasa rebellion in Tibet. Thus, China perceived India to be a threat to its autonomy in Tibet. 

Meanwhile, Nehru was in correspondence with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier. In April 1960, Zhou paid a visit to India to negotiate with Nehru. He unofficially offered him a bargain: ‘that India drop its claims to Aksai Chin in return for a Chinese withdrawal of claims over NEFA’. However, Nehru believed that both the contested territories were part of India and refused the offer. According to scholars, had Nehru accepted the ‘workable solution’, the 1962 war could have been avoided. His decision has been actively criticised till date.

India subsequently adopted the forward policy. It involved ‘the decision to set up forward military posts, to deter the Chinese from advancing across the McMahon Line and claiming Indian territory as theirs’. As Srinath Raghavan writes, ‘a crucial component of India’s frontier policy was to adopt a robust stance and eschew any move indicating doubt or weakness’. Scholars contend that India’s ‘aggressive’ forward policy triggered the war. 

Another strand of thought is that the Sino-Indian War was Mao’s way of ‘regaining his own control over China by unifying it against an outside enemy’. Between 1958 and early 1960s, Mao’s government followed policies linked to industrialisation. However, instead of industrialisation came a famine which caused the loss of 17-45 million lives. Thus, Mao was ‘discredited’ and ‘most likely on his way out’. To mobilise his army against another country would provide the scapegoat he needed to stay in power. 

The enmity turned grave when Indian soldiers discovered Chinese presence in the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh in the 1960s. The Chinese also laid claim to Arunachal Pradesh (then, NEFA), which they believed to be ‘South Tibet’ and thus a part of their territory. This fuelled further territorial disputes which ultimately led to the occupation of Ladakh and NEFA by China and the start of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The Chinese responded to the so-called aggression by dispatching a troop of 80,000 soldiers, immensely overpowering the Indians. After gory fighting and much carnage, China unilaterally pulled out its forces from India. By then, it had captured about 43,000 square kilometres of our territory. 

The next blow came in 1967, along the Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim. During the 1965 Indo-Pak War, China had sided with Pakistan and given India a series of ultimatums to stop its ‘naked aggression’ against its ally. One of them included pulling out of what they perceived to be Chinese territory. As a result, a border scuffle over a fence in Nathu La quickly turned into a bloody affair, leaving 88 Indian and more than 300 Chinese soldiers dead. The Indian response to Chinese infiltration was a way to reassert their authority after their humiliating defeat in 1962. 

With the recent abrogation of article 370 which took away the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir, India’s relations with both China and Pakistan stand threatened. The Chinese claim that the unilateral decision with regards to Kashmir has ‘posed a challenge to the sovereignty of China and Pakistan’ and ‘violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area’. India’s stand, however, remains that ‘changes in a temporary provision of the Constitution’ are internal and ‘the sole prerogative of the country’. The ongoing feud may be China’s response to this decision and thus, comes as no surprise.

The main question on everyone’s minds is: what’s next? Some claim that a limited war between both countries seems to be the worst-case scenario: ‘China’s military pre-emption indicates its political intent — impose its will on India. Its coercive diplomacy has not achieved the desired results. Loss of face is defeat for the superior power. If India does not relent, limited war is almost a compulsion for China’. Others claim that India must back down as it is in no way prepared to go to war with China. For India, the situation is especially grave as it is surrounded by unfriendly neighbours on both sides. Strategy and tact are required to combat threats to our territorial integrity. Our border disputes have been dragged long enough and warrant to be settled for once and for all. 
Karishni Puri is currently a second-year undergraduate student of Economics and International Relations at Ashoka University.

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