The Himalayan Geopolitics: What is Driving China in its Dealing of the Border with India?
For Beijing, it’s all about rectifying the historical wrongs
History defines a nation. Few nations demonstrate it better than China, a proud heir to its 5000-year-old traditions. Its subjugation at the hands of Britain, Japan, France, and Russia during the 19th and the 20th centuries forms the founding narrative of modern China. In its history, it is the “Century of Humiliation,” spanning from 1839 to 1949, when it lost large parts of its territory to these colonial powers.
The Century of Humiliation ended with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) taking control of the country in 1949. However, there remained several vestiges which the Chinese leadership believes they must rectify for the victory to be complete. Rewriting the colonial era agreements — such as the border agreements with British India — that was imposed by the foreign powers is one of them. Alison Kaufman, an Asia analyst at America’s Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), explains it elaborately in the testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing in 2011. The current state of geopolitics and China’s emergence as a great power has made it even more visible in the way it is engaging with India along their shared border.
In the 19th century, the Qing dynasty in China became weak and vulnerable. The British, Japanese, French, and Russians, all picked up pieces of China as they found convenient (The Discourse of Unequal Treaties in Modern China, by Dong Wang, Pacific Affairs, 2003). It was forced to enter into humiliating agreements, such as the Treaty of Nanking, ceding Hong Kong to Britain in 1842, followed later by Myanmar and Nepal. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia went to France; Korea and Sakhalin to Japan; and Mongolia, Amuria, and Ussuria to Russia. With its current economic might and military assertiveness, China is trying to regain its lost territories and extend its zone of influence further afield, which Brzezinski foresaw in his Grand Chessboard (1997). Today such expansion is economical and commercial, rather than territorial. China is merely following the path that history, geography, and economy dictate.
Beijing has been slowly extending into South East Asia for the first half-century since the beginning of the communist rule, as Robert Kaplan, an American geopolitics specialist, wrote in Revenge of Geography (2012). It shares the Mekong river basin and its resources with Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, although not having any common border with China, have sizeable Chinese diasporas who enjoy a strong influence on national commerce and politics. In 2004, China surpassed the USA as the largest trading partner of the ASEAN. Myanmar shares borders with both India and China. Beijing has kept it under a tight grip through large scale investments, close relations with its Army, ethnic armed organizations, and support to its government as it faced international criticism for its handling of the Rohingya issue.
Pakistan has always been China’s strategic forward base, where it is developing large infrastructure projects, accessing Central Asia and the Arabian Sea under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. These include the Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea, and the 1872 km Karachi-Lahore-Peshawar Railway Track.
In 2001, China entered into a comprehensive security agreement with its Central Asian neighbors through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Nepal, an Indian ally for many years, has recently taken a different path leaning towards Beijing under the Nepal Communist Party government. China is making inroads into Bhutan as well, despite India’s neighborhood first policy and more than 50 years of friendly diplomatic ties.
The Chinese Dragon is now ready to focus on its borders with India.
China and India are geographically close, but the high Himalayan range — from the jungles of Myanmar to the Karakoram Range in Pakistan — keeps them apart. They did not have any significant border issues in the past, mainly owing to the inhospitable topography of the area. Until recently, both sides were content with the status quo prevailing since the 1962 war. A few recent developments, such as the clashes at Galwan Valley, seem to have altered it forever. There are several contentious issues between them — including Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s government in exile in India, the British-introduced MacMahon line in the North East of India, and Aksai Chin across its North-Western border.
The Macmahon line was an outcome of the 1914 Simla Convention, signed by British India and Tibet. An 885 km (550 miles) line running through the mountains from Bhutan to Myanmar, it demarcated the border between India and China. The latter, however, never recognized it, arguing that Tibet didn’t have the authority to sign such an agreement. The MacMahon line awarded a vast mountainous territory to India, which now forms India’s Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese maps show some 65,000 km2 (25,000 sq mi) area south of the line as part of the Tibet Autonomous Region, calling it South Tibet.
The Aksai Chin dispute is a more complicated case. There was never any defined line through this area, comprising the Aksai Chin plateau. Furthermore, there had, over the years, been wide variations in the alignments favored by the British. This plateau is a 37,000 km2 desolate, mostly uninhabited area between Tibet and Xinjiang, through which ancient caravan routes passed. The People’s Liberation Army started using the caravan track in the 1950s to get from Xinjiang to Tibet and completed a modern road in October 1957.
China has repeatedly raised the issue of the MacMahon line for negotiations with India since 1949. But India consistently refused to open this dialogue, considering it a closed case, as Neville Maxwell has reported (Maxwell, N. (1970). China and India: The Un-Negotiated Dispute, The Cambridge China Quarterly). India preferred a continuation of the status the British imposed on its weak neighbor from a position of strength. China sought an overall settlement of the boundary question. The difference was fundamental, and there was never any resolution. It is a situation of historically entrenched power dynamics in the region.
However, China has now become the geopolitical behemoth. It wants to settle the matter from a position of strength, although India is not a week state either. The issue is not just about security, but also erasing its memory of the Century of Humiliation.
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