During his June 1954 visit to India, Chinese Premier Chou Enlai and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru signed the Panchsheel Agreement. In reciprocation, PM Nehru paid a visit to China in October 1954. Guha (2011) has argued that, upon his return, PM Nehru addressed a massive public rally in Calcutta where he proudly said, “The people of China do not want war.” However, given the boundary dispute, gestures on the part of India like being the first one to recognize the Chinese communist government, support for its UN Security Council seat, and support for its participation in the Bandung Conference (1955) did not prevent the Sino-India war from taking place in 1962. This war proved PM Nehru’s words to be erroneous.
In the course of time, issues like Tibet, the Dalai Lama, the border dispute, border intrusions, stapled visas, the “string of pearls,” the river water dispute, and various geopolitical issues — Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Belt and Road Initiative, terrorism, and the latest stand-off over Doklam — have made Indo-China relations even more enervated. Despite the agreement being in place for peaceful coexistence and respect for each other’s sovereignty, if their armies are standing eyeball-to-eyeball for whatever reasons, then both countries need to revisit the Panchsheel Agreement.
Despite several visits, meetings, and mechanisms, Sino-India relations have remained off the keel, particularly during the Modi-Xi period. Soon after Narenda Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a visit to India that September. PM Modi broke protocol by receiving him in Ahmedabad. President Xi promised India USD 20 billion worth of investments over the following five years. In reciprocation, Xi extended an invitation to PM Modi to attend the APEC Summit in Beijing. However, PM Modi declined the invitation. To keep their leaderships in touch with each other, both countries have exchanged visits, held dialogues, etc. From the Indian side — Foreign Minister Swaraj (February 2015), PM Modi (May 2015) — and on China’s part — President Xi (September 2014 and October 2016) — visits have been exchanged to heighten cooperation and discuss conflicts.
The Dalai Lama issue has kept India and China on tenterhooks. Tibet lost its de facto independence in 1950, followed by the Dalai Lama’s exile to India (1959). Tibet’s government-in-exile was allowed to operate from McLeod Ganj. Since then, issues like Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and the boundary dispute have become issues that have affected Indo-China relations drastically. So, whenever Dalai Lama has a program to visit Tawang, this creates consternation for the Chinese leadership. China views him as a separatist leader who has refused to accept Chinese suzerainty and is consistently working for the freedom of Tibet.
In the case of the boundary dispute between India and China related to Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, one war has been fought between India and China (1962), and since then bilateral relations remained in a see-saw mode. In 1865, British civil servant W.H. Johnson drew the boundary along the Ladakh border in which Aksai Chin was been shown to be a part of Jammu and Kashmir. India accepted the line drawn by Johnson, whereas China disputed the claim. On the other hand, India repudiated the Chinese claim over Tawang, and referred to the Simla Treaty signed between British and Tibetan representatives. Under this treaty, Arunachal Pradesh was declared to be part of India. China had not accepted it, and argued that the Tibetan government had illegally entered into an agreement with the British.
Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and the boundary dispute have become interwoven issues between India and China. One cannot see Tibet isolated from boundary dispute, and similarly, the boundary dispute separated from the Dalai Lama. To comprehend this puzzle, the visits of the Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh are more than sufficient. These visits are taken very seriously by China, as China considers Tawang to be a part of southern Tibet and, thus, a part of China. Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh have a spiritual connection. Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. Time and again, China has shown its suspicion and displeasure over the Dalai Lama’s visits to Arunachal Pradesh.
The ongoing standoff between India and China over Doklam has emerged as a major confrontation, with both sides continuously pumping in reinforcements.
China warned India over the Dalai Lama’s program to visit Tawang in April 2017. During the latest visit of Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, China failed to use even diplomatic demeanours to put up its protest. The nationalistic and jingoistic Chinese tabloid Global Times went to the extent of warning India that it had to pay dearly for allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh. However, India did not pay attention to such uninvited and undiplomatic calls on the part of China and allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang. Given these dynamics, Tibet and the Dalai Lama have become critical issues between India and China.
The Indo-China border had faced several stand-offs before — September 1967, June 1986, November 2008, April 2013, August 2014, September 2014, and March 2016. But all those times, good sense and diplomacy prevailed, and the border tensions were diffused. The latest standoff over Doklam is different, as this time a third country, Bhutan, is involved in the standoff, making it more critical and dangerous. The Doklam stand-off started on June 16, and the armies of both countries have since been standing eyeball-to-eyeball on the both sides of the border on account of Chinese intrusion in the Doklam plateau for road construction.
Following this intrusion, the Royal Bhutanese Army urged India for its assistance to stop and push the Chinese out of their territory. Doklam is located at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan, and China. It is very near the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim as well as to the strategic Siliguri Corridor. The corridor is a narrow strip that connects India’s Northeast to the mainland. Realizing the security concerns for India, the Indian government decided to send troops. The Indian army intervened and has stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the Chinese forces for a more than a month. On the other hand, the Chinese have alleged that the Indian forces have crossed a “bottom line.”
The ongoing standoff between India and China over Doklam has emerged as a major confrontation, with both sides continuously pumping in reinforcements. From the Indian side, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has taken stock of ground situation with his visits to the 17 Mountain Division’s Headquarters in Gangtok and the 27 Mountain Division in Kalimpong on June 29. On the Chinese side, in his monthly defence ministry briefing, PLA spokesman Wu Qian took a very serious note of General Rawat’s claim that India is ready to take on a two-front war with China and Pakistan. Col. Wu said: “Such rhetoric is extremely irresponsible. We hope (the) particular person in the Indian Army could learn from historical lessons and stop such clamouring for war.”
In the current situation, both sides have deployed around 3,000 troops on each side standing eyeball-to-eyeball. The Hindustan Times (July 17, 2017) reported from Beijing that a 11-hour live-fire military exercise in Tibet had been conducted, keeping in mind the Doklam standoff. The Hindu (July 17, 2017) argued that the message of China’s live-fire military drill is loud and clear, which is that China is willing to expand the possible area of dispute beyond the current standoff.
The current standoff has serious regional security implications and may even expand beyond the disputed region. War is not the solution. Moreover, China should not remind India of 1962 war. Both countries need to learn from history. What had happened to Greece after its glorious history of the empire of Alexander the Great? What had happened to the major imperial powers like Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia? If a nationalistic and jingoistic continent like Europe can come out of wars and border disputes and peacefully coexist with open borders, then why not India and China? Both historically and geo-culturally bounded countries should learn from the past experience of Europe.
Asian countries are looking for Indo-China leadership. Without bilateral, regional, and global convergences over their political and economic interests, how may the Asian Century be dreamt? Many of the people of Asia are in the grip of poverty, unemployment, and the deprivation of necessities like housing, health, and education. If there is a war, it should be fought against poverty, hunger, unemployment, and the deprivation of basic needs.
Good vision and leadership for the 21st century in Asia are needed. It is, therefore, recommended that discord and disputes should not be translated into war. The wise leaderships of both countries will need to revisit the Panchsheel Agreement and coexist peacefully. There is a lot of space to accommodate each other’s competition and cooperation. Respect for each other’s sovereignty, diplomatic demeanor, and good sense should prevail.