Millennium Post

Gauging Sino-Indian spat

The latest Sino-Indian spat on temporary land boundaries in the far north of India need to be understood on the anvil of two facts:

(1) China has settled boundary disputes with 17 of its neighbours out of a total of 23 countries since 1949. This had made M.Taylor Fravel comment in a MIT study in 2005 that “….it has offered substantial compromises in most of these settlements, usually receiving less than 50 percent of the contested land.”
(2) The boundary disputes and the Chinese claim on territoriality of land or sea waters is usually stemming from what it still calls, “century of humiliation” – a time between 19th and 20th century - before the onset of the Communist revolution. The boundaries and lost territories of China resulted from humiliating treaties between the Qing dynasty, nominally ruling the nation, and foreign invaders like Japan and Britain, imposing unequal treaties, making the Qings to cede land and territorial seas.

So, in the present revivalist and exceptionalist China, when there was a spurt of nationalist sentiment, which the regime of Hu Jintao generally allowed to grow, and what the present Xi Jinping rule, with his own heightened sense of history, would not surely mar, the risks for China’s neighbours increased.

Simultaneously, this is also an opportunity for the neighbours to bring to the table mutually gratifying solutions on the table and seek settlements. However, in case of India, China has an attitude of looking askance at a ‘precocious child.’ That appeared to be the message that Xi’s China wanted to deliver with the incursion in the Depsang valley.

For a sovereign country, the problem remains that lessons imparted from across the borders are seldom judged in a benign context. There are always sections of society, troubled by their hurt ‘patriotism,’ who seek a demonstration of belligerence especially if the differential between competing armed forces is not very large.

This can let political developments grow their own kinesis and transform quickly into military confrontations that can truly destabilise regions, regimes, and relationships.

On the other hand, a neighbour like India that is equally focussed on fast economic growth and expanding trade relations, a close study of China in its current avatar is of extreme importance. For example, not one agency in India could still predict that whether this three-week long siege by the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) was discussed in a full Polit Bureau meeting of the Chinese CCP or even amongst the seven-member Standing Committee of the Polit Bureau.

All there is to go by in New Delhi, are the famous few words of Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, that this was a “localised” incident. It fails any reasonable and rational mind to imagine that when the armed forces of a neighbouring country  trespasses across a disputed territory and creates an international incident, it is not reflective of only a local commander’s wish, even with the necessary gumption, to move without specific orders from the upper levels of hierarchy.

It is also a reflection of the country’s national security management that when the decision-making during the PAPF siege had to be structured, only a handful of people were mobilised, to take decisions without so much as a full picture of what was going on in Beijing.

In no reports of the situation that transpired in mid-April was there a public mention that India had a correct appreciation of what made the Chinese PAPF to become ‘squatters.’ Of course, the Chinese side did claim that they were on the Chinese territory. But surely, they were not hoping that New Delhi would listen to them in earnest, and allow them to live on that icy desert for good times and bad.

In other words, the Depsang valley episode seem like an image that existed but got lost in the background of the brilliant whiteness of the ice. The opacity of the Chinese side is matched by the lack of clarity in India, which created its own laws of the turf that though the problem was being tackled through multi-agency processes, only the ministry of external affairs was the empowered authority to interact in the public sphere.

This led to a series of leaked reports from organisations like the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Sino-Indian border force administered by the ministry of home affairs, the intelligence agencies and ministry of defence, all putting out self-aggrandising accounts of the events that were happening at a place where the media was not allowed to reach.

The sheer cacophony this created could not have been reduced, but for a strong and an authoritative voice to emerge and clear the confusion. Unfortunately, it is too much to ask from Dr Manmohan Singh’s government that has long ago lost its moral authority to rule. The attitude that abounded seem to be “We are Indians; we live to confuse and confuse to live.”
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