Among the many more or less recent works dedicated to the analysis of the relations between India and China, Zorawar Daulet Singh’s latest opus is notable for its nuanced, insightful and objective treatment of a complex subject matter.
The author provides a detailed retrospective on the historical evolution of the dynamics between the two Asian neighbours, which he explored in earlier volumes and he expands it to embrace the geopolitical panorama of our times in order to provide context and make some recommendations for future policy. He carefully steers clear of the clichés about “democratic India vs. authoritarian China”, which do not fully account for the situation and can prove misleading insofar as they tend to ignore the pragmatic imperatives of realpolitik and pay insufficient attention to the cultural and psychological factors often scarcely affected by the difference in political regimes.
Daulet Singh points to certain constants in China’s foreign policy and territorial concerns since the days of the Qing Empire and shows that the pre-Maoist Kuo Ming Tang regime took a similar view of Tibet, Xinjiang and its borders with India and other nations, even if it did not have the means to enforce its claims. In parallel in 1947, the young Dalai Lama’s government had formally asked for the return of Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and a part of Ladakh, which it claimed as Tibetan territories.
Another important observation that emerges early in the text is that the ambiguous policies of the British Empire with regard to the Himalayan frontiers—where it was more concerned about accessing areas of commercial interest and carving out buffer zones rather than demarcating boundaries—were partly inherited by independent India. London had shown concern not to weaken KMT-ruled China, a confederate and an ally of the western alliance against Germany and Japan, but the British and later the Americans still relished the prospect of a sovereign Tibet without however acceding to the requests of the Lhasa government for diplomatic and military support. Likewise, Nehru’s government, influenced by his sympathy for the Communist Party’s struggle led by Mao, did not openly challenge China over Tibet but quietly supported Lhasa’s separatist claims after the PLA’s occupation in 1950. This equivocal attitude led Mao to regard India as a hostile power aligned with the West when the Chinese forces had to face a persistent US-abetted Tibetan rebellion in the wake of the Dalai Lama’s flight from the country in 1959.
It is notable that Pandit Nehru’s official recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in 1954 was not matched by a reciprocal acceptance from Beijing of the border drawn by the MacMahon Line. It is less well known that India’s official acknowledgment of Tibet as a part of China expired in 1962 and that India might therefore have extracted some concessions from the PRC in exchange for renewing that recognition as it did several years later.
Daulet Singh refers at several places to Neville Maxwell’s seminal analysis of the 1962 conflict to detect the mutual misunderstandings that clouded Sino-Indian relations and led to that unfortunate war. Misjudgement of the geopolitical situation at the time in New Delhi made Indian decision makers believe that an economically ravaged and isolated China after the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” would not dare attack on the Himalayan border, when in fact Mao needed to solidify his power at home by striking an easy blow at a weaker Indian Army, being reasonably sure that neither the USSR nor the USA would intervene militarily.
After this detailed and highly documented review of the last five decades of the twentieth century the author comes to the benchmark 2005 negotiations leading to the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principle for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question”, which reiterated that the long-standing proposal for a “package settlement” was still the only realistic option. It had been proposed on three earlier occasions by successive Chinese leaders beginning with Premier Zhou Enlai but India had declined or demurred each time due mostly to internal political circumstances. In short, the deal on offer was a swap between the western and eastern sectors of the 3,500-kilometre long LAC: Beijing would recognize Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang as part of India while New Delhi would acknowledge Aksai Chin as Chinese territory. Other disputes are minor as they concern only several geographic features along a hitherto never precisely defined boundary.
This apparently reasonable proposal would entail recognizing that Aksai Chin is not an undisputed part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (now of the Union Territory of Ladakh) in exchange for China ceding Tawang on which it has legitimate claims as long as Tibet is recognised as a region of the PRC. Yet New Delhi’s stance is that China took over Aksai Chin illegally while Arunachal is incontrovertibly Indian. The vexed issue of Kashmir between India and Pakistan must also have dissuaded successive policy-makers in New Delhi from making any concessions on other fronts.
Daulet Singh shows that as long as the inhospitable Himalayan highlands remained barely reachable from the Indian side (in contrast with the easier access from the Tibetan plateau) there were fewer risks of military confrontations and, during four decades the mutual Confidence Building Measures helped keep peace and tranquillity on the border. However, since 2015, the accelerated road building in the area by India demonstrated New Delhi’s new assertiveness and its abandonment of the longstanding “Curzonian” strategy of keeping the frontiers undeveloped in order to discourage an invasion.
The multiplication of increasingly deep-probing patrols from the two facing armies have inevitably triggered more clashes among which the June 2020 bloody fight in Ladakh was the most deadly for both sides. Consequently and to prevent the recurrence of such tragic events the author sees the need for more robust CBMs in the changing strategic context. He pleads for the establishment of a new equilibrium between the two giant neighbours, keeping in mind rapidly evolving geopolitics.
To illustrate the point the author notes that the perceptible hardening of China’s stance on the border from 2005 seems to have been in response to the contemporary rapprochement between India and the US, marked by bilateral negotiations for a “civilian nuclear deal” between the George W. Bush Administration and the UPA government led by Dr Manmohan Singh. Since 2013, negotiations between Beijing and Delhi remained frozen despite the conclusion of the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement.
The last parts of the book contain wide ranging reflections on the dramatic evolution of the international situation and the related changes in Asia and in China’s and India’s domestic policies and global roles. Zorawar Daulet Singh avers that the next years are not easily predictable and that crafting a flexible, autonomous course without joining a military alliance on either side of the new “cold war” between Eurasia and the US-led West is the best course for India. The author analyses the so-called “liberal world order”, which has often been described as a euphemism for American hegemony and points out that it was not beneficial to all members of the global community. He quotes Quinn Slobodian’s verdict that “neoliberal globalism is about containing politics and populism at home and traditional geopolitics abroad”. It is now increasingly contested and rejected within the very countries that still are its major promoters in North America and Europe while emerging powers such as China and India, which profited from it in economic terms, wish to preserve it in a modified form and share common interests in this and other areas where cooperative action will be in their best mutual interest. The book takes note of the conclusion drawn by various experts that China has no real plan to create a new global order under its hegemony, contrary to claims mostly coming from the US, and needs to support effective multipolarity.
The author concludes the volume with a useful table listing India-China Interactions based on interests and goals. It supports his suggestions for new and better ways for India to “manage China” in the region and draw benefits from the Belt and Road Initiative instead of boycotting it. In the end, furthering a mutually beneficial economic equation cannot but positively influence the boundary dispute.
All in all, the book draws a comprehensive picture of the global scenario from an enlightened Indian standpoint which takes a lucid and unbiased view of China’s ambitions, compulsions, concerns and interests.