A good time to talk. The conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India, at the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009.  Reuters/Adnan Abidi
A good time to talk. The conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India, at the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

News stories about the current Sino-Indian border dispute offer a lesson in how appearance – and US press coverage of a crisis can be deceiving. The border dispute broke out when Indian border troops crossed the Sikkim sector of the China-India boundary and entered into Chinese territory on June 18. Sikkim was an independent state under British India. It was annexed by India in 1975 after a bloody invasion instigated by India’s equivalent of the CIA, euphemistically called Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). I say Sikkim got a “RAW” deal. India’s take over prompted not a peep from the international community. Sikkim’s former Queen, Hope Cooke, was a debutante from New York and a graduate of Sarah Lawrence.
The current situation is not too different than what took place in 1962 when there was a brief but sharp border war between India and China. It took place at the height of the Cold War and coincided with the onset of the Cuban missile crisis, it was reported in the Western press as another case of a Communist country attacking a peaceful nation. The truth was far different. I am glad there is not shrill reporting this time.
Neville Maxwell, an Australian, was posted in New Delhi in 1959 as a South Asia correspondent of the Times and therefore was on the scene prior to and at the time of the conflict. In 1967, he returned as a senior fellow from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, this time as a scholar. Therefore, he had a unique perspective both as a journalist and as a scholar. His definitive book, India’s China War, set the record straight once and for all. In a twist of irony, India, which touts its democratic form of government, banned the book. The truth was just too inconvenient. However, the book was read by Henry Kissinger, who recommended it to President Nixon. When Nixon met Premier Chou En-Lai in his historic visit to China in 1972, he told the Chinese Premier that he finally and fully understood the truth of the conflict.

The border conflict between India and China had its genesis in British Raj days. Maxwell pointed out the obvious: that an expanding empire will continue to push out its frontier until it meets the resistance of another empire or reaches a physical barrier. British India was just such a case. Britain conquered India from the sea, and its territory continued to expand further north. By the late 18th century, it soon came into contact with China. At that time, Britain was in the throes of Russophobia that would last for more than a century. Britain was determined to stop Russia from taking India, the Jewel in the Crown, away from its domain. The so-called Great Game began in earnest with both Russia and Britain trying to expand their reach. Britain was concerned that a land route could be used to invade India from the north.

For Britain, it was important to keep the Russians away from passes that could be used to invade India. British found a way to set up puppet buffer states that would not cost much to garrison. But first Britain had to “convince” these states to cooperate. When they didn’t Britain simply invaded and conquered these states, such as with Kashmir. Afghanistan turned out to be a tougher nut to crack. Britain fought two punitive wars against Afghanistan with dire consequences. In the first Afghan war, Britain installed a puppet king, which I liken to the 19th century version of “president” Hamid Kazai. Afghans rose and forced the British to retreat. The retreat became a rout. Of 12,000 soldiers, mostly Indians and camp followers with even a few English officers’ family members, only a single person survived. The second punitive war did not fare much better despite the use of modern weapons. The outcome was pure slaughter.
The boundaries between British India and China were separated by several independent states such as Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. However, there was no such state in the western and eastern sectors, which would ultimately lead to war between India and China. In the western sector, the principal ploy for the British, as mentioned above, was to keep a buffer between Russia and British India. Therefore, Britain welcomed the Chinese claim that its southern border ran along the Karakoram Range and the watershed between the Indus and the Tarim basin. China even erected a marker in the Karakoram Pass in 1892. China has always maintained its sovereignty of Aksai Chin, the area north of Karakoram. The ancient Silk Road, which connected the two Chinese provinces of Sinkiang and Tibet, ran through it. In 1907, Britain in its negotiation with Russia acknowledged that fact contrary to several earlier and later arbitrary boundaries drawn by the British.
At the beginning of the 20th century the northeastern boundary of British India extended from the southern border of Bhutan along the foothills where they rise abruptly from the plains for their steep climb to the Tibetan tableland. Unlike the northwest, where there were no inhabitants, the northeast was inhabited by various tribes whose ethnic, religious and cultural affinity were closely related to Tibetans and therefore to the Chinese rather than Indians. They even paid taxes to Tibet. Moreover, The second most sacred Tibetan monastery next to Lhasa, Tawang, is there. The 13th Dalai Lama, the predecessor to the current Dalai Lama, was born there. 

But Britain still was not satisfied. In 1913, it convened a conference in Simla, the purpose of which was to force China to accept the division of Tibet into an inner and outer zone with no administrative rights in Outer Tibet. It clearly was an attempt to separate Tibet from China, needless to say China refused. The British delegation was led by Henry McMahon, then the Foreign Secretary of British India, who unilaterally drew the McMahon Line. No Indian was present in any of these discussions. Shortly thereafter, both China and Britain were distracted by other matters. China had become a republic only a short time earlier, and the central government was still weak; while Britain was gearing up for the onset of World War I. Things remained more or less that way for almost 40 years.
After World War II, the status of both China and India changed dramatically. India finally gained its independence in 1947 after more than 200 years of British subjugation. In 1949, The People’s Republic was established. China was ready to stand on its own feet. It would no longer tolerate foreigners pushing it around and forcing it to cede its land. These two nations, victims of Western and, in China’s case also Japanese imperialism, were ready to march together towards a new dawn. Indeed, when Chou En-lai visited New Delhi, he was greeted with cheers of “Hindee Chinee bhai-bhai,” or “Indians Chinese brother-brother”. Such friendly relationship soon turned sour when their disagreement over the border would strain that goodwill.
When India became independent, it inherited all the British legacies, including the unsettled northern borders with China. The sub-continent was made up of independent states which Britain steadily conquered. Britain ruled these states by a Viceroy based in Calcutta. Keep in mind, unlike China, there was never a unified India ruled by a central government. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in his book: ‘The Post-American World’, Winston Churchill categorized India “just a geographic term, with no more political personality than Europe.” Churchill was usually wrong about India, but on this issue, he had a point. The Chinese Nationalist Government had been complaining since 1945 to Britain about its inroads into the tribal territories beneath the McMahon Line. When India gained its independence, Nationalist China made similar complaints to the Indian Government, which it rejected haughtily by proclaiming that those territories belong to India. The Chinese Government reminded India that China never signed or agreed to the unfair McMahon Line. As China was embroiled in a civil war, the government was in no position to push its rightful claim. When the People’s Republic was established on October 1, 1949, the new government certainly meant to correct some of the injustices heaped upon China. However, at that time, China had many internal issues to resolve and proposed to India that both nations should maintain the status quo and agree to disagree on the existence of the McMahon Line. Furthermore, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, China proposed that both nations form a demilitarized zone by pulling back 20 kilometers from the Line. India refused and insisted that the Chinese side should move unilaterally beyond the Line. Repeated offers to negotiate with India were met with obstinate refusal.
While no Chinese government ever accepted the legality of the McMahon Line, at least there was a line boundary on the northeastern front. In the western sector, no such attempt to delineate the border was ever made. Indeed, there were as many as 11 variations favored by the British at one time or another. India’s attitude was to select the one that suited it best and unilaterally declare that to be the de facto boundary border regardless of China’s claims. When the central government of China reasserted itself in Sinkiang and Tibet, it was natural for it to extend its control over Aksai Chin, which lies well north of the Karakoram Range, a region both Britain and Russia acknowledged to belong to China. China proceeded to upgrade this ancient road by building a new highway linking China’s two westernmost provinces.
China’s attitude towards its border with neighbors was consistent: accept the “accomplished fact” and go from there. Indeed, China settled its borders with Nepal and Burma (Myanmar), on a fair and equitable basis. Burma’s border with China was delineated by an extension of the same McMahon Line. The only exception to such amicable settlements was with India. The Indian position was that there was neither dispute nor disagreement. The borders were already defined even it were by India unilaterally. When China repeatedly proposed to discuss its border issue with India, Nehru’s attitude was that India would be willing to talk but never to negotiate. Chou En-lai even made a futile trip to Delhi in 1960.
While these discussions were taking place, India decided to pursue a forward policy reminiscent of British policies by sending armed patrols into disputed land. Astonishingly, it decided that the McMahon Line should be adjusted unilaterally by India, by incorporating territories north of the Line. It even established 60 new outposts, of which 32 were beyond the McMahon Line. After repeated provocation by Indians and warnings from the Chinese, war broke out.

Once again India is pursuing an aggressive policy by entering Chinese territory that India claims belongs to Bhutan. China and Bhutan have had many rounds of discussions regarding their borders. India has no right to interfere between those is interposing itself between two sovereign nations. China is not seeking more territories; all it wanted was a settled boundary. But it will not tolerate incursions to its territories. Except for a few minor incidents, this is where things stood for more than the 55 years after since the 1962 conflict. During this time China has focused on developing its economy and building up its infrastructure. As just one example, its high-speed rail system is now the envy of the world, India instead is spending its meager resources on its military. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India spends 2.5% of its GDP on weapons, well above world average of 2.2% as compared with China’s 1.9%. Here is a situation calling for classic diplomacy. But India over long years has shown no appetite for diplomacy with China, in which case the prognosis for settling this dispute is grim indeed.

Richard King

Richard L King is a retired investment banker and venture capitalist. He received his PhD in nuclear physics from New York University and also attended Stern Graduate School of Business at NYU. Originally from Shanghai, he was an instructor of nuclear physics at the US Merchant Marine Academy, a trustee of the China Institute, a member of the Science Advisory Board at NYU and a director of the Committee of 100.

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