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Sino-Indian Relations: Fifty Years of Ambiguity

Over fifty years ago, on the glorious Himalayan expanse, Chinese forces crushed India’s weak military in what became known as the first Sino-Indian War. These historic nations have stood as neighbors since ancient times, but it is only in the post-modern world that prospects of animosity and a potential cold war emerge between the two upcoming world powers.

The war over the Tibetan border culminated in prolonged uncertainty that has loitered over the region like a plague, promising only confusion to alienated masses. This period of limbo cannot be everlasting, and many speculate future skirmishes – or even war. The British, adept as always at drawing up arbitrary borders, devised the McMahon line of 1914, promising the disputed regions of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh to (British) India. China, of course, believed that the entire Tibet belonged to them as the long-gone Qing Dynasty border included the regions. Thus, despite India being one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China (inclusive of Tibet), the disputed border region, ‘south Tibet’ to the Chinese, eventually became the battleground for the war of 1962.

On paper, 1962 is recorded as the only war fought between these two nations, yet reality tells a different tale. The swift Chinese victory not only failed to resolve the conflict, it was unsuccessful in quelling the danger of further skirmishes. In the late 1960’s and in 1987, the border was home to military hostility from both sides. With the advent of the 90s, hope began to blossom as both countries agreed to a Line of Actual Control: Arunachal Pradesh to India, and Aksai Chin to China. The agreement, while promising on paper, produced few results, i.e. Indians claim that by 2010 China had already crossed the LAC over 500 times. Moreover, in 2009, the British recognized China’s border inclusive of Tibet, further alienating India- now without any real historical basis for claiming the disputed lands.

Lingering Issues

The border dispute has been looked at with a lax perspective by both countries, but ensuing issues could potentially spark another heated conflict. The recent spotlight in Sino-Indian relations has been the role of Japan. India is now the beneficiary of Japanese aid and the two countries have begun joint military ventures, symbolic of strength in an alliance which is not too pleasing for the Chinese. More so, not only did India test its long-range nuclear missile Agni-V in April this year, they also began arming the disputed Tamang region. India also commissioned the building of a highway that will make military access to the border region significantly easier. Perhaps it is a manifestation of power, representing India’s true arrival as equals with China, and showing that in a potential future war there would be no repeat of 1962.

The rivalry has even surpassed borders with the two competing for influence and energy supplies in a politically uncertain Myanmar. India’s courageous ventures into the South China Sea for oil exploration have been balanced out by Beijing’s naval interests in ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The possibility of war seems far-fetched, but strained relations are definitely on the cards. With new Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies still a mystery, only time will shed light on this delicate matter.

Economic Ties

Two of the world’s fastest growing economic powerhouses, the often unfriendly neighbors have positive aspects to take from the last decade of economic ties. In 2000, India and China’s bilateral trade was around $3 billion. In comparison, the figure today is around $74 billion, and by 2015 it is estimated to rise to about $100 billion. But even in the sector of economics there are cracks beneath the surface. During the British Raj, China imported sizable amounts of opium from India, which generated great sources of revenue. Unfortunately for India, a halt in the large-scale opium trade means they lack a strong export for China; thus resulting in a bilateral trade deficit of approximately $40 billion. As China pushes for a free-trade agreement, India seems keen on protectionism, bringing about another matter of disagreement. Economists speculate that if Chinese banks help bring foreign direct investment to India, the development of Indian exports will help China in the long run. At the moment though, there seems to be no impetus on such motives from the Chinese, and with an ensuing stalemate, it is anyone’s guess which way the pendulum swings, i.e. free trade versus protectionism.

The Potential Trigger?

Dissatisfaction is ever-present, and while momentarily there is no military confrontation, one small event could spark a greater conflict. The Dalai Lama, the exiled (in India) leader of the Tibetan people, is at 77 years of age and reports suggest that his ‘reincarnation’ may take place in disputed pilgrimage territory. This would surely bring Tibet back into the spotlight of Asia. Media attention has been drawn to Tibet as a result of the recent increase in self-immolation by discontented Tibetans. Having lived in a state of uncertainty for over fifty years, unhappiness is an understandable inevitability. The question is: will these self-immolations be the light calling on India and China to resolve their political differences? Or will the two most populous countries in the world linger on in this apparently accepted state of transience?

–  Sameer Tayebaly

(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative WorksAuweia, Creative Commons, Flickr)

About Sameer Tayebaly

Student of Economics and History at McGill University. Sameer’s interests include food, fiction, film, FIFA, fascinating (or farcical?) sports like cricket, philosophy, and music. Together with the Bouillon team, he strives to provide a fresh take on politics while remaining calculated and informative. His eighteen years in Karachi, Pakistan, the experience of travel, and an avid interest in writing arrange a toolkit equipped for specialization in the intriguing politics of South Asia from a broader, global, panorama.

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