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India-China: Differences, disputes and deadlock
July 13, 2017, 8:57 am

When Lobsang Sangay, the head of the self-styled Tibetan government in exile, hoisted the Tibetan national flag on the shores of Pangong lake in Ladakh (a mountainous, semi-autonomous region in northern India, borders the Chinese autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet), he hammered the last nail into the coffin of the most important budding alliance of the post –cold war period. This was BRICS, the association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. He did so by bringing the two largest members of BRICS, both in terms of population and GDP, to the brink of war.

The 134 km long Pangong lake is a particularly sensitive spot in China –India relations. Half of it lies in Aksai Chin (Both India and China claim the Aksai Chin area in their entirety), and the other half in Ladakh. Inspite of a 1993 agreement for peace and tranquillity that was inked by China and India, the Line of Actual Control in this area remains undemarcated. Patrol boats have therefore often faced each other on its waters. But the 1993 agreement has always held, because of the growing cooperation between China and India on global strategic and economic issues, especially after the formation of BRICS in 2008.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) accompanies Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Da Ci’en Temple after their meeting in Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, May 14, 2015 [Xinhua]

Till only three years ago, Sangay’s action would have drawn a routine protest from Beijing and been quietly forgotten. But it has acquired a dangerous political significance today because China and India are  locked in a military face-off from which neither country is prepared to back off. This confrontation is taking place on an 89 km chunk of disputed territory, a plateau known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China, across which  Chinese construction workers began to build a road on June 6.

Over the decades since the 1993 agreement, there have been hundreds of similar face-offs between Chinese and Indian troops, none of which has led to a single bullet being fired. But two things make this face-off different. First, it is taking place after three years of rapid deterioration in relations between the two countries. And second, it is not occurring on the Sino-Indian border, but on the border between China and Bhutan, a tiny and remote kingdom in the Himalayas.

India has close relations with Bhutan, but  Bhutan is a sovereign country, which has the right to decide how it will deal with its disputes with other countries. India’s intervention has, in effect taken this right away from Bhutan. A studied silence on this issue from Thimpu suggests that India’s hasty defence of Bhutan is not entirely welcome there. Bhutanese newspapers have reported the stand-off almost entirely in factual terms, without comment. Kuensel, the state-owned newspaper, pointed out that Doklam/Donglang is only one of four territorial disputes China had with Bhutan. Would it be too far fetched to assume that it is hinting to New Delhi that, since it cannot step in to resolve all of them it would do better to leave these  to Bhutan?

If so, the reason would  not be far to seek. Locked between two giant neighbours Bhutan’s only way of safeguarding its sovereignty is to maintain good relations with both. By sending troops to his aid without any formal request from the King, Mr. Modi has put Bhutan in a position where it will have to offend one or the other. India could easily emerge the loser.

The reason Delhi has given to explain  India’s precipitate action is that the Chinese  are building a road along the eastern side of the Chumbi valley in disputed Bhutanese territory, that will give them a series of ridges from where they will be able to  cut ‘The Chicken’s Neck’, a thin strip of land that  joins the Indian north-east to the rest of the country.

Defence analysts  drool over this kind of scenario building, but there  could be other, more innocent, explanations. Yadong, in the Chumbi valley, is slated to become the terminus of a  railway line from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. With the sharp deterioration in Sino-Indian relations Beijing might now be feeling the need to widen its area of control around the Chumbi valley to protect the massive investments it is making there. That does not justify the Chinese action, but it also does not justify a unilateral intervention by India.

The turnaround in Sino-Indian relations has been so swift, that it’s left most people in China and India confused. What is beyond doubt is that it was  initiated by Mr  Modi. The first indication was Modi’s sudden, and well- publicised, replacement  in January 2015 of Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh by then Indian Ambassador to the USA, S. Jaishankar a day after his first meeting with former US President Barack Obama in Washington, and one day before Jaishankar  was due to retire from the Indian Foreign service.

While Modi has never revealed his reasons, two years later, the Indian daily Hindustan Times summed them up, when Foreign Secretary Jaishankar got an unprecedented  third extension of service,  “ a Prime Minister has found a foreign secretary in tune with his vision and worldview, and his risk-taking appetite… for too long, India has been held back in its engagement with US in particular because of ideological categories which are no longer relevant….”.

Since then Mr Modi has lost no time in turning China from a friend to a foe. Whatever passed between him and Obama at their first meeting, brought Obama post haste to India to be Modi’s chief guest at its Republic day celebrations on January 26 2015. Obama’s purpose surfaced a day earlier when the two leaders signed the ‘U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’.

Encased in the fluff of mutual praise was the one paragraph that mattered: “Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” As Indian commentator, Srinath Raghavan, pointed out in The Wire, China has by far the strongest interest in preserving the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. What India signed on to, therefore was the preservation of freedom of navigation for military vessels and aircraft in the South China sea.

In the next twelve months India signed three military agreements with the USA, that gave its armed forces virtually unrestricted use of Indian base and supply facilities. This was followed by visits to Itanagar the capital of Arunachal Pradesh (China claims Arunachal Pradesh as its own, and refers to it as “southern Tibet”) , by the US consul General in Calcutta,  and to a monastery at disputed Tawang by US Ambassador Richard Verma in February and October 2016. China protested to Delhi about both visits but chose to accuse the Americans of playing divide and rule politics in Asia.

But in May 2016 India went one long step further, and sent four warships to join a US-Japan task force and  cruise through the South China Sea calling on ‘friendly’ ports for three months. Since then China and India have been on a collision course.

The first collision occurred when Modi disregarded insistent Chinese requests not to allow the Dalai Lama (the Tibetan spiritual leader, whom Beijing considers a separatist) to visit Tawang in April this year. When Delhi contemptuously ignored these, Beijing issued its first warning against putting Sino-Indian relations back on the path to conflict. On March 3, its foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, issued a formal warning to New Delhi: “China is gravely concerned over information that India has granted permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh. …An invitation to him to visit the mentioned territory, would cause “serious damage to peace and stability of the border region and China–India relations. We have ….urged India to stick to its political commitments and abide by the important consensus the two sides have reached on the boundary question…. (and) not provide a platform to the Dalai clique and protect that sound and stable development of Sino-India relations”.

Beijing had issued a similar warning to Delhi on the eve of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Tawang to open a hospital in 2009. But the two prime ministers then, Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh, had  resolved the conflict by firmly preventing the media from turning it into an international circus.

File photo of Indian and Chinese troops taking part in a training exercise [Xinhua]

Since then the pinpricks have multiplied , with China firmly rejecting Indian efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (the elite club of nations that control nuclear trade), and refusing to designate the head of one of Pakistan’s most violent militant groups Masood Azhar and Hafez Sayeed, as international terrorists, and India hosting conferences on Tibet, and inviting prominent Tibetan and Uighur (China’s ethnic minority Muslims) dissidents to them.

Beijing held off from any overtly hostile action till the Belt and Road conference because it was extremely keen to have India’s participation. This is  because it needs outlets for profitable investment, and India’s GDP is larger than the combined GDP of Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Malaysia, the seven countries where the bulk of Belt and Road investment is allocated. Chinese commentators were therefore using the columns of the Global Times to urge India to participate in the ambitious Chinese project till as late as May 7, just one week before the conference began in Beijing.

But Mr Modi decided to keep India sulking in its tent. For Beijing, with  economic cooperation virtually ruled out, only political confrontation remained. Three weeks later it unilaterally activated its claim not only to the Doklam/Donglang plateau but to two adjoining extensions, one of which it had never claimed before, and its road construction teams moved onto the plateau.

Today Mr Modi is faced with having to do something  he has never done before. This is to admit, however tacitly, that he has made  a mistake, pull Indian troops back from the Dokalam plateau,  and step back. If he does not, then China has made it absolutely clear that it will go to war to evict the Indians from Doklam/Donglang. What is worse the war will be fought on Bhutanese territory over the objections of its leaders and people.

Hordes of Indian “analysts” who have been asked whether the present confrontation could lead to war have hastened to say ‘no’. That is precisely the wishful thinking that preceded the 1962 China-India war.  The truth is that having manoeuvred India into just the impossible position, Beijing would be stupid not to take advantage of it to administer another  crushing defeat upon its only rival in Asia.

Short of giving a formal ultimatum China has left no avenue unused to convey this warning. In an editorial on July 4, The Global Times issued the following warning: “We hope India can face up to the hazards of its unruly actions to the country’s fundamental interests and withdraw its troops without delay. We need to give diplomatic and military authorities full power to handle the issue. We call on Chinese society to maintain high-level unity on the issue… This time, we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.”

On the same day China’s Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui,  expressly did not rule out war when questioned persistently by a correspondent,  and warned  New Delhi:” “The first priority is that the Indian troops unconditionally pull back to the Indian side of the boundary. “That is the precondition for any meaningful dialogue between China and India.”

A day later, in a moderately  worded, but steel-hard editorial Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stated that if India did not want a further escalation of the situation in Doklam, it must withdraw its troops to the Indian side of the border.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

10 Responses to India-China: Differences, disputes and deadlock

  1. Ajiesh Thuvanoor Reply

    July 13, 2017 at 11:06 am

    Good Article !
    But you have not mentioned why Indian Troops are in Bhutan and the agreements between India & Bhutan .

  2. Dr. Vivek jain Reply

    July 16, 2017 at 7:35 am

    I think this is a biased article not in tune with the vision and spirit of Brics. India supported China in WTO and UN Security Council without demanding anything in return. India got massive trade deficit. OBOR passes through disputed territory for which 100,000 soldiers have died in 3 wars. Does the author expect India to just overlook everything.

    Clapping is done by both hands. There cannot be economic co-operation with threats. India is not a small country and in many ways equal to China. China has to realise that they accept the rise of India as India has accepted the rise of China. Disagreements within family are also there but should not become disputes. If the two nuclear powers fight, then I will not be surprised if both countries will even change their nuclear doctrine. It also means rivalry to large extent and India really becoming a Nata like ally. Its not India that is interested to become a Nato like ally , but my analysis is that China is too strong in conventional warfare and 13 years ahead in economy , so India needs a cover and US is willing to provide that.

    It would be shame that two civilizational countries will come to this. None of the citizens of any the countries will accept humiliation. So leaders in both countries have to accept this basic fact to avoid large scale destruction.

  3. Abul Majid Zargar Reply

    July 17, 2017 at 2:06 am

    It is a scintillating piece from Jha. Learned commentator Dr. Vivek Jain has rightly said that it is sort of a family dispute and one has to learn to live with another.But then families shouldn’t invite outsiders to meddle into their affairs. By aligning itself with USA, India is committing a gravest mistake in the region. It should have participated in CPEC which probably could have even found a road-map to resolve Kashmir.Never rely on America-7th fleet is still afresh in our memories

  4. Dr. Vivek jain Reply

    July 17, 2017 at 11:43 am

    Mr.Zargar, thanks for your comments. Two nuclear powers align against India, what do you expect? India should give up and not make alliances? See you are from Pakistan and it will be difficult for you to understan d. Indians are non-violent, most religions thrived in India, but when push comes to shove, Indians know how to give reply. World has seen with 90,000 Pakistani soldiers as prisoner included generals in 1971. India pardoned them for peace. India has changed for good for Indians in the last three years and will not bent against injustice. So any co-operation needs meeting of minds especially for largest democracy India and its citizens. If any iota of threat is there, only the region will suffer and as an Indian I can vouch, Indians who are mostly vegetarian and non-violent Indians will still resist until death. China has to accept the rise of India like India has accepted and most of us , including me, were very happy with growth in China. But if threat comes now after gaining prosperity, it will make enemies out of its supporters.

    • John Reply

      July 27, 2017 at 5:44 am

      Hi Mr. Jain,
      I am very surprised that you treat this article “a biased article” that was written by a renowned Indian journalist! Basically, I don’t want to waste any time to argue with you. However, from a neutral point of view, India or precisely speaking, Mr. Modi has been destroying the relationship between China and India for the sake of the USA’s interest since January 2015. Do you guys want to be ruled by USA in the future? Don’t you guys remember that the British ruled your territory for centuries in the history? In this regard, Mr. Gandhi will never forgive whatever you guys are doing to the country. This is very sad even if I am not an Indian.

      To be honest, I am an overseas Chinese people who has Indian friends and who lived and worked in Mumbai, India between 2003 and 2004 for one year. I would say that the majority of Indian people are friendly and peaceful like the most Chinese people. They are not violent compared to many in USA.

      The politicians in USA are the no.1 Mafia in the world. Look at Mr. Trump, he visited Saudi Arabia in May and got 110 billion USD weapon contract, furthermore, he had also secured another 350 billion USD weapon contract from Saudi Arabia in the next 10 years. He quietly supports Saudi Arabia and its so-called “allies” to cut the diplomatic relationship with Qatar in order to force Qatar to stay away from Iran, a country who is blamed by Trump as an “enemy”. Qatar was forced to buy 12 billion USD weapon from USA in order to slow/calm down the threats from nations of Saudi Arabia, etc. Mr. Modi late joined this trend to bow to Mr. Trump and paid 2 billion USD to buy 22 military drones…… Don’t you think USA is not a Mafia?

      Unfortunately, the mind of Mr. Modi, the India’s premier could be easily deviated /changed after meeting Mr. Obama. Like the article says there is no clear hints or reason why he changed his mind suddenly. However, it is clear that he has changed his political course and joined USA, try to prevent China from its win-win economical developments. It is very sad not only for Chinese people, but also for India people.

      These are my current thoughts that would like be shared by you.

      Best regards,

      • Dr. Vivek jain Reply

        July 27, 2017 at 5:42 pm

        Dear JOhn, First , stop this patronising attitude of advising us to become a colony again. China was also a colony of western powers and don’t forget the majority Han were ruled by Manchus, Tibetians or Monogolians for over 10000 years. So who are weak or strong, it is not your forte to tell Indians. Please read your own history before sermonising us.
        Secondly, I don’t know why you hate US so much. I guess Star bucks, English names of Chinese people, KFC and Macdonald is a pretty common sight. So please look inside your house before you start commenting on others. Indians have not adopted western names like you are Chinese but you have no shame in having an US name for yourself but you still hate US. Its contradiction. I will consider you man of your word, when you send the next comment in your Chinese name.
        Thridly, whom India can be friend or not a friend , who are you to decide? Did we object on your friendship with Pakistan? Have self-confidence.
        Fourthly, all the leaders of China for me are worthy of respect because they are the leaders and similarly I expect you to give respect to an Indian leader. If not , then it does show lack of confidence. India is a democracy, and even if Modi ji is a strong leader, he cannot override institutions. I suggest you read proper books and not comic books to know more about how things work in India.

  5. Einar Tangen Reply

    July 20, 2017 at 4:11 am


    Insightful as always, a pity the current narratiee hahas depended into an emotiona passive aggressive rational with no end game.

  6. lisa Reply

    July 22, 2017 at 3:52 am

    Modi is a zionist U.S./Israel puppet, but the truth is all these men are acting like greedy savages who think wealth is money – useless, worthless money – as they fight over “property rights” – the “right” to rape and degrade the only real wealth we all have – our Earth.

    What a pathetic way of “life” man has invented: all he has ever done since he made himself a “god” is take what is free from the giving Earth, often harming Earth in the processes of his taking, then he SELLS the gifts back! Often to the very victims he has robbed!

    China, U.S., India… the name of the countries fighting over territory and grabbing is meaningless. It is one hideous face of crime against life.

    This crime has a price, but it is not war, since that is only done for money and “property rights” also, just another racket.

    Ask yourself what really matters. Why are you alive?

    While many

  7. prem shankar Jha Reply

    July 24, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    Dear Dr Jain,

    I belatedly found your reaction to my article on BRICS. Am surprised that you call it biased. Biased against whom ? India? But I am an Indian, and am rather proud of being one. So are you implying that I have somehow been made a fool of by the Chinese. After having written more than 10,000 editorials and analytical essays, and 15 books in the last 51 years, I think fooling me would not be easy. So I must be biased against Modi. Yes I am– I freely admit. But that is not an opinion. It is based upon his actions. These show that he has brought India into deadly danger through a succssion of actions thathave endangered the nation.

    Can you point out a single way in which India will be better off as a result of our alliance with the US and alienation of China. ?

    Do educate me please

    Prem Shankar Jha

  8. Dr. Vivek jain Reply

    July 27, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    Dear Mr Jha, First thank you for taking time to reply and I am not as learned as you are and neither capable of answering as to how patriotic you may be in your life pursuant to your comments.

    However, with all courtesy to you, I maintain that your article is a biased article. It is biased not because you are fooled by Chinese as you commented yourself, but because you are guided by your left ideology. This has made you hate current PM, no matter what he has done in field of attacking corruption, foreign policy and so on. To your credit, you are not alone in India and to keep you company are people such as Lutyen’s elite or followers of leftist ideology. But that is a different topic.

    Did you mention in your article that India and most Indians like me that even the John commented love China. However, any love is not unlimited. It depends on actions of friends and colleagues. Did you mention in your article the full story? Why India did not attend OBOR as it passes through Indian territory. Would China like if India offer to make a economic project from India to Mongolia? Definitely no. USA per capita income is nearly many-many times of China. Does it mean that USA should now start reminding China of this fact like China has been reminding India to make India listen to China. Did India did not support China for WTO membership of China that is instrumental in prosperity of China? Did India not support China in BRICS, even though China gains more from BRICS than India? Is rejection of OBOR is suicidal for India as you seem to suggest? Was China not a friend of USA from the days of Nixon and now if India is a friend, what is the problem? Did you write anything about friendship of USA with China against Russia?

    Sir, with due respect, India suffered a lot due to seeing things in black and white and due to influence of leftist ideology. Its a dawn of new India as I see and cursing USA like John was doing in his comments is just dramatics. Most of the prosperity of China is due to buyers in USA and Europe for the Chinese products and when John curses USA, he is like cutting the branch of the tree on which he is sitting. However, I personally believe India and China can be friends regardless of company they keep, provided the relationship is equal, without any threats from either side, balance free trade and so forth. Historical connections are useful, but cannot be the deciding factor of friendship. In the end, China has to accept the rise of India and it means the way it deal with India. If not, in my humble view, there would be friction in future and Chinese traders will lose one important buyer of their products!

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