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India & China

The way forward in India-China relations

Print edition : Apr 08, 2022 T+T-

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the summit at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu on October 11, 2019. Modi has held 18 meetings with Xi but made no report to Parliament.


People’s Liberation Army soldiers and tanks during military disengagement along the Line of Actual Control at the India-China border in Ladakh, in this Indian Army handout photograph released on February 16, 2021.

To reach a settlement with China, India must promote an honest discussion about the history of the boundary dispute and remove the simplistic narratives that have dominated India’s public discourse on the issue.

The tensions since May 2020 along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh sector of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir presents a major policy challenge for India. Thousands of Indian and Chinese troops face each other in the icy heights of the Himalaya. The Indian rebuff to China in Doklam in 2017 is said to be one reason for the aggression of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in East Ladakh in 2020.

The India-China peace deal in the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) of 1993 has broken down. The violent clash at Galwan Valley in June 2020 was an indication of that breakdown. Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Adviser, has called for the resetting of relations between the two nuclear-armed Asian neighbours.

The Galwan Valley clash was accompanied by a massive military build-up by the PLA and the Indian armed forces in the Ladakh sector at several friction points of the LAC.

The Soviet position

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union, like India, engaged in armed conflict with China over boundary disputes. At one stage, Moscow openly threatened Beijing with nuclear strikes. China refused to back down and at length Moscow backed off. Those two neighbours remained in a relationship of tense hostility for another 20 years.

What changed and opened the way to cooperation was a reappraisal in 1986 in Moscow, under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, of the fundamental issues in the border dispute with China. That led to a reversal of the Soviet position. Until then, Soviet Union, like India, had been refusing to open comprehensive border negotiations, arguing, as India still does, that the borders were already settled, accusing Beijing of aggressive expansionism.

Also read: A failure ordained

Can India take a leaf out of the Russian copybook?

In his remarkable book India’s China Challenge , Ananth Krishnan makes an insightful contribution to debates on how India can deal with China. He feels that India has grossly underinvested in its efforts to understand China, its most important neighbour. The author’s portrait of the PLA in Chapter 10 of his book tells the story of its organisational structure and behaviour that is in sharp contrast to that of the Indian Army, which has a colonial origin and structure:

“The PLA is unlike most militaries. This is evinced in the curious fact that it predates the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by a good twenty-two years. It is often forgotten that the government is not its real master. The Communist Party of China [CPC] is. The PLA is the army of a political party and its abiding objective, besides the stated ones of defending China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, is ensuring the continued survival of the party.”

The PLA forces made a serious power projection against the Indian armed forces in the clash that took place across the LAC at the Galwan Valley in mid June 2020.

Nirupama Rao, former Foreign Secretary, has displayed remarkable perspicacity when she says in her book The Fractured Himalaya that “Nehru’s decision about maps in 1954 was ‘unilateral and eliminated flexibility’”. So was Nehru’s White Paper to Parliament in 1959.

Boundaries between nations are fixed and determined on the basis of mutual agreements between sovereign governments. Acceptance of the boundary as defined by India was unrealistic and bound to be elusive. Nehru believed that India’s boundaries had been settled by history, geography, custom and tradition. They were not an imperial legacy. The Chinese believed that a boundary line had no validity if it was not jointly surveyed, negotiated and formally delineated. They saw the borders as a complicated question left over by history. Was Nehru guilty of ‘self-righteous intransigence’ in the position he took on the border question? Some claim India is a ‘vishwa guru’, but this is a debatable claim.

The unresolved boundary and the growing economic and developmental gap between the two countries are of great concern. Combative coexistence is not peaceful coexistence. Ultimately, both countries would need to make compromises just as Russia under Gorbachev did with China in the 1980s. India’s military concord with the United States, directed against China, is likely to promote discord in South Asia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held 18 meetings with the Chinese President Xi Jinping but made no report to Parliament. His second ‘informal summit’ with Xi at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu yielded many profound observations: One, it decided not to allow ‘differences to become disputes’ and, two, it decided not to allow Indo-U.S. trade relations become a part of the U.S. designs against China.

Also read: Signs of a thaw between India and China

Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani has said that in 10 years China would be the number one power in the world. India must keep this in mind while negotiating a border settlement with China. It must avoid being emotional with China and instead be pragmatic. China does not view India as a hostile power. But it does view the U.S. as one. What happened at the Galwan Valley in mid June 2020 was painful. The Prime Minister did not seek a meeting with the Chinese President.

Deng Xiaoping had said that India and China should unite to make the 21st century an Asian century. A joint team of Chinese and Indian officials could have been despatched to the Galwan Valley to ascertain the causes of the violence. China has already made serious compact deals three times to settle the border dispute. India has been rigid.

Brajesh Mishra, former aide to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, reported significant progress in his border talks with the Chinese. But the Modi government, which assumed office in 2014, told the Chinese government that there would be no compromise on territorial questions. Why not? Compromise is the essence of diplomacy. China has settled its border dispute with Russia by successful negotiations.

The Chinese noted that Vajpayee was the first Indian Prime Minister to publicly state that some compromises needed to be made with China.

Just as on the border question with China, the Modi government pursued a hubristic foreign policy on the Kashmir question with Pakistan and ignored the laudable four-point formula evolved by the Vajpayee/Manmohan Singh governments and the Pervez Musharraf government in Pakistan to resolve the long-pending Kashmir conflict. China (and Pakistan) have disputed claims on the State. India’s action in bringing about constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has given a signal about its hostile intentions to both countries.

The Doklam stand-off and the Galwan firestorm

The Doklam stand-off in 2017 and the Galwan firestorm in 2020 can be examined together to draw a picture of their differential impact on India-China relations. The Galwan firestorm came after India’s rebuff to China at Doklam starting from June 16, 2017, and lasting 72 days.

The PLA entered the Doklam plateau in Bhutan to construct a road in disputed territory. The Doklam plateau abuts India, China and Bhutan in an area that China claims is part of Yadong in Tibet, but India and Bhutan see it as a part of Bhutan. India-China bilateral border disputes occur across the undemarcated LAC. But the Doklam rebuff to China by India arose after India crossed a red line by violating an international boundary to enter the Doklam plateau.

Also read: The Pan Tsu-li moment

As seen by China, India’s muscle-flexing was not a coincidence. The Indian Army entered and stopped the PLA from its strategic road construction within Bhutan near the India-China-Bhutan strategic trijunction. China was annoyed.

China was carrying out far-reaching reforms of the PLA as part of a huge infrastructure “building of highways, railway lines and airports across the Tibetan plateau to mobilise at short notice a vast number of assets to win a high-tech local war”. The reforms would alter the PLA’s power projection across the LAC and widen India’s asymmetry with China along the disputed LAC. In the previous decade, China had already built a huge infrastructure of highways, railway lines and airports across the Tibetan plateau.

The Doklam stand-off was on a disputed territory between China and Bhutan near the India-China-Bhutan trijunction. India had no claim to the territory. Though the Chinese were upset, India’s stakes were high.

The PLA’s road building was heading straight into a ridge overlooking the Chicken’s Neck, the 27-km-wide Siliguri Corridor, which links India with its north-eastern region. This is a strategic area and the Indian military had to step in to stop the Chinese road construction.

In 2010, India launched a major effort to bridge the asymmetry in infrastructure that advantaged China along the LAC. The cat-and-mouse game will continue as long as the LAC remains undemarcated.

There was increasing concern over the possibility of unexpected escalation in the heat of the face-off and it happened with tragic consequences at the Galwan Valley, where both military outfits clashed. Twenty Indian personnel perished. This marked the worst violence between the two countries since 1967, shattering decades of hard-won peace.

Also read: Boycotting Chinese products

The relationship between the CPC and the PLA is complex, prompting the leadership to reiterate often that the PLA’s loyalty to the party should be supreme. The 2017 stand-off at Doklam unilaterally changed the status quo prompting the leadership to intervene and stop the PLA operation. The stand-off lasted 72 days. Delhi had taken the risk and succeeded in stopping the road construction at a strategically vital ridge. The bloodshed at Galwan Valley took place after two informal summits between Xi and Modi in 2018 and 2019.

Interestingly, just days before the Doklam crisis, Modi and Xi had met at Astana in Kazakhstan. The death of 20 Indian military men at the hands of the PLA at Galwan Valley was indeed tragic, but then the PLA is not under the government of China. It functions under the Chinese Communist Party but has an older revolutionary lineage. The leader of the Galwan team was made a flag-bearer in China’s Winter Olympics.

The Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report

India needs to declassify the HBR if it wishes to resolve the border conflict with China and build peace. The Report, though classified, is available on the Net thanks to Neville Maxwell, the author of India’s China War.

Ananth Krishnan was able to read a copy of the HBR, which is long and detailed and of far-reaching implications. It was not placed in Parliament despite Prime Minister Nehru’s promise.

Also read: India-China war: the true story

The report outlined the failure of the military leadership both at the Indian Army headquarters and at the Defence Ministry. It described the cause and course of the border war and the fault-line which turned the border dispute into a schism within the Army’s officer corps. It explored the origins of the conflict, the factionalisation of the Army, the Forward Policy, the war and the debacle. It dispelled the prevailing impression that the 1962 conflict was an unexpected surprise or a betrayal. It did not dwell on the political leadership or Nehru’s decision-making. Its mandate was on matters military.

What really came through from the HBR was that 1962 was a disaster of India’s own making. Dorothy Woodman, a noted geographer who scrutinised the maps published by India and China, said that the innumerable discrepancies in the maps meant that “any settlement on the Sino-Indian border would involve compromise”. Since China had accepted the 1914 Shimla Tripartite maps in resolving the border dispute with Myanmar, that could be the starting point for India. It should limit its claims in the Aksai Chin sector to the Macartney-Macdonald Line of 1899. The starting point should be the formula suggested by Zhou Enlai to Nehru in April 1960 and commended by K.P.S. Menon, India’s then Foreign Secretary.

To reach a settlement with China, India must: i) promote an honest discussion about the history of the boundary dispute and the events that led to the conflict in 1962; ii) remove the simplistic narratives that have dominated India’s public discourse on the dispute.

Currently, the South Asian political leadership appears keen to give up ‘maximalist positions’ and adopt realistic policies. They desire to convert the ‘Line of Control and Conflict’ or ‘Line of Actual Control’ into a ‘Line of Connectivity and Cooperation’. They increasingly prefer pursuing bilateral relations on the basis of geo-economic, geo-social, geo-cultural and geo-civilisational considerations and not on geopolitical and geostrategic ones as before. The emerging new order in Asia and Eurasia necessitates a focus on connectivity to promote history-transforming benefits.

Connectivity is a Gandhian concept. I have it on the authority of an informed person that Prime Minister Modi, while speaking at the 2018 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at Qingdao, did prioritise the need for connectivity in the region. India must endeavour to promote connectivity in the neighbourhood by partnering with China and Pakistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It would be futile to raise sovereignty as an issue to oppose the CPEC on the grounds that it passes through a part of Jammu and Kashmir. India cannot stop Islamabad and Beijing from implementing the CPEC.

Active diplomacy on these lines is the need of the hour for India and China. Are Indian diplomats today ready to speak the truth to power?

K.S. Subramanian was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Home Ministry and Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Government of Tripura.

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