Can India And China Ever Be Friends?

Can India And China Ever Be Friends

India & China are two very large neighbouring republics, their combined population larger than the rest of the world. These staggering giants have crazy nuclear arsenal, they carry out joint military exercises, they carry out trade of around a billion dollars every year, they are part of numerous multinational co-operating bodies, they exchange their diverse cultures and yet, India and China do not trust one another; there have been times of trust in the past, but only brief. And that is the simplest way to define the complex relations between India and China.

The two countries share not only a border, but also have a history of peace, trade and exchange of culture. The snow-clad mountains between these two dissimilar, yet analogous countries have witnessed travellers, thinkers, artists and traders, each bringing with them an amusing image of the neighbour. This changed in 1962, when the silence in these highlands was rudely shattered by mortars and shells and these two countries reached a point of hostility from where there was no turning back.

To understand why the two countries, who once co-existed peacefully for a millennium, turned against each other – we need to move back in time.

In 1949 when People’s Republic of China was formed, India became the only second non-Communist nation to recognise the new China as a country.

1949: The Communist Party of China overthrew the Nationalist Republic of Chinese Government and proclaimed the creation of People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the Chairmanship of their Army Commander, Mao Zedong. India was, at the time, busy giving final touches to its Constitution, but was also conscious of the vast changes happening around, and hence, became the only second non-Communist nation to recognise the new China as a country. A year later, both countries established diplomatic ties. The age-old friendship had now become official at their Capitals.

India soon hinted at its desire to be China’s ally. Acting as a mediator in the Allied-West & South Korea, and China-USSR-North Korea in the Korean War and saving China from being named as the ‘aggressor’ in the war, India did the job cleanly. Known for being pro-China, Nehru declared that it supports China’s entry into the United Nations. (Till then, the old Republic of China, limited to Taiwan after being dethroned, was the actual Chinese UN member).

This entire time, Tibet remained out of context, mostly. Tibet was an independent nation at the time, and a buffer zone between China and British India. Mao believed that Tibet belonged to the Chinese nation and wanted to end the existing Lama Rule in Tibet, and bring it under Chinese control. India believed that Tibet had inherited special interests from the British Raj. This conflict of interest started in the 1950s.

In 1951, China invaded Tibet without much bloodshed. A 17-point agreement was signed by both parties, stating that the Central Government of China’s role would be minimal in Tibet and the social structure of the region could be governed by the local rule.

India feared that its trading rights with Tibet would terminate with the new arrangement between Tibet and PRC. But in April 1954, Beijing and Delhi signed an agreement – a brilliant yet naïve initiative by Nehru that stated 5 ‘bookish’ principles for peaceful co-existence of the countries. This agreement remained in place for 8 years before relations lapsed further.

The relations around this time were now better than everBoth sides were engrossed in the exchange of people and ethos.

Rewind to 1914. India was under the British rule and Tibet was free. A treaty was signed in Simla (India’s then Summer Capital) where Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of the British-run Government of India and the chief negotiator of the convention at Simla, made India and Tibet agree for a 890-km boundary between the countries in the region of what is today Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan.

Back to 1954, India published its maps, stating Arunachal (then called NEFA, short for North-East Frontier Agency) and Aksai Chin as full-fledged Indian territories. The maps during Independence didn’t clearly state whom Aksai Chin region belonged to until India then discovered that China had been building a road there.

Then a process was initiated where both the nations continued to publish maps showing Aksai Chin and NEFA or a large chunk of it as their own lands. The entire region became disputed, talks were suspended and bullets started being exchanged.

In the meantime, since 1954, the local tribes of Tibet’s Kham and Amdo objected to China’s socialist policies and land reforms, turning to guerrilla warfare. By 1957, much of the tribal region was in chaos and the People Liberation Army’s war-crimes forced thousands to join the warfare. Lhasa (Tibet’s capital), however, stuck to the 17-point agreement.

The scene changed in early 1959. Lhasa’s people (most of whom were from Amdo and Kham) could no longer bear the Chinese presence in the area. Much of the region was in chaos and PLA and Mao were planning to ‘crush’ this uprising.

In 1959, India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama and things changed forever.

On March 1st, 1959, Dalai Lama – the Monarch of Tibet got a strange invitation from the Chinese Army to attend a cultural show on the 10th of the same month. On 9th, his bodyguards were informed to stay back as the “Army would take care of Dalai Lama’s security”. Fearing his abduction, Tibetans didn’t allow the Dalai Lama to get out of the palace; protests took place, and the declaration of Tibet’s independence was proclaimed. This was the trigger that the PLA required. The full scale ‘crushing’ of Tibet thus began with artillery. Fearing lives, the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans flew Tibet on the 2nd of April, seeking refuge in India.

China now fully acquired Tibet.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Dalai Lama (April 24, 1959)

India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama and things changed forever. Nehru was forced to take a word from China about disputed regions and the Indian press freely supported Tibet’s Freedom. Making a not-so-smart move, Nehru increased the Indian army presence around the NEFA region without consulting his advisors. The image got clearer when finally Beijing said that it cannot accept the McMohan line as it was not signed by the sovereign government. China made its intentions clear by stating that the 40,000 square mile territory of NEFA and Ladakh was Chinese territory. Also, the 50,000 square miles of Bhutan and Sikkim (independent at the time) were claimed by China and the country launched an offensive propaganda for its freedom.

The fires at Aksai Chin and NEFA became a daily story throughout 1959 until the war. Zhou Enlai, the then Chinese PM, called for a 20km withdrawal from both sides and created a ‘Line of Actual Control’. He also hinted that if India gave up Aksai Chin, it would give up its claim on the entire eastern region. India, due to popular public opinion, rejected the idea.

In this interim, Mao Zedong had launched a full scale operation in 1958 to convert China from an agrarian to a full-scale industrialised country, but failed big time. Seeing this as a final opportunity, the 1962 war began when the Indian side was most un-prepared (all thanks to genius Defence Minister Krishna Menon’s dictatorial attitude). The Indian side was humiliated as the Chinese entered 90km into NEFA into the extreme left and right peaks. The Chinese side unilaterally proposed ceasefire and the war stopped, with Aksai Chin going into Chinese possession. Defending himself in the Parliament, Nehru said that “they took the 40,000 hectares where not even a blade of grass grows.”

Can India And China Ever Be Friends
Indian Army soldiers somewhere in NEFA, 1962 war

The diplomatic ties were now suspended and trade almost at a breakdown. Come 1964 and China began testing nuke missiles; and India began dreading having China as a neighbour – a country that was once an ally.

What also irked India more was how the relations between China and Pakistan sweetened after the war, with China supporting Pakistan for the Kashmir issue in 1965.

On May 25, 1967, the Naxalbari incident took place, giving birth to “Maoism” in India. China’s Mao Zedong encouraged it, and the borders once again were heated. China was by now extremely powerful; it had entered the United Nations, replacing the Republic of China (Taiwan), and also secured a permanent seat in the Security Council.

The main problem with India-China border issue remains concentrated around Aksai Chin where India does not accept China’s claim of territory and China doesn’t pay heed to India’s claims either. This has given rise to the confusion regarding where the line of actual control resides, giving an excuse to both armies to get into each other’s land.

70s was the time when India was at an advantage, and China kept itself limited to condemnations. India made way for the creation of Bangladesh, carried out a nuclear test in 1974, made NEFA a full-fledged state of Republic of India (Arunachal Pradesh), and inducted Sikkim into the Indian Union, all within the last five years. The emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during 1975-77 did not see many changes in the Sino-Indian relations, but following it, the new government led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai was keen to make some changes.

The Foreign Minister of Morarji Desai’s government’s – Atal Behari Vajpayee, made a breakthrough visit to China with both countries deciding to establish diplomatic ties again. China hence gave up its pro-Pakistan voice on Kashmir. Vajpayee also managed to get China to open up Mansarovar for annual pilgrimage.

Over the next decade, the leaders of both countries visited each other, inking agreements and business, and calling upon each other to solve border issues, but failing to do so every time.

In the late 80s and 90s, the State visits initiated a good three decades later, with both sides promising to set up a team of diplomatic and military officers to solve the issue of border.

The main problem with India-China border issue remains concentrated around Aksai Chin where India does not accept China’s claim of territory and China doesn’t pay heed to India’s claims either. This has given rise to the confusion regarding where the line of actual control resides, giving an excuse to both armies to get into each other’s land. People’s Liberation Army of China, thus, uses this excuse far many more times than the Indian army, with the Chinese troops often entering Ladakh, creating more border complications.

In 1998, India became a nuclear state and made for a growth story that could not be ignored by any country in the world, let alone China. Though China condemned India’s move towards becoming a nuclear state, seeing that Pakistan did the same thing two weeks later, China asked both nations to give up nuclear ambitions and ‘solve their problems using bilateral talks.’

In the early 2000s, both countries returned to being co-operating partners on paper, promising to exchange trade and culture. India accepted Tibet as an integral part of China and China accepted Sikkim as a part of India. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China the same year in order to “institutionalise and regularise” the relations that were established on paper. Vajpayee also stressed on “leaving the past behind.”

Atal Behari Vajpayee, meets with Jiang Zemin, Chairman of the Military Commission and former president, during a landmark visit on 24 June 2003 in Beijing.
“India and China are two very populous countries with ancient civilisations, friendship between the two countries has a time-honoured history, which can be dated back 2,000 years, and since the establishment of diplomatic ties between our two countries, in particular the last ten years, friendship and cooperation has made significant progress” – Premier Wen Jiabao at the Tagore International School, 15th December 2010.

China by now had realised the fact that India was one of its biggest trade buyers, and for India, China was a huge investment candy. Showing maturity in their relations post the Kargil War (in which China remained neutral), both sides promised to set their relations based on mutual interests and trade. Bilateral trade was soaring high, and as over US$70 billion was involved, no side wanted to bring up the border issue.

During the UPA administration, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and China’s Premier Wen Jiabao shared a close friendship and it reflected during their tenures, as the ties started shifting towards a mature optimism. However, the Chinese side always amazed India with its military tactics and that continues till today.

In 2020, tensions escalated in the Galwan Valley, leading to a violent clash between Indian and Chinese troops in June of that year. The clash resulted in casualties on both sides and increased diplomatic and military tensions.

Following the 2020 incidents, both countries engaged in talks to de-escalate the situation and find a peaceful resolution. However, the border tensions remained a significant concern.

Although the trade between Beijing and New Delhi is reaching close to a mammoth US$100 billion, the trust deficit is higher than ever. For over four decades of back and forth, the enmity between India and China stands between the nations wide and strong. Is the enmity due to the sharing of waters of the Indian Ocean and the Himalayan land?

India and China know that this is the Asian Age, but both have different theories about how it shall roast out: India continues an inclusive approach in this area, whereas China is raising a strictly anti-America, anti-India and anti-Japan military and economy.

As India is increasingly influencing Asia and beyond, China fears that India’s amassing close ties with its enemy Japan, South Korea and ASEAN and its “Look-East policy” would dilute its supremacy in the region. The frustration to this comes out in the form of releasing official maps showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of China and ‘vetoing’ India’s claims to UNSC permanent seat and infiltrations in Ladakh region which, sooner or later, are resolved via flag meeting, only to resume again.

India, on the other hand, has its own oriental plate of worries like China’s claim to our land, and its reach to other South Asians, especially Pakistan which of course, is a self-explanatory threat. Today, Pakistan and China are close aides, thanks to having a common enemy – India. Pakistan wants Kashmir, India is sensitive to it, like China is to Tibet. China believes that India has a covert motive for Tibet, while India thinks along similar lines when it comes to Pakistan and Kashmir.

The countries’ leaders wear a smile when they meet, talk of friendship and co-operation while incursions take place on borders. They ink pacts for trade of billions of dollars but when it comes to their problems, they conclude that we need to resolve border and Brahmaputra issues.

The Himalayas, as said earlier, was the path of peacemakers, is now an ideological frontier between the ideas of Democracy and Communism. What would happen at this post in the future is unpredictable, but one thing is clear – that this frontier will remain of utmost significance in the 21st century.

Ah and the question remains, can India and China ever be friends, unless there’s a miracle?


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