The cooling tempers in the western sector of the India-China boundary where frictions reached a dangerous flashpoint on June 15 after a brutal but thankfully firearms free clash between troops of the two countries at a place called Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan valley, is welcome. Should a war break out between the two nuclear armed Asian giants, regardless of who wins on the face of it, in the long run, both would have ended up as losers, too battered and devastated to stand up and join the race for economic expansion with the rest of the world. Doomed in the process would be the optimism of an Asian century many in Asia had anticipated at the turn of the present millennium. The June 15 clash was tragic, for there were losses of precious lives. India ended up with 20 soldiers killed, including a battalion commander. China too would have suffered casualties, but they have not confirmed the nature or number of their losses. Now that the immediate danger of the conflict escalating has seemingly been avoided, the need is to reflect on what has happened and how a spark could so easily result in a blazing flare. The reasons can hardly be said to have been localised and confined to a few soldiers. No points for guessing, but the fact is, subterranean friction between the two civilisational states is several decades old, and has never been allowed to be fully resolved for several reasons, rendering the grounds on which soldiers of the two countries walked on at the borders, including at Galwan, akin to dry cinders, therefore needing only a single spark to start raging fires. It is unfortunate that the boundary between the two countries should have remained unsettled for more than seven decades after the colonial era concluded. It is also surprising that after all these years of emphasis on conflict studies world over, and beautifully rounded theories including Nobel Prize winning works on the famous Game Theory which showing ways of win-win situations in competitions, with all parties gaining something, but none ending up as loser, have made little difference. Instead, the old antagonistic equation of zero-sum-game, in which what one party’s gain has to be at the cost of another party, continues to rule. India and China must have to find a way to end this binary and transform their rivalry into a healthy equation of the former kind.
For this to happen however, the two must reconsider the boundary issue from a fresh vantage free of the burdens of past baggages, which puts a premium on each’s genuine needs, as well as the preferences and welfare of communities along the border. In truth, much of the disputed land were virtually no man’s land for much of history. The truth also is, in the western sector, there are no treaty-based, delineated and demarcated boundaries, other than three different alignments unilaterally conceived of by the British, each addressing what they felt were their security needs while India was part of the British Empire, and against the backdrop a Russian Empire expanding in Central Asia. The British cartographic assertions on this front were very much part of a response to this friction between the two empires, often referred to as the Great Game. As for instance, of the three alignments left behind by the British, the Johnson Ardagh Line which included the barren and prohibiting cold desert of Aksai Chin, was driven by a need felt by the British to keep the Russians out of Tibet. As several scholars, including Alastair Lamb and A.G. Noorani have pointed out, at one stage, when physically taking possession of Aksai Chin was seen as wasteful of resources and energy, the British even actually encouraged China to claim possession of it, but the latter did not respond. It is ironic that now, the ownership of this forsaken place has become hotly contested. In the Northeast sector, there is a treaty bound delineated boundary, though not demarcated, called the McMahon Line, but this boundary too is disputed because it was agreed and signed only between Tibet and British India, and not China. Here too, it must be noted that much of where the McMahon Line actually runs, were sparsely populated uncharted wild country which the British left out of its administration by drawing an Inner Line as per the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873. In later years, the Inner Line was coming to be treated as the international boundary, including importantly by the British media, pressurising the British India administration come up with what it considered as its international boundary. This became even more urgent after the forward policy of China’s Manchu rulers in the first decade of the 20th Century before crumbling in 1910 in the face of the Republican Revolution headed by Sun Yat Sen and his young lieutenant, Chiang Kai Shek.
Before these British era lines, the notion of boundaries amongst local principalities were obviously very different. Rather than boundaries fixed and marked by boundary pillars, and closely guarded and administered as in European nation states, these were fluid and loosely administered frontiers. They also waxed and waned depending on the influence and military prowess of local rulers from time to time, and from whatever oral and written records available, this was an accepted norm. A sense of this notion can also be had from the ancient Vedic ritual of Ashwamedha Yagna, whereby a king lets loose a ritual horse to allow it to wander free, followed by the king’s troops, and wherever the horse reached unopposed was deemed as the king’s domain, and wherever the advance of the horse was opposed and successfully prevented, becomes the boundary of his kingdom. There would be other rulers, resorting to the ritual to test the extent of his influence, and hence the accepted reality of fluctuating boundaries. Against this backdrop, it would not be too farfetched to interpret present day boundary disputes between modern nations as a consequence of giving new rigid profiles to what were once fluid. But let it also be noted that these ancient disputes were between different neighbouring principalities. The complication in the present context therefore is, these principalities are now part of either India or China, and their disputes arising out of differences in boundary perception, are now being perceived as dispute between Beijing and Delhi. This being so, perhaps a little deconstruction exercise by both parties can help break the deadlock and initiate a new problem-solving dialogue, for then, these local conflicts, which are now magnified and transformed into national conflicts, could perhaps be put in helpful perspectives.
Other scholars have implied this too. For instance, at the start of the Simla Conference 1913-1924, the Chinese plenipotentiary, Ivan Chen (sometimes spelt Ifan Chen), had little idea where the boundary between India and Tibet should be. The Tibetan plenipotentiary, Longchen Shatra on the other hand had volumes on Tibetan myths and legends to support claims of a boundary that went far into what are now considered Indian territory, Indian plenipotentiary Henry McMahon assisted by Tibetologist Charles Bell also were familiar with similar myths and legends from the Indian side. The lack of knowledge of the border on the part of the Chinese remained decades after, but as Neville Maxwell indicated in his influential but controversial book “India’s China War”, things changed after the Chinese entered the Potala Palace in 1959 and accessed Tibetan official files after the unsuccessful Khampa uprising and the 14th Dalai Lama fleeing to India. This would mean, in essence, the current stand of the Chinese on this border is the Tibetan outlook. In other words, although much has changed in the decades since decolonisation, and there certainly would be geopolitical factors complicating the friction between India and China, at its roots, the problem is a hangover of territorial relations between smaller, premodern Asiatic principalities. Acknowledging this cannot be the entire solution to the present entangle, but it should help in recasting the problem in the search for a solution. It should also deflate the unnecessarily bloated egos of braggadocios making a TV room show of what can degenerate into a very grave crisis for everybody.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author