Why Nationalism Alone Cannot Solve the Sino-Indian Border Dispute

Any meaningful attempt to solve the border dispute will necessitate India rethinking its China policy.

On 1 January, China released a statement saying they were seeking an “early harvest”-based settlement of the nearly 3,500 km Sino–Indian border dispute, which includes confidence-building measures, such as demarcating the border in Sikkim, enabling cross-border trade along border towns, and implementing a code of conduct for troops stationed in the region. This statement was preceded by the 22nd round of border talks between the two countries in December, and by an “informal summit” between the Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, beyond the oft-used diplomatic rhetoric, the real outcomes of these meetings, if any, remain unknown. 

Despite this recent—and public—bonhomie between China and India, relations between the two countries have been fraught in the recent past. China reacted sharply to India’s abrogation of Article 370, calling it “unlawful” and “void,” and also stated that the move challenged the country’s sovereignty in those areas. It also requested a special meeting to discuss Kashmir at the United Nations Security Council, before eventually withdrawing its request. India maintains that Kashmir is an "internal matter." Further, in 2017, the two countries’ respective armies were engaged in a two-month-long standoff in Doklam, where the Chinese army was attempting to construct a road in an area that India claimed did not belong to them. 

The border issue stems from the McMahon Line, which was drawn by then Foreign Secretary Henry McMahon in 1914 to create a “strategic” border for India in the North East. The line advanced India’s territorial claims of the North by some 20,000 square miles, and the British were allegedly aware that this would cross into what China claimed to be their territory. Moreover, the Nehru government is criticised for pursuing a nationalist “Forward Policy,” triggering the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and also for refusing to negotiate with China. However, even today, India’s fundamental foreign policy outlook towards China—and indeed, issues of territorial sovereignty—is unshifting, and fails to go beyond the nationalist rhetoric. 

This reading list discusses the issue of the Sino–Indian border and the possibility of peace at a time when both countries are vying to emerge as leaders of the Asian continent.   

1) The Nehru Government's Numerous Missteps

The People's Republic of China came into being in 1949, and at the time, was concerned with resolving territorial sovereignty disputes with neighbouring countries along the lines of “what history had left them,” which included accepting the McMahon Line as the defacto border—this meant that at the time, they did object to India asserting its claim upto the McMahon line. However, Neville Maxwell writes that the 1962 Sino–Indian war was of the then government's making, when it decided, in the 1950s, to print new maps of India that showed large swathes of territory—especially Aksai Chin—beyond the line as belonging to the Indian state. 

Unknown to him [Nehru] at that time—and of course he had seen no reason to enquire—Beijing held the area to be historically Chinese territory, and were in full control of it. Tightening the lock on his own approach and that of his successors, he ruled that “this frontier should be regarded as a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody” and ordered that as far and as soon as possible it be made good on the ground, “especially in such places” as might be claimed by China. With that ­instruction he lit the fuse that led to the explosion of border war.

Furthermore, Maxwell says that Zhou Enlai, the then Chinese Premier, even offered in 1960 to legitimise India’s then territorial holdings in the spirit of “mutual understanding and mutual accommodation,” but the Indian government refused to negotiate.

He [Enlai] met an iron wall of refusal to negotiate, an implacable ­insistence that China must withdraw from all territory claimed by India—why? An American scholar who spent years interviewing those who were ­Nehru’s closest advisers advanced this answer: “The Indians perceived in the Chinese wish to negotiate an attempt to denigrate the historical authenticity of the Indian nation. A true nation would not, in the Indian view, be asked to negotiate its historically evolved borders. That request or demand could come only from a neighbour who (like the former British rulers) regarded the Indian nation as an artificial creation.” (Hoffman 1990: 256) 

The government's decision to refuse to negotiate, coupled with armed incursions into what the Chinese claimed as their own land, put India on an “escalation strategy,” writes Maxwell, which committed the country to the use of force to realise its territorial ambitions. 

The Indian policy for settlement of the China borders was set, and it holds to this day, with one modification India would: – Insist that all sectors of its border with China were already defined, indisputable and therefore, non-negotiable; – As soon as possible advance its state forces into the territory claimed; – Refuse to enter into any agreement for maintaining the status quo until all territory claimed by India was under Indian control; – At all stages refuse to submit its claimed border alignments to negotiation. Each of those points was in absolute opposition to the Chinese approach, and in sum the policy amounted to insistence that definition of the Sino-Indian borders would be for decision by India alone.

2) Assessing India’s Territorial Claims

H Srikant writes that India claiming Aksai Chin and other areas has been done on the basis of “imaginary historical evidence.” To begin with, India as a nation state is a recent creation, and while it may have existed as a civilisational entity before that, to claim territory on the basis of what Hindu scriptures would mean that India could also claim land within Pakistan and Afghanistan as its own. 

It is strange that India, which like many other states in the world recognises Tibet as an integral part of China, considers the McMahon Line as inviolable, knowing very well that China has never recognised the line as its border with India … going by that logic, India should give up some of its territory in the north-east since it was never a part of the so-called Indian civilisation. What the colonial rulers did or what Hindu scriptures and folklore say cannot be a rational basis for territorial claims. 

Moreover, Srikant cautions against embedding nationalism in the discourse around the border issue, which he argues can be used to serve the interests of a select group of people.

Historically, nationalism is a progressive force as long as it is fighting feudalism and colonialism. However, once a nation-state becomes a reality, nationalism can become a tool in the hands of reactionaries to mislead and manipulate the citizens into serving the interests of certain privileged classes or groups of people.2 If one remains only a nationalist, he or she can never see the mistakes and limitations of his or her own country and blindly support whatever the ruling elite thinks and does in the name of the “motherland”... the elite consensus coupled with effective media management has led citizens to believe that India was an innocent victim of Chinese aggression in 1962 and that China has occupied thousands of square miles of territory that legitimately belongs to India.   

3) Any Agreement Will Have to Address China’s Concerns with Tibet

Srinath Raghavan writes that for China to officially recognise the McMahon Line would be for them to implicitly acknowledge that Tibet enjoyed some form of independence in the early 1900s, and was able to successfully carry out boundary negotiations with India. Further, Raghavan argues that India’s Tibet policy will be at the forefront of any boundary discussions. While India does not officially recognise Tibet, it has provided refuge to its leaders, and although unofficial, a Tibetan “government-in-exile” functions in India. 

Ties between India and Tibet have always been viewed by Beijing with wariness, not to say suspicion. The troubles in Tibet have accentuated China’s concerns about the “Dalai Clique” and its links with India. Repeated calls in Indian public discourse on the need to play the “Tibet card” only serve to stoke China’s suspicions …  Contrary to wishful thinking in some quarters, the Tibetan issue does not afford any leverage to India. The issue has no purchase on the Indian political class or public opinion. This being case, the realistic course is to find ways of offering more convincing reassurances to China about its attitude to Tibet. This will be essential to removing needless mistrust and to reaching an accord on the boundary. Towards the latter end, it is equally imperative that the Indian government informs and shapes domestic opinion on China. The bogey of an aggressive China may well become a selffulfilling prophecy, for strident views on both sides feed on and accentuate the other.

4) Finding a Workable Solution

On the global level, negotiations have historically served India well—the 123 nuclear agreement with the United States being an important milestone in India's diplomatic prowess.Neville Maxwell says that the only way the “talks” can be productive is if India rethinks its refusal to negotiate. He argues that India today needs to relinquish its claim to Aksai Chin, and also drop the argument that the McMahon line is the legally accepted international boundary, and perhaps even learn from the Russian example of solving territorial disputes.

The mistakes of the Nehru government did great injury to India (and to China and the international community)—but they can still be undone. The Soviet Union made the same mistakes in its initial policy towards its borders with the PRC, refusing to negotiate its claims and trying to impose them by force, with the same result: armed conflict in 1969 followed by years of h­ostile confrontation. But in 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev, in an act of statesmanship, reversed Moscow’s policy and took up the open Chinese invitation to negotiate. It took years but in 2005 in Vladivostok the signing of a Sino-Russian border treaty resolved centuries of territorial dis­putation and conflict, achieving détente and amity ... the attitudinal key of “mutual understanding, mutual accommodation” could turn the lock if only an Indian government would follow the example of Gorbachev—and indeed of all China’s other neighbours—and, taking up China’s ever-open invitation, ­begin negotiations. That it do so should be the insistent ­demand of the Indian political public.

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