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The perils of Sino-Indian border flare-up

China and India should learn from Japan and avoid leading this region to an atomic catastrophe

The perils of Sino-Indian border flare-up

Sino-Indian border tensions are once again taking a nasty turn bringing the two atomic powers of this region at a loggerhead. On July 24, China announced that it was sending more troops to the volatile region of Tibet. China claims that it is doing so to protect its sovereignty and was ready to go to any extent for it.

Tibet is a semi-autonomous region of China spanning around 2.5 million square kilometres which comes to around 25 per cent of the total Chinese area. Tibetan people have been living in this region for thousands of years but during the past 70 years or so a lot of Han Chinese people have also been settled here.

A peculiarity of Tibet is that it is the highest region on the planet with an average altitude of over 16,000 feet above the sea level. The world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is also perched in the same region. Over the past centuries this region has seen repeated occupations by the Mongols and the Chinese. Finally, in 1950 the newly-established Peoples’ Republic of China incorporated this area into its fold. Now, China is claiming that India is crossing the established boundaries and check posts to enter the Chinese territory. China has unequivocally warned India that it should not harbour any assumptions about browbeating China.

It has cited historical evidence to show that the Chinese army has always defended its territorial integrity and is prepared to do so again. This recent spat started in June when China started building a road near the border between Sikkim and Bhutan. Sikkim is a north-eastern state of India bordering Bhutan, China, and Nepal. Sikkim is the least populated of the 29 Indian states with slightly more than 0.6 million people living there. Sikkim used to be an independent country but when China occupied Tibet, Sikkim came under the Indian protection.

Then in 1975, India formally occupied it and declared it an Indian constituent state. Now, the row was triggered when India sent its troops to prevent China from road construction in that area which will help China logistically in transporting military hardware. In a possible war scenario, the road will offer China an upper hand. Essentially, the objection also comes from Bhutan which is surrounded by China on one side and India on the other. It doesn’t have a border with Nepal because Sikkim comes in between. Though Bhutan is also very close to Bangladesh but again the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal separate the two countries.

China is claiming that India is crossing the established boundaries and check posts to enter the Chinese territory. China has unequivocally warned India that it should not harbour any assumptions about browbeating China.

All this geographic misfortune makes Bhutan dependent on China and India. Population wise too, Bhutan’s population is just 0.7 million which is almost equal to Sikkim’s. The tension between China and India has created anxiety in India and the opposition parties are criticising the BJP government. Especially Mulayam Singh Yadav is shouting at the top of his voice. Yadav is a former chief minister of the largest Indian state, UP. He is a leader of the Samajwadi Party that was thoroughly defeated by the BJP in the last UP elections. Now he is trying to find some solace by taking the BJP to task.

Many Indian leaders are drubbing the BJP for its 2003 government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that had recognised Tibet as a legitimate part of China in return of China recognising Sikkim as an Indian state. At that time, it had appeared as a wise decision because, by this, Vajpayee had tried to get rid of the long-standing dispute with China. The former BJP prime minister, Vajpayee, is now 92-year-old. For the first time, he had become the PM of India in 1996 but just after 13 days his government had failed to get the majority in the Indian parliament.

For the second time, he became prime minister in 1998 and completed his five-year term. But now he is too old to get involved in this controversy. Even a BJP ally, RSS, is raising concerns and blaming the BJP for what its government did 14 years ago by acknowledging Tibet as part of China. But they don’t mention the BJP government’s success in getting Sikkim recognised as part of India. Regarding Tibet, British India concluded the first agreement in 1914 when McMahon Line was accepted as an international boundary.

Then in 1954, the first Indian prime minister, J L Nehru, signed another agreement with China recognising Tibet as part of China for an eight-year period. At that time, the Indian government was keen on establishing good ties with the new socialist government of China, and both countries were also cooperating with each other to establish the Non-aligned Movement. But, when the eight-year period ended in 1962, a war erupted between China and India resulting in heavy losses for India. In a way, it was a humiliating defeat for India and it took heavy toll on Nehru’s health and he died within a couple of years.

Nehru had not expected that a war would break out between the two countries with such a negative result for India. Then the issue of Tibet just lingered on and was finally tackled by Vajpayee. He was eager to normalise relations with neighbouring countries and in that connection, had also visited Pakistan but the efforts made by Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee were thwarted by General Musharraf whose adventures in Kargil put Pakistan in a difficult situation.

From March 1962, when the agreement made by Nehru expired, for the next four decades China and India didn’t negotiate Tibet until Vajpayee visited China in 2003 and broke the impasse.

But now, his courageous decision is being criticised by his friends and foes alike. Interestingly, Bhutan should have been the protagonist of this new dispute because the issue is directly between Bhutan and China. But Bhutan is keeping an eerie silence whereas China and India are locking horns. India says that Bhutan is an extremely close friend of India and it had requested India for help. Bhutan itself has neither rejected nor confirmed the Indian claim. Bhutan and India share a 700-km long border of which 250km are just with one state of India i.e. Assam.

Since Bhutan is surrounded by high mountains the only land route to Bhutan goes from Assam. Notwithstanding good relations with India, Bhutan, while allowing free travel to Indian citizens, prohibits them from buying any property. The Indian traders can hire a house or a shop on a one-year lease that has to be extended every year. In addition, the Indian citizens are not allowed to do any construction work in Bhutan. Many Indians who have been living in Bhutan for over two generations still have no ownership rights. To aggravate the situation, the Chinese media is also fueling the fire by reminding India of its 1962 defeat.

For example, the Chinese newspaper, Global Times, has repeatedly accused India of violating Bhutan’s sovereignty. It has threatened that if India tries to hamper the road-building project, it may suffer another rout at the hands of the Chinses superior army. By completing the road, China will have access to a 20-km corridor that will enable China to enter the seven north-eastern states of India. And this is the main concern for India. Both India and China are atomic powers. They should keep in mind that this is not 1962.

If this tension breaks out into a full-fledged war, the warmongers in both the countries will call for the use of the atomic option. This happens whenever there is an increased tension between India and Pakistan. Myopic media anchors and politicians in both countries start threatening each other with atomic bombs. The governments in each country is reprimanded for keeping the atomic bombs and not using them. Such atom-crazy war mongers should learn from the experience of Japan. After the unnecessary atomic attacks and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by America, Japan has been spearheading an international campaign against nuclear weapons.

Just a thought of an atomic conflict is enough to make you shudder. Japan did have border disagreements but it never talks about developing or using any atomic weapons. Japan has had much better scientific and technological expertise than China. Had Japan wanted, it could have developed an atomic device, but it not only refrained from doing so but has also tried to convince other countries not to embark on an atomic path. Another example is from Fukushima where the post-tsunami destruction of the atomic reactor has prompted Japan to abandon its atomic energy programmes.

But here we are in China, India and Pakistan with hundreds of atomic devices, still building more atomic energy reactors. Just near Karachi, two huge atomic energy power stations are being built with the Chinese help. These can be highly dangerous for the largest city of Pakistan, but the atom-crazy scientists and politicians are impervious to any logical reasoning.

To conclude, we may only hope that China and India learn from Japan and don’t lead this region to an atomic catastrophe.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.

One comment

  • R S Chakravarti

    How could Tibet be recognised as part of China for a limited period? This sounds absurd. I have never heard of it. Such recognition, once given, surely lasts forever unless revoked, which is unlikely or impossible.
    In the early years of independence, the govt of India was afraid of a military coup. Its response was to neglect the armed forces, until China’s wake-up call in 1962. Aksai Chin, part of the old J&K kingdom, was occupied by China soon after 1947 but the govt of India only discovered this many years later!
    The area that is now contested by India (technically Bhutan) and China is vital to India’s national security but not to China’s.
    However, China believes in expanding its territory wherever possible.
    This article is a bit biased in China’s favour.

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