Territorial boundaries have been the cause of conflicts and tensions between neighboring countries for thousands of years. On Wednesday, May 8, I decided to go to George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs to listen to Dr. Namrata Goswami’s presentation, entitled “China-India Border Issues and Northeast India: A View from India.” Dr. Goswami is a notable scholar in her field and has done extensive work analyzing the conflict. The event was sponsored by the Rising Powers Initiative and the India Initiative.
A few of the areas contested are Monpa, Tani, Mishmi, Naga, and Mette. It is difficult to categorize all of them in one specific category, as they are diverse and not homogenous. The border issues date back to the 1950s. Dr. Goswami’s presentation touched upon five factors: disputed border and territorial claims, Tibet as the core issue, balance of military forces, military exercises, and the relationship between the U.S. and India.
The McMahon line, located near the Brahmaputra River, is the borderline delineated by the British to separate China and India. Prior to this, another line had been proposed to solve the conflict. While the Indian government favors the former, the Chinese government favors the latter. The Indian government argues that if they abide the previous line, they will be vulnerable to foreign attacks and lose the defense the mountainous region provides.
In 1959, Mao Zedong published an essay in which he proclaimed Jawaharlal Nehru (the prime minister at the time) as an expansionist, with the desire to expand into Tibet. Nehru’s forward policy called for the establishment of various posts near the McMahon line. On October 1962 China attacked – an attack that was completely unforeseen by the Indian government. The Sino-Indian War produced significant losses for the Indian military.
Throughout the speech, the speaker often stated that Tibet was the “core issue” and highlighted the “importance of Tibet.” In 1954, both parties signed a treaty, whereby the Indian government recognized Tibet as a territory of the People’s Republic of China. (The following link will direct you to a copy of the original document: http://www.tpprc.org/documents/agreements/1954.pdf.) As Nehru was facing pressure from the parliament and the media at the time, the government printed out maps that unilaterally defined the border – heightening tensions even more.
Currently, the Tibetan government (the Central Tibetan Administration) is in exile in India. The Dalai Lama is the spearhead of the non-violent movement that seeks to regain Tibetan autonomy. (More information can be found here: http://tibet.net/important-issues/worldwide-tibet-movement/.) The Free Tibet movement, however, is one of the hundreds of Tibet Support Groups (TSGs) that is independent of the CTA.
Today, the area near the McMahon line is highly militarized. There is a great fear on behalf of the Indian government that a second attack will be launched (like in 1962). Dr. Goswami showed us satellite pictures of the missile deployment the Chinese government set up in Tibet. The Government of India plans to invest $100 million dollars in its military, with the hopes of containing China and maintaining its militarized border. Both countries – which are nuclear weapon states – have also revved up military exercises.
In recent years, the Indian government has successfully strengthened its diplomatic relations with the U.S. government. One of the questions Dr. Goswami explored during her presentation was, “Why is India getting so close to the United States?” There are various theories to account for the increased cooperation between these two countries; perhaps the most prevalent is that a bilateral relationship is crucial to deter China’s rise as a global power. On July 18 the country celebrated a great achievement: it was officially recognized as a nuclear weapon state. Consequently, the idea of the state as a great power was conceptually enforced. In 2006, negotiations suffered a setback. Chinese E-passports were circulating that apparently claimed the contested region as Chinese territory. As negotiations were (and are still) ongoing, it escalated anxiety.
India insists on settling the border disputes based on the McMahon line, and China adamantly opposes it. One of Dr. Goswami’s closing remarks was, “Why has China not resolved the border issue with India?” It has successfully resolved border issues with Burma, Nepal and Mongolia, after all. Her answer was that China wants to make India insecure and assert its power. The realist argument, she said, would be that “China has done this deliberately to question India’s resolve.” The recent standoff in Ladakh has stalled negotiations, increased fear, and intensified pressure from the media and local population.
The dispute is clearly a complex issue that will not be easily resolved. Now that I have heard Dr. Goswami’s discourse presenting “A View from India,” it would be interesting to hear a presentation on “A View from China.”