Permanent border is the solution

An unofficial arrangement cannot guarantee durable peace or be a substitute for an official border

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 30th Jun 2020   12:05 am Updated: 29th Jun 2020   11:31 pm

The statements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping on the flare-up at the Indo-China border near the Galwan Valley in Ladakh hint that both India and China do not want to go to war. However the “violent face-off” in the Galwan Valley on the night of June 15, in which 20 Indian army men were killed means that there are pressures on the frontier from many angles, including domestic politics and nationalism from both sides. Such fatalities — the first in 45 years along borders of both the countries — have shocked all.

What actually happened on the night of June 15 is not clear. In response to reports of troop movement and escalation of conflict in the Galwan Valley, India’s Army chief assured everyone that the “entire situation along our borders with China is under control”, but the fatalities proved that the situation was out of control. Modi’s statement that there was no intrusion of Chinese army into the Indian territory has made the picture more hedgy.

Public Pressure

Contrary to the Indian side’s highlighting of the fatalities in the Indian Army, the Chinese side was not forthcoming on the casualty of its troops. The reason may be to avoid public pressure on the Chinese government to take military action against India. Citing a source close to the People’s Liberation Army, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing was “very sensitive” about military casualties and that the numbers had to be approved by Xi before being released.

Reports of the death of 20 soldiers have triggered a fresh wave of nationalistic passions in India. Public pressure is mounting on the government to snap trade relations with China and there are campaigns in social media asking people not to buy Chinese products. A section of pro-government media, particularly TV channels, is buzzing with calls to boycott Chinese goods and companies. The opposition is demanding tough action against China to extract political mileage out of nationalistic passions. Such calls have obtained mass support from not only the ordinary citizens but are being backed by influential MPs and others from the political class as well. One Union Minister even called for boycotting Chinese food.

Notwithstanding such nationalistic hyperbole, the reality is that such economic action is impractical and even if it is possible, it will not be helpful for both the countries. India is the biggest importer of Chinese products. The trade deficit of India with China is one of the biggest between two trading countries.

India’s imports from China are almost seven times higher than its exports to it. From electronics, mobile phones, plastic items, industrial goods, vehicles, solar cells to essential pharmaceutical products – our list is very long. The production process now-a-days is so complex and interconnected that every good that we use has different components from various countries. Therefore, it is impossible to isolate any country and boycott its products.

Permanent border

Messy Situation

A line of actual control (LAC) between the two countries is an unofficial border. The LAC between India and China is not mutually agreed upon by the two countries. This is the root cause of the friction. Notwithstanding this, the Indo-Chinese border was more or less peaceful since 1979 when both the countries re-established diplomatic relations after the 1962 war broadly because of the success of the jointly developed patrolling techniques and protocols to maintain peace, despite language barrier and diverse culture. But such an unofficial arrangement cannot guarantee peace for a long time and at the same time cannot be a substitute for an official border.

Why could the two neighbouring rising Asian giants not demarcate the boundaries between them in the last 70 years? Why do both the countries deploy soldiers to guard borders, which are mutually not accepted? In such a volatile environment, the soldiers are also not permitted to use modern weapons for self-defence in the name of maintaining peace. While the governments of both the countries are looking for a solution to this flare-up, we must acknowledge the discipline of the troops of both the countries for not touching the modern weapon for self-defence defying official order.

No Exchange of Maps

Except in the middle sector of the Indo-China border, where lie Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, there has been no exchange of maps. The McMahon Line, which was accepted as the demarcation line between British India and Tibet, then an independent country, by a secret deal in 1914 has never been accepted by China. China claims entire Arunachal Pradesh consisting of around 90,000 sq km of land to the south of the McMahon Line. India claims China controls 38,000 sq km of land known as Aksai Chin in the western sector. Territorial conflicts are more prominent in high altitude areas of the western sector where the Galwan Valley is situated.

There are two different views on the Indo-China relation in the context of the present border conflicts. One is that the growing economic relations between the two countries should not suffer because of the present escalation of the conflict. Professor Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies program says that for decades, India and China have expanded their economic engagement despite an unresolved border dispute “where it did not let the overall relationship become hostage to it. But once you have fatalities, then the border issue becomes more salient at home in both countries”.

The other point of view is that the face-offs will become more hostile affecting the bilateral trade relations if the border issue is not resolved permanently. Proponents of this view have raised the question — how many soldiers must die to get an official border clearly demarcating the two countries. It is a pity that big businesses and corporations are doing billion-dollar deals in cities like Mumbai and Shanghai while soldiers are exposed to freezing cold and barbaric fatalities on the unsettled borders of the two countries.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)

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