The deterioration in India’s relations with China today is “much worse” than what followed previous border crises such as the years-long stand-off at Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986, with China adopting a much more “confrontational” approach, according to former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China Nirupama Rao.
Further transgressions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), where China’s ingresses starting in April 2020 triggered an as yet unresolved crisis, cannot be ruled out with past border agreements, designed to keep the peace, no longer adequate, Ms. Rao told The Hindu , speaking in an interview about her new book “ The Fractured Himalaya: India, Tibet, China 1949-1962 .”
“In 1986, the Chinese intrusion into the Wangdung area in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh made relations slide back and deteriorate. The deterioration today, however, is much worse,” Ms. Rao said. “Today, we are dealing with a much more assertive, much more militarily powerful China, and a very, very hyper nationalistic China. Their whole approach to these contested areas is far more confrontational than it was in Sumdorong Chu.”
Ms. Rao, who was involved in the process of both sides coming up with four border agreements to keep the peace starting in 1993, said the arrangements had come under stress since 2010 with the growing strength of both countries and capacities to patrol in contested areas. In June 2020, 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers were killed in a clash in Galwan Valley which marked the worst violence since 1967.
Since then, both sides have disengaged in some areas but talks to do so in other hot-spots remain deadlocked, with Indian officials saying China has been dragging its feet to disengage. The prospect of de-escalation also appears remote with thousands of troops still present in forward areas in Ladakh. The PLA is also bolstering infrastructure closer to the LAC, not just in Ladakh but also in the eastern sector.
Anticipating more conflicts
“We are now faced with a situation where we can have such potential clashes, god forbid, in many other contested areas, too, unless there is a process of disengagement and de-escalation that both sides have the political vision, willingness and courage to do, and I don't see that happening at the moment.” Past agreements, she said, “definitely served their purpose but they were not adequate”.
The former Foreign Secretary said she was motivated to write the history of the crucial 13 years in India’s relations with China leading up to 1962 to enable a younger demographic to have a proper reading of history and “approach the issue with both reason and imagination. “If you don't understand the history, you will keep repeating the same shibboleths and make the same missteps and miscalculations all over again,” she said.
On the Tibet factor in India-China relations, which the book deals with in detail, Ms. Rao said while India, and almost every country in the world, sees Tibet as a part of China, India has an interest in helping preserve Tibet’s cultural and civilisational identity, which has been fostered through the presence of the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community in India. On the question of the Dalai Lama’s succession, Ms. Rao said while she hoped the Dalai Lama lives “for as long as possible” and while China had indicated “in no uncertain terms” that it would determine the next Dalai Lama, she hoped the Chinese “could be more responsive and more empathetic to the sentiments of the Tibetan people when it comes to the question of succession”.