The small island nation of Taiwan remains the principal thorn in the side of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and its supreme overlord — CPC general secretary and China’s President-for-life Xi Jinping — posing the most formidable challenge for the fulfilment of “national unity” in the CPC’s centenary year. The so-called autonomous region of Tibet is the second headache for the distant Hans of the Hwang Ho Valley. This was made clear by the CPC itself after Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, visited Lhasa on August 18 to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of its alleged “peaceful liberation”. Despite the 70 years of uninterrupted “peace”, the party boss made it clear: “Only by following the CPC leadership/pursuing socialism path can Tibet achieve development/prosperity”. That begs a curious, but politically incorrect, question: Is Tibet still falling short of CPC’s expectations for the amalgamation of its distinctly identifiable Buddhism despite the high-decibel propagation of “superior” CPC culture?
Tibet also cropped up on the world’s radar with President Xi’s “secret” trip recently when he toured areas just 15 km from the Kameng sector of India (India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction), arguably the closest any Beijing czar has come near the Indian border in living memory. This was a clear message to Delhi, coming just a year after the bloody Galwan clash in Ladakh in June 2020 leading to the death of 20 Indian soldiers, including a colonel. The sullen but simmering Tibet-India border remains volatile, despite the charm offensive by some Chinese figures ahead of the CPC centenary, and the standoff that began in May 2020 continues, despite pullbacks in some areas.
The concept of “trust, faith and confidence” in India-China ties have all but evaporated. The betrayal began almost six decades ago, when the CPC rudely snubbed Jawaharlal Nehru’s warm embrace of Mao Zedong, spearheading the 1962 conflict, and despite the ups and downs and some positive signals in the Deng Xiaoping years, it’s been pretty much downhill all the way. This was clearly spelt out in former IB boss B.N. Mullick’s aptly-titled The Chinese Betrayal. Beijing’s brawny behaviour towards India began long before today’s CPC-led “teeth showing” diplomacy. The Dragon’s trademark has changed little — economics, commerce, foreign trade, banking, polity, threats to the Indian press, espionage and cyber fraudsters — all are fair game, and the means don’t matter.
In fact, national frontiers have always been a nebulous concept to the Chinese, as a sort of grey area in the CPC psyche rather than as a fixed “boundary line” between neighbours. A look back at history would make that clear. China today shares a land border with 14 countries, of which eight are landlocked: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Laos. The six others are North Korea, Russia, India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Vietnam. Understandably, the biggest of these, Russia and India, continue to pose the most serious problems. While there is a lull now in the Russia-China frontier, the Indian border heated up just a year ago, though talks are currently underway to de-escalate tensions.
China’s northern border row got aggravated with the ideological clash of the Beijing-Moscow “comrades” over the differing perceptions of Mao and Khrushchev in the 1950s, with the CPC accusing the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) of forced annexation of Chinese land by czars of an earlier era and imposition of unjust, unequal treaties. The Kremlin countered in 1963, asking Red China if it would defend the territorial conquests of past Chinese emperors. The CPSU said: “Historically formed boundaries between states now exist. Any attempt to ignore this can be the source of misunderstanding and conflict.” The Soviet logic proved irrefutable. China accepted it and responded in February 1964: “Although the old Sino-Russian boundary treaties are unequal, the Chinese government is nevertheless willing to respect them and take them as the basis for a reasonable settlement.” The Jawaharlal Nehru government in India made the same argument but was rebuffed. And despite China conceding Soviet point on the border issue, the most serious Moscow-Beijing clash occurred in the spring of 1969 at the Amur, Ussuri rivers on their shared border.
Today, although the changed global geopolitics has brought Beijing and Moscow together, given its 145 million population that is diminishing, a truncated Russia remains mortally scared of the CPC’s 1.45 billion heads, particularly given its critical manpower shortages in the resource-rich Siberian land mass.
In India, however, the chaotic and fractious polity gives China leverage of some kind. While Delhi wisely stayed out of the Belt and Road system and refused to be a part of RCEP, Beijing’s pressure points are many, both internally and externally. India has its own views on Afghanistan, which is at wide variance with the Beijing-Islamabad axis, so a new pressure point has arisen with the Taliban’s capture of power in Kabul. Beijing now has an enlarged terrain, with Taliban-run Afghanistan next door to Tibet, so coupled with the Americans’ departure from the neighbourhood China hopes it’s closer to reaching its strategic goals.
That’s why New Delhi needs to exercise even greater care in any deal or agreement it reaches with the Chinese side in Ladakh or related to the Line of Actual Control. Any positive gesture by China on the Himalayan border must be closely scrutinised. Historically, as well as today, the Chinese aren’t known to respond positively to any boundary proposal by India. The acceptance of traditional and customary boundary lines, characterised by natural features, were used in resolving border disputes with Myanmar and Nepal. The Chinese even accepted the McMahon Line in relation to Myanmar. In March 1963, China reached border pacts with both Pakistan and Afghanistan using large-scale maps it had refused to produce in the 1960 negotiations with India. Clearly, there’s a problem.
Contextually, one is constrained today to refer to a 1952 book A Short History of Modern China, edited by Liu Pei-hua, which had a map on Page 253 titled “Chinese territories taken by imperialists in old democratic revolutionary era”, showing 19th century China with “superimposed nineteen legends”, each a region lost to European powers. It covered “Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam, Burma, Andaman archipelago, Malaya, Thailand, French Indochina, Taiwan, Pescadores, Sulu archipelago of the Philippines, Ryukyus (Okinawa), and Korea”, and “five portions captured by Russia”, including Sakhalin, “divided between Russia and Japan”. But the most striking was “Tibet and Mongolia”, that “were fully absorbed into China”. Is there any doubt what awaits India tomorrow? With a “friendly” Taliban right next to Tibet, and a watery Taiwan waiting to happen?
The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court.