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India China Relations A Perspective History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

“The Sino Indian boundary has never been formally delimited. Historically no treaty or agreement on Sino-Indian Boundary has ever been signed between the Chinese Central Government and the Indian Government”.

– Zhou En Lai, 23 Jan 1959.


1. China as an emerging power generates fear, concern and mistrust among the countries across the globe including the USA. Its rapid economic growth, fuelling an equally rapid military modernisation coupled with enhancing trans border capabilities has sent wake up calls, particularly to the United States, Japan and India. [1] China is following a two pronged strategy of reassuring it’s neighbours of its peaceful intentions, even while pressing ahead with huge military expenditure. Now that China stands poised to emerge as a global power, the international community is uncertain about China’s intentions, despite all the peace rhetoric that emanates from its political leaders and state organs.

2. An analysis of India’s relations with the People’s Republic of China today must take into account the historical perspective ,differences in the global situation, domestic policies and perceived national security interests which set the 1950s and 2000s apart. In view of the diversity and range of issues which have engaged India and China, the India-China relationship could be described as a very complex engagement.

India China Relations : Pre 1947 Phase

3. Prior to the independence, the leaders of the national liberation movement of both the countries deeply sympathised with their respective popular struggles to put an end to colonialism. During the Japanese attack on Manchuria province of China in 1931, not only “China Day” was observed in India, but a call was also given by the Indian nationalists for boycott of Japanese goods. In July 1940, Mao Dezong had written to Jawahar Lal Nehru, “The emancipation of the Indian people and the Chinese will be the signal of the emancipation of all the downtrodden and oppressed.”

Relations: Post Independence

4. India’s view of China was to a great extent shaped by Nehru’s ability to persuade the Indian elite to try and take an objective view of both the positive and negative aspects of Chinese nationalism. Some major events post independence are listed below:-

(a) Diplomatic Recognition. India diplomatically recognised the peoples Republic of China on December 30, 1949.

(b) 1954 Accords. The relations between India and China in the 1950’s were very cordial. In 1954, the Chinese Premier, Mr. Zou En Lai visited India which led to the signing of two Accords as follows:-

(i) India recognised Tibet as an integral part of China and considered it to be an autonomous region of China.

(ii) The declaration of Panchsheel in the Joint Communiqué. The Panchsheel enshrined the five principles as follows:

(aa) Respect for Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity of all States.

(ab) Non-aggression.

(ac) Non-interference in Territorial affairs.

(ad) Equality and Mutuality.

(ae) Peaceful Co-existence

5. The Tibet Problem. Tibet was briefly conquered by Mongols in the thirteenth century but otherwise came under Manchu “control” only in the eighteenth century. The British regarded Tibet as a buffer state, and, in the Shimla Conference of 1913, recognised Chinese suzerainty, but not sovereignty, over Tibet. This was never accepted by any Chinese government, but they could do little about it. In 1950, the PLA invaded Tibet to integrate it into the Chinese State. [2] In 1954, India recognised Tibet as an integral part of China and China undertook to respect the religious and cultural traditions of the Tibetans. In 1959, a rebellion took place against Chinese rule in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama fled to India with his followers. This large-scale influx of Tibet refugees into India headed by the  Dalai Lama led to heightening of tensions. The Chinese regarded the hosting of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan refugees and the government in exile as an obstacle to India China relations.

The  1962  Conflict

6. India claimed that the McMahon Line demarcating  the Indo – China  border was an internationally  recognised  boundary. [3] The  Chinese policy centred on re-negotiations and  delineation  of borders  where  no  treaty or agreement  existed.  The  differing positions  on  the status of the boundary  laid  the basis of the conflict. The Chinese attacked in North Eastern Frontier Area (NEFA) and Ladakh beginning from 20 October 1962 and occupied about 5000 square miles of the Indian Territory. China declared a unilateral ceasefire on 10 November 1962 and withdrew behind the McMahon Line in the NEFA Sector. However, it gained about 3000 square kms of Indian Territory, though, according to Chinese version, it does not occupy even a single inch of Indian Territory. Instead it asserts that more than 90000 square kms of the Chinese territory is still under Indian occupation.In 1962,the Indian Parliament passed a resolution to wage an unending struggle till the recovery of Indian territory from China and it also forbade cessation of any occupied territory to China as part of any settlement.

Relations after the War

7. Because of India’s close relations with the Soviet Union and her leadership of the non aligned movement, China saw India as a political rival in the ‘Third World’ and constantly tried to denigrate it in various forums. The assistance extended to the insurgents by China was considered a serious issue by India. The rebel Nagas were given training in arms and provided with weapons and funds to carry on armed rebellion in India. In June 1967, two Chinese embassy officials in Delhi were arrested for espionage. In September 1967, China attacked Indian position at Nathu La and in October attacked another position at Cho La. In April 1968, manipulations were done again at Nathu La.

Beginning of the New Era

8. Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in December 1988 marked a turning point in the normalisation of relations between the two countries [4] . During this visit, the two states formally agreed to put aside their past differences and to rebuild  their relations on the basis of the five principles of ‘Panchsheel’. Both sides agreed to settle the border issue through mutual consultations through Joint Working Group(JWG), consisting of military experts, cartographers and foreign policy officials and pledged to  maintain  peace and  tranquillity  on  the border while taking  other  confidence building measures. Intensified political interactions, regular institutionalised negotiations on all issues of bilateral interest under the Joint Working Group framework begun in 1989, and the deepening of trade and other ties laid the regime of confidence and security building between the two countries.In 1993, the then prime minister Mr. Narasimha Rao visited China and both the sides agreed to force reduction on the border.

9. China showed no response to India’s nuclear tests on 11 May 1998 but reacted sharply after May 13 tests, when Vajpayee’s letter to Clinton was made public. It asked India to give up the programme and join NPT. China’s claimed that it’s security concern increased due to the tests and now it will have to cater for nuclear India also.There had been deterioration in Indo-China relations after the conduct of nuclear tests by India. China adopted a. brazenly.partisan.attitude by terming India’s nuclear tests as “outrageous” but describing Pakistan’s nuclear tests as only “regrettable”. [5] 

10. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Visit to China (June 2003). The visit by the then prime minister has been labeled as a new turning point in Indo- China relations.During the visit both the countries issued a joint declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation Between India and China in the future. The declaration rolled out a road map for friendship and cooperation. The key issues of the declaration are as under :-

(a) Boundary Issue. The two sides agreed to appoint a Special Representative to explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship for the framework of a boundary settlement. India and China agreed to a three phase settlement of the border dispute as under:-

(i) Phase I. The agreement on the Guiding Principles to settle the border dispute.

(ii) Phase -II. The special representatives of the two sides to construct a framework based on the guiding principles.

(iii) Phase -III. Apply this framework on the ground in a single package deal involving give and take, which will be worked on a political basis by the Special Representatives.

(b) Tibet. The Indian Side stated that it recognises Tibet as a part of China and reiterated that it does not allow .Tibetans to engage in anti China political. activities.

11. Reopening of the Nathu La (06 July 2006). The Nathu La Pass used to be a part of the ancient Silk Route, a vital trade link between India and China, prior to its closure in 1962. During the visit of the former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2003 China recognised Sikkim as a constituent of India and signed a MoU to resume trade .Nathu La Pass reopened after 44 Years on 06 July 2006 when India and China formally inaugurated trade through the Nathu La Pass, linking Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). [6] At present the border trade is limited to the border zone and the export list is restricted to 29 items of export for India and 15 items of export for China.

12. Chinese Prime Minister’s Visit to India. The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India for three days with a 400 strong Chinese business delegation in December 2010. Indian and Chinese business institutions signed 50 deals worth $16 billion surpassing the $10 billion worth of agreements signed during the visit to US President Barack Obama in November 2010. Pending resolution of the stapled visa issue, for the first time India refused to include in the Joint Statement references to Chinese sovereignty in Tibet and ‘One China’ that had been part of the past three summit level declarations.

13. India China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The agreement to initiate the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) was taken during the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in December 2010.The first ever Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) was held in Beijing on 26 September 2011.The objective of setting up the SED was to increase coordination on macro economic policies and to provide a platform for both countries to leverage common interests and shared developmental experiences.

14. Annual Defence Dialogue. The Annual Defence Dialogue (ADD) has added a positive note to Indo-China relations. The defence.dialogue was established under. the provisions. of the MoU for ‘Exchanges and Cooperation in the field of Defence, signed between India and China in 2006. The first Annual Defence Dialogue was held in Beijing in 2007 followed by the second in Indian in 2008. The third meeting was held in Beijing in 2010. India and China held the Annual Defence Dialogue (ADD) in New Delhi on 09 December 2011.

15. India’s External Affairs Minister’s Visit to China. India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna visited China on 08 February 2012. He inaugurated India’s new $10 million embassy, which was described as a “new page” in ties with China. India and China stressed for a flexible and imaginative approach in 2012 to bilateral relations to minimise the effect of persisting political irritants, like the border dispute and Tibet. According to Mr. Krishna, it was the Government of India’s position that the Tibet Autonomous Region was part of the People’s Republic of China, and as a result of that India was dealing with the internal affairs of China and India would be very cautious.The Chinese Government appreciated the firm support of the Indian Government over the Tibet issue. Both the countries decided to mark 2012 as the year of Friendship and Cooperation.


16. Relations between India and China have improved considerably in the last nine to ten years. However, normalisation does not imply that divergences in the strategic perceptions between the two have suddenly converged or that conflicts of interests and differences of opinion on a range of issues have disappeared. Despite an improvement in India China relations, a number of issues emerge as irritants.

The  Boundary and Territorial  Dispute

17. Refer figure 1. The border dispute can be traced.back to the Shimla Conference of 1914. When. the representatives of British India, Tibet and China met. It was decided in the Conference. that Tibet was an autonomous country and the McMahon Line would be the boundary between India and Tibet though Chinese sovereignty of some sort would extend over Tibet. At the. conference the representatives of India and Tibet signed the agreement, China did not, thus disputing the McMahon Line.Therefore,the McMahon Line in the East and the boundary (Aksai Chin) along Ladakh in the West .remained a boundary by usage and understanding. The result was that the exact boundary was not demarcated, leading to border skirmishes in 1962 and the Chinese penetration into the .Sumdorang Chu Valley of Arunachal Pradesh in 1986.

Figure 1

18. The Main issues of the Border Dispute are as under [7] :-

(a) Arunachal Pradesh. China refuses to recognise Arunachal Pradesh as part of India. China claims 90,000 square kilometres as their territory whuch is almost the whole of Arunachal Pradesh , calling it “South Tibet”. The border dispute is the legacy of the British colonial rule. The boundary is now known in both India and China as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

(b) Aksai Chin. India accuses China of occupying 38,000 square kilometres in Jammu and Kashmir,in the Aksai Chin region, north east of Ladakh.

(c) Trans-Karakoram Tract. Under the Sino-Pakistan Boundary agreement of 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory (Trans-Karakoram tract) to China. The transfer is disputed by India as it is part of Jammu and Kashmir.

19. India’s position. In the West the border should remain at the 1959 position thus implying that it does not recognise Chinese claim over Aksai Chin. The northern borders of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim correspond to the McMahon Line and hence the boundary. India also states that China is occupying Indian territory since the 1962 conflict and also that the territory west of Karakoram in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) legally belongs to India and has been illegally ceded by Pakistan to China.

20. China’s Position. China claims 90,000 sq km, which is almost the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh.Occupies 38,000 sq km, which is Aksai Chin in Kashmir. Occupies 5,000 sq km of Shaksgam valley ceded to it by Pakistan in June 1963 and does not recognise the McMohan Line.

21. Talks to Resolve the Border Dispute. The meeting of the experts from both sides laid foundation for a dialogue by the Sino-Indian Joint Working Group (JWG), the apex body negotiating the final settlement of the border dispute. The agreement on confidence building Measures (CBMs) signed during the visit by the Chinese President to India in 1997 reiterates. the determination. of both sides to seek a fair, and mutually acceptable settlement of the boundary question. In the year 2000 Maps of middle sector were exchanged. In 2003 the Special Representatives were appointed after the then Prime Minister Vajpayee’s China visit.on 11 April 2005.An agreement on political parameters and guiding principles was signed which spelt out the three main territorial disputes i.e. Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin Region and Trans-Karakoram.

22. 15th Round of Border Talks. The 15th round of Border Talks was held in New Delhi on 16 and 17 January 2012. India’s Special Representative for the talks was the National Security Adviser (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and China’s Special Representative was Dai Bingguo, State Councillor. The border talks are currently in the second stage of negotiations, which involves agreeing upon a framework to settle the dispute. The first stage was concluded with an agreement on political parameters and guiding principles in 2005. The third and final stage would involve the specifics of delineating the border. During the talks both sides agreed to set up a working mechanism on border management to deal with important affairs related to maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas. The agreement to establish the “Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on the India-China Border Affairs” would. Undertake. Tasks. that are mutually.agreed upon by the two sides, but would .not discuss. resolution of the Boundary dispute. The Working Mechanism would study ways and means to strengthen. exchanges. and cooperation. between military. personnel and establishments of the two sides in the border areas and would be headed by a Joint Secretary-level officer from the Ministry of External Affairs and a Director General level officer from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and would also comprise diplomatic and military officials of the two sides.

China’s Infrastructure development Along the Border

23. Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the Rajya Sabha on 14 December 2011, that India has taken a serious note of Chinese infrastructure development in the border regions opposite India in Tibet and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions. The infrastructure development included the Qinghai-Tibet railway line, with proposed extension up to Xigze and Nyingchi besides roads and airport facilities. In response the Indian Government was giving careful and special attention to the development of infrastructure in the border areas opposite China to meet India’s strategic and security requirements.

China Objection to Indian Defence Minister’s Visit to Arunachal Pradesh

24. In February 2012, the Defence Minister Mr. A.K. Antony visited Arunachal Pradesh to mark the 25th anniversary of its Statehood. China called on India to refrain from taking any action that could complicate the border dispute. The Defence Minister emphasised that, like Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh was an integral part of India and as Defence Minister it was both his right and duty to visit the State and all other border States. India’s external affairs minister Mr S.M. Krishna said that Arunachal Pradesh was a “part and parcel” of India and all seven States in north-eastern India were part and parcel of India, and China had no rights to make adverse remarks on the Defence Minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh.

China’s Development Activity in Pakistan occupied Kashmir [8] 

25. On 14 October 2009, India called upon China to stop developmental activities in areas illegally occupied by Pakistan.India was reacting to China’s assurance to Pakistan of help in upgrading the Karakoram highway and building the Neelam-Jhelum hydro electric project in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). India noted that Pakistan had been illegally occupying parts of Jammu and Kashmir since 1947, and China was fully aware of India’s position and concerns about Chinese activities in PoK. India hoped that China would take a long term view of India-China relations and cease such activities in areas illegally occupied by Pakistan. China’s presence in PoK has grown in recent years and it is currently involved in several infrastructure projects in the disputed region.

26. During the Russia-India-China Trilateral Summit in November 2010, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna told his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi that that just as India had been sensitive to its concerns over Tibet Autonomous Region and Taiwan, China too should be mindful of Indian sensitivities on Jammu and Kashmir. This was the first time India had drawn this parallel directly. The comparison was intended to emphasise the depth of India’s concerns over Chinese attempts to question the country’s sovereignty in Kashmir.

27. China’s Stand. China said that it was a matter for India and Pakistan to resolve and that China had no reason to change its policies on Kashmir .The Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that China always believed that the problem of Jammu and Kashmir could only be resolved through dialogue and negotiations between India and Pakistan and that there was no need for China to change its policy.

Sino-Pak Strategic Equation

28. China’s elusive strategic equation with  Pakistan poses a hindrance to any substantive  improvement in  India’s  relations with China.The core of Sino-Pakistan ties comprises the transfer of military hardware and technology besides nuclear co-operation. Islamabad has been getting weapons at subsidised prices from China. The overt.and covert.military assistance by. China. to. Pakistan is the biggest impediment. in improving India-China relations. The Sino-Pakistan collusion in the nuclear field is seen as China’s long term strategy in gaining supremacy over India.

Status of Tibet and Dalai Lama

29. Despite the government of India’s acceptance of Chinese ‘sovereignty’ over Tibet, China  is still not satisfied. The main reason being that India has  given asylum  to Dalai Lama and has become a refuge for  “disaffected” Tibetans  fleeing  the country. China does  not  fully  accept India’s  stand that while India revered the Dalai Lama as a  Holy man and a spiritual leader, it would not allow him to engage  in any political activity on India’s soil. Beijing is suspicious of India’s continued willingness to host the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan Government in exile. [9] In November 2011, China postponed the 15th round of Border Talks with India over Dalai Lama’s participation in a Buddhist conference that was scheduled to take place at the same time in New Delhi. China said that it was opposed to any country that provided a platform for the Dalai Lama and his “anti-China activities”.

Issuing Stapled Visas to Indian Citizens Domiciled in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh [10] 

30. In October 2009, it came to light that the Chinese embassy in New Delhi had begun issuing visas to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir on a separate sheet of paper rather than stamping them in their passports as is the case with other Indian citizens.China has also issued “stapled visas” to the handful of Indian passport holders from Arunachal Pradesh. Analysts point out that the separate sheet visas for Kashmiris was seen by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) as an attempt by China to question the status of Jammu and Kashmir. The immigration authorities were told to treat any visa that was not stamped on a passport as invalid for the purpose of travel. India asked China not to discriminate against visa applications filed by its nationals on grounds of domicile and ethnicity.In January 2011, China again issued stapled visas to two Indian sportsmen from Arunachal Pradesh. India again unequivocally conveyed to China that a uniform practice of issuance of visa to Indian nationals must be followed regardless of the applicant’s ethnicity or place of domicile. India strongly conveyed that it would not accept anything that questions the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh which were an integral part of India. On 06 January 2012, India cancelled the visit by a military delegation to China after one of its members, an Indian Air Force (IAF) officer from Arunachal Pradesh was denied visa by China.

Bilateral Trade Imbalance in Favour of China

31. As the bilateral trade between India and China touched $60 billion in 2011, China enjoyed a trade surplus of $24 billion in 2011.The widening trade imbalance has been a source of concern, especially because trade has emerged as the key to bilateral relations amid persisting political uncertainties.The record trade imbalance has raised questions on the sustainability of the relationship.India has stressed that China should open up its economy for more exports from India. Indian exporters could explore getting access to China’s markets in information technology, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and allied products.Both the countries have agreed to a strategic economic dialogue to enhance macro-economic policy coordination and address challenges in economic development and cooperation.China agreed to take measures to promote greater Indian exports to China with a view to reduce India’s trade deficit.China agreed to gradually resolve the problems faced in China by Indian pharmaceuticals, Information Technology and agricultural products.

32. Much diplomatic water has flowed under the bridge of Sino-Indian relations since 1962 and we need to take a pragmatic view of it. Such a view needs to be informed by an appreciation of the several common features that India and China share as civilisational entities which are trying to cope with modernisation of their traditional societies, on the one hand, and the process of integrating with the international system, on the other. China is not only an important civilisation ‘out there’, it is India’s largest neighbour ‘right here’. [11] Thus, there is a need for making independent assessments of China’s capabilities and intentions rather than borrowed judgments made from different strategic viewpoints.

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