Written by Paul McGarr.

Over the past two months, India and China have been embroiled in a territorial dispute over the Doklam plateau, a small tract of land situated at the corner of the India-China-Bhutan tai-junction.  Since mid-June, hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers have stood toe-to-toe in this uneasy standoff in the eastern Himalayas. The current clash began after China moved to extend a road into terrain claimed by Bhutan, India’s closest regional ally.

China’s advance in Doklam poses a significant strategic risk to New Delhi. Not least, by threatening the Siliguri corridor, or Chicken’s neck, the narrow strip of territory between Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal that connects India’s northeastern states to the rest of the country.  The current border dispute is nothing new. India was bequeathed a toxic cartographic legacy by the subcontinent’s former British colonial rulers.

Today, the political and strategic stakes are much higher than there were in 1962. Fifty years ago, India and China were not nuclear states. Back then the Indian Army was much less prepared and capable of challenging Chinese military power. The economies of both nations are now crucial to wider international stability and prosperity, and deeply inter-woven into the fabric of a globalized financial and trading network.

The British Raj actively cultivated a policy of ambiguity with respect to India’s Himalayan borders.  In December 1963, one British government official confirmed that prior to India’s independence, London’s ‘…basic policy towards India’s northern frontier was primarily one of convenience. It suited us best that the border should not be clearly defined: changed circumstances might make some adjustment desirable. This explains in large part the inconsistences of the maps of the time and the absence in many of them of any defined border.’

Of late, both the Chinese and Indian governments have drawn parallels to the events of late 1962, when an earlier and longstanding border squabble erupted into armed hostilities between Asia’s two largest and most powerful states. On 7 July, the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, responded to comments by Indian Defence Minister, Arun Jaitley, on the nation’s military preparedness, by warning New Delhi that it would be taught “a bitter lesson” and suffer greater losses than in 1962 should a new border conflagration break out.

But, how instructive are contemporary allusions made to the Sino-Indian border war of 1962? Can they provide useful pointers to how the current dispute might be steered successfully towards a diplomatic resolution?  Much like the present Sino-Indian impasse, the origins of the 1962 crisis lay in China’s decision to build a highway across the disputed Aksai Chin plateau, an area of arid desert, wedged between the Indian region of Ladakh, Tibet and the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The road provided a valuable strategic link between China and the previously inaccessible region of Western Tibet, a hotbed of resistance to Chinese rule. It also threatened to turn India’s defensive flank, and weaken New Delhi’s capacity to secure its troublesome northwestern borders.

Indian and Chinese politicians have rushed to justify their relative positions in respect of Doklam with reference to maps and agreements dating from the British colonial era. Beijing has taken to citing the 1890 British-Chinese Treaty in defence of its territorial claims.  A battle of the maps, or the public flourishing of dusty and moth-eaten charts dating back to the late nineteenth century, is characteristic of Sino-Indian border discourse.  In the 1950s, the Indian government dispatched officials to London to comb through Victorian maps tucked away in the India Office Library in search of evidence to support New Delhi’s position on the border.

On one occasion, the Indian hunt for a British map of Ladakh, which had been drawn up in 1851, developed into a saga worthy of a John le Carré espionage novel. In a scene reminiscent of Cold War film noir, an Indian official in possession of the map was approached on a London bus by a mysterious fellow passenger, whom he took to be Chinese, and offered a substantial sum of cash for the chart. The encounter ended in a disappointed Chinese intelligence officer vanishing empty-handed into a foggy London night.

One important lesson in relation to the current Sino-Indian crisis that can, perhaps, be drawn from an earlier period of border tension, is that a satisfactory solution for both parties will not be found in the dated and threadbare files or maps residing on the shelves of state archives and government ministries.  By openly brandishing purported documentary proof in support of their respective territorial positions, and entering into a vortex of poisonous public diplomacy, Indian and Chinese politicians of an earlier vintage effectively cut-off the possibility of reaching a pragmatic diplomatic accord.

Today, the political and strategic stakes are much higher than there were in 1962. Fifty years ago, India and China were not nuclear states. Back then the Indian Army was much less prepared and capable of challenging Chinese military power. The economies of both nations are now crucial to wider international stability and prosperity, and deeply inter-woven into the fabric of a globalized financial and trading network. It is clear that neither India nor China wants war. Each side has too much to lose from conflict. But much the same was said in 1962. Moreover, while both sides remain locked in a rancorous dispute, on the ground and in the press, the risk of accidental escalation remains real and troubling.

George Santayana famously opined that ‘those who do not learn from history are forced to repeat it.’ In crafting their approach to the present border imbroglio, leaders in New Delhi and Beijing would do well to remember some cardinal lessons from the 1962 war. Above all, avoid staking out firm and implacable negotiating positions, keep talking, and, above all, resist the temptation to engage in inflammatory public diplomacy.

In November 1959, the then Indian premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, acknowledged the dangers inherent in allowing emotion to overtake reason in the conduct of Sino-Indian affairs. Speaking before India’s parliament, Nehru warned that ‘If two giant countries, the biggest countries of Asia, are involved in conflict, it will shake Asia and shake the world. It is not just a little border issue, of course. But the issues surrounding it are so huge, vague, deep-seated and far-reaching, inter-twined even, that one has to think about this with all the clarity and strength at one’s command, and not be swept away by passion into action which may harm us instead of doing us good.’

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is due in Beijing next month for a BRICS summit. He would do well to remember the exhortation that an illustrious predecessor advanced, yet failed to enact. Modi, it is hoped, will prove to be a quiet, and effective, advocate of South Asian diplomacy.

Paul McGarr is Assistant Professor in US Foreign Policy in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. His first book, The Cold War in South Asia, 1945-1965, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013. He tweets @paul_mcgarr. credit: CC by President of Russia

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