January 24, 2008border disputeChinaForeign AffairsIndiainternational relationsMcMahon lineRealism

On territorial compromises with China

It’s not at all trivial

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

It’s a seductive argument. That the longstanding border dispute between India and China is trivial. Aksai Chin, which China controls and India claims is not even habitable. Portions of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims are both populated and economically useful. Surely, then, it makes sense for India to agree to a border settlement that swaps Aksai Chin for Arunachal Pradesh. It is the political difficulty of selling the compromise to the emotional Indian people, Arvind Kala writes, that is preventing India from settling the dispute. [Related Post: McMahon’s line and Aksai Chin]

One problem: it is China that is unwilling move ahead towards settling the border dispute. The reasons why it chose to do so underlies why Mr Kala’s arguments are flawed: first, the border dispute is not trivial’, but as even Jawaharlal Nehru recognised, the manifestation of a geopolitical power struggle between India and China. Second, Aksai Chin is not useless’ to India, not least because it is vital to China. And finally, China is not a friend’, no country is. Indeed, Mr Kala fundamentally misreads the nature of international relations when he declares nations are like human beings’, shaped by emotion’. It is possible that it is this anthropomorphism that leads Mr Kala to misleading conclusions. But if at all an analogy can be made, it is more appropriate to say that nations are like wild animals, existing under the law of the jungle. The zoomorphism apart, nations do what is in their interests. And at this time, resolving the dispute is not in China’s interests.

Just like in the case the dispute over Kashmir, it is not uncommon to hear well-meaning people suggest that a territorial compromise is the ticket to peace. But it is naïve and dangerous to believe that giving away territory will automatically cause the other side to go away and leave India in peace. That’s because, by its very nature, a compromise that leaves both sides satisfied will not change the underlying balance of power.

A corollary to this is that a mutually satisfactory solution to the border dispute is only possible when the balance of power is stable and both countries are well reconciled to it. That is hardly the case at this point in time—when India and China are both jockeying for power in Asia and beyond. At this time, it is to be expected that both will be sensitive to relative gains and losses, and for that reason, unwilling to settle the dispute.

Afterword: From one of Nehru’s letters to chief ministers:

It is a little naïve to think that the trouble with China was essentially due to a dispute over some territory. It had deeper reasons. Two of the largest countries in Asia confronted each other over a vast border. They differed in many ways. And the test was as to whether anyone of them would have a more dominating position than the other on the border and in Asia itself. We do not desire to dominate any country and we are content to live peacefully with other countries provided they do not interfere with us or commit aggression. China, on the other hand, clearly did not like the idea of such a peaceful existence and wants to have a dominating position in Asia.” [As quoted by Kuldip Nayar in Dawn]

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