Amidst COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, India and China are engaged in a bitter standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC)[i] for the past two months. The situation took a turn for the worse following a build-up along the border after the violent scuffle at Pangong Tso on 5th May and subsequently bloodied hand to hand combat between sections of the two armies at Galwan on 15th June 2020[ii]. The current state of affairs; however murky and uncertain as to who crossed the LAC first, why did they do it; throws open some evocative questions: Does the border necessarily represent a dehumanized entity in state politics; immune to the impacts of a worldwide pandemic? In the modern world of ‘rising powers’ and ‘developing democracies’, is human life still a subsumed category so far as states’ imperatives of war and security are concerned? Do the interventions by world powers and inadequacies of political decision-makers consolidate this process of de-humanizing, ad perpetuam? While foregrounding these questions it is important to flag off the interplay of certain factors in the border dispute between the two sides.
Historical Backdrop of the Border Dispute
The entire Sino-Indian border (including the western LAC, the small undisputed section in the center, and the McMahon Line in the east) is 4,056 km long, passing through Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh on the Indian side. On the Chinese side, the line traverses the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). China disputes the international boundary between India and China, claiming approximately 90,000 square kilometers of Indian Territory in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Sector and approximately 38,000 square kilometers of the Union Territory of Ladakh, currently under the occupation of China is disputed by Indian side. In addition, under the China-Pakistan ‘Boundary Agreement’ signed between China and Pakistan on 2 March 1963, according to Government of India, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 square kilometers of Indian territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to China[iii]. The demarcation of LAC existed as the informal cease-fire line between India and China after the 1962 Sino-Indian war until 1993. Its existence was officially accepted in 1993 and 1996 via bilateral agreements. Clause number 6 of the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas mentions: “The two sides agree that references to the line of actual control in this Agreement do not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question”.[iv] The 1996 agreement states: “No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control.” Till date no official boundary has ever been negotiated between China and India even though the two governments signed the agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles to settle the dispute, in 2005[v] and agreed upon the “Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs” in 2012. Despite the continuity of border talks between the Special Representatives[vi] between the two sides, there have been numerous incidents of clashes at the border, reported by news agencies or/and the central government, their veracity being often ambiguous and contradictory[vii]. In 2013, there was a three-week standoff (2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident) between Indian and Chinese troops 30 km southeast of Daulat Beg Oldi which ended with India and China signing a border defense cooperation agreement to ensure that patrolling along the LAC does not escalate into armed conflict[viii]. In 2017, another clash occurred at Pangong Tso or the Pangong Lake and several soldiers on both sides sustained injuries and in addition, standoff between India and China occurred at Doklam in Bhutan, near the tri-junction of India-China-Bhutan boundaries.
All these negotiations and meetings notwithstanding, the two sides have not been able to constructively resolve the border dispute till date; in fact the loss of lives or limbs by soldiers during each new clash, on either side, emphasizes upon the de-humanised nature of these borders. The two governments’ approach to the dispute is mostly mechanical, devoid of human angle and often reflects the ‘border’ as an entity created almost ex nihilo, out of the void. This discourse is also appropriated by media on either side, most evident from the reportage on these border clashes where either death is valorized in terms of defending ‘territory’ or war-intents are justified linking them with abstract sovereignty. In either case, humaneness is filtered off the notion of border, leaving it as cut and dried perfunctory prerogative of the state.
The COVID situation and Instability in World Economy
The economic cost of COVID pandemic has been huge for most of the countries around the world and it is expected that the world economy will slow down. The COVID-19 pandemic has spread with frightening speed, infecting millions and redefined border and security in the contemporary globalised context. As countries imposed tight restrictions on movement to halt the spread of the virus and huge human toll is incurred, simultaneously the economies have suffered manifold. “The Global Economic Prospects” in June 2020, by the World Bank, describes both the immediate and near-term impact of the pandemic and the long-term damage to world economic growth. The baseline forecast is a 5.2 percent contraction in global GDP in 2020, using market exchange rate weights[ix]. This is going to be augmented by lasting recession due to downgrading of human capital through lost work and education and disruption in global trade and supply linkages[x]. Due to the pandemic, the vulnerability of majority of population across the countries is slowly instigating a rethink in the way development has been imagined in neo-liberal world economy, with debates centering on poor/ non-existent public health systems, public delivery system and the massive informalization of economies. For instance, to assess the vulnerability of system in ‘real time’, scholars from Spain have proposed the Global Weakness Index[xi] which measures the impacts of COVID-19 using co-movement and co-linearity of several economic indicators. The pandemic also portents a comeback of non-traditional security framework in international politics wherein diseases and health risks render borders and territorial limits as non-cognizable and require restriction on human interaction either imposing stringent checks or temporarily stalling it. This approach has also rendered border as mechanical, non-human represent of the State. In such a scenario, while domestic discourse on security may shift focus to people-centric issues, foreign policies and security narratives have gained an antagonistic fervor that treats border off the limit of the public and people. This is true of India-China border as well where the stories of armies that indulge in combat and soldiers who lose life, seem to have been completely sanitized of the impacts of a worldwide pandemic. It represents a strange time-warp where border ceases to be a relational space (one that could be defined by live factors) and acquires the characteristic of an absolute space (one that remains a-priory to pandemic, human cost), reminiscent of Newton- Leibniz debate regarding the nature of time and space[xii].
Arms Procurement as Opportunities in Times of Crisis
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global arms industry is another contradictory facet of the border story. Reports reveal that imports of arms from the West increased among the countries in the Middle East[xiii]. In many cases, the lack of economic gains due to arms sale defies the logic of such trade for either partners: Diana Ohlbaum (2020) refutes the claim that the arms trade plays an imperative role in the U.S. economy, noting that a one billion-dollar investment in healthcare creates 14,300 jobs, while the same investment in the military sector creates less than half this amount[xiv]. Even though there is growing tension within the importing countries where domestic austerity measures contrast with lavish investments and arms purchases abroad, in case of India the purchase of arms and defence procurement has hardly been impacted. As part of the stimulus package for the revival of economy, in April 2020, the FDI limit in the defence manufacturing under automatic route has been raised from 49% to 74% in India. Experts point out that if the government in India is committed to building “indigenous defence eco-systems”, as outlined in the Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP)-2020, it should be done through the roadmap indicated in DPP[xv] and not by relaxation of FDI percentage[xvi]. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook 2020, the latest data on global arms transfer shows that Indian arms imports have come down by 32% since 2015; however, the country is still ranked as the world’s second biggest weapons buyers, just behind Saudi Arabia[xvii]. In the middle of the military standoff with China, the Ministry of Defence in India approved the procurement of 21 MiG-29 fighter jets besides 12 Sukhoi MK1 from Russia by the Indian Air Force on July 2, 2020[xviii].
These trends are symptomatic of fixity of border as an impregnable entity that is above the domestic concerns of pandemic, poverty, economic crisis or human cost. Indeed popular opinion is galvanized in its favor through media debates, columns and expert testimonies to stress the significance of timely, speedy procurement to win a potential war. The border is further rendered outside the reach and scrutiny of domestic population.
The Domestic Imperatives
If one follows the debate in national media on either side of the India-China border, it is evident that there has been a complete replacement of pandemic related news with the border standoff related items. In fact it has been relatively easier for the governments to set the national discourse around threats to territorial sovereignty rather than debate about health and public utility services in times of COVID. The national discourse around borders in India and China veers towards war-mongering and obfuscates the issues that may induce disquiet against the inadequate governance and public delivery systems in either country. It is not a surprising trend as there has been great proliferation of territorially defined and delimited (nation) states in two phases in world politics: first, post the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and second, since the process of decolonization post Second World War. This territorial delimitation helped establish and consolidate the nature of the State as rigid embodiment of power and decision-making process. In other words, a state, defined by borders, becomes an absolute case, non-negotiable and inarguable territory internally; and posits a central problem in inter-state relations as the very territoriality is contested in non-negotiable terms.
The India-China border is an embodiment of all of the above arguments and even more, representing de-humanized imagination of territory and security. The real challenge for the two states lies in reversing this image, making it relational to the everyday, actual concerns of the public on either side, rather than a grandiose version of statist requirement that needs to be valorized through bloodshed and sensationalized through insecurity dilemma.
The author teaches at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi; currently Visiting Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi
[i] The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a loose demarcation line that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory in the Sino-Indian border dispute. The term was first used by Zhou Enlai in a 1959 letter to Jawaharlal Nehru. (Hoffman, Steven A. (1990). India and the China Crisis. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 80).
[ii] The Hindu (2020). “India-China stand-off on the LAC: A Timeline”. June 22. Accessed on July 2, 2020. Stable URL: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-china-stand-off-on-the-lac-a- timeline/Article31887320.ece
[iii] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2020). “Question No. 2923 Border Dispute With China”. March 11. Accessed on July 2, 2020. Stable URL: https://www.mea.gov.in/loksabha.htm?dtl/32497/
[iv] United Nations (1993). “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas”. 7 September. Accessed on July 1, 2020. Stable URL: http://peacemaker.un.org/chinaindia-borderagreement93.
[v] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2005). “Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question”. April 11. Accessed on July 08, 2020. Stable URL: https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/6534/Agreement+between+the+Government+of+the+Republic+of+India+and+the+Government+of+the+Peoples+Republic+of+China+on+the+Political+Parameters+and+Guiding+Principles+for+the+Settlement+of+the+IndiaChina+Boundary+Question
[vi] There have been 22 rounds of meetings between the Special Representatives of the two sides, the last one was held on December 21, 2019. See https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32234/22nd_Meeting_of_the_Special_Representatives_of_India_and_China
[vii] For elaborate analysis, see: Bhonsale, Mihir (2018). “Understanding Sino-Indian border issues: An analysis of incidents reported in the Indian media”. ORF Ocassional Paper 143, Feb. Stable URL: https://www.orfonline.org/research/understanding-sino-indian-border-issues-an-analysis-of-incidents-reported-in-the-indian-media/
[viii] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2013). “Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Border Defence Cooperation”. October 23. Accessed on July 07, 2020. Stable URL: https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm? dtl/22366/Agreement+between+the+Government+of+the+Republic+of+India+and+the+Government+of+the+Peoples+Republic+of+China+on+Border+Defence+Cooperation
[ix] Every region is expected to register downward growth: East Asia and the Pacific will grow by a scant 0.5%. South Asia will contract by 2.7%, Sub-Saharan Africa by 2.8%, Middle East and North Africa by 4.2%, Europe and Central Asia by 4.7%, and Latin America by 7.2%.
[x] World Bank (2020). “The Global Economic Outlook During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Changed World”. June 8. Accessed on July 9, 2020. Stable URL: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2020/06/08/the-global-economic-outlook-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-a-changed-world
[xi] Danilo Leiva-León, Gabriel Pérez-Quirós, Eyno Rots (2020). “The Global Weakness Index: Reading the economy’s vital signs during the COVID-19 crisis”. 21 June. Accessed July 9, Stable URL: https://voxeu.org/article/real-time-weakness-global-economy-post-covid-19
[xii] For greater insight into this debate, see: Vailati, Ezio (1997). Leibniz and Clarke: A Study of Their Correspondence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
[xiii] The Brookings Doha Center (2020). “Business as usual? Arms sales during COVID-19”. June 17. Accessed on July 10, Stable URL: https://www.brookings.edu/events/business-as-usual-arms-sales-during-covid-19/
[xv] For instance the MOF, Sitharaman stated on May 16, 2020 that the government will soon notify “list of weapons and platforms not allowed for import and that have to be bought in India. Indigenisation of some imported spares will also be given priority”. Stable URL: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-package-domestic-defence-procurement-gets-separate-budgetary-provision/article31603195.ece
[xvi] Vikram Mahajan (2020). “Defence procurement in the time of Coronavirus”. May 23. Financial Express. Accessed on July 10, 2020. Stable URL: https://www.financialexpress.com/defence/defence-procurement-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/1968325/
[xvii] See: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/fs_2003_at_2019.pdf
[xviii] See: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/defence-ministry-approves-procurement-of-21-mig-29-and-12-sukhoi-fighter-jets-11593687266368.html and https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/government-approves-purchase-of-fighter-jets-missile-systems-weapons-worth-rs-38900-crore/articleshow/76750235.cms?from=mdr.
Courtesy – https://vikalp.ind.in/