You Keep the Ridge, We sit by the River
Chris Ogden is a Professor in Asian Security in the University of St Andrews, Scotland. His research analyses the relationship between national identity, security and domestic politics in South Asia (primarily India) and East Asia (primarily China), as well as the rise of great powers, authoritarianism in global politics, and China’s coming world order. Chris is also concerned with the role of norms and identity in International Relations, and the analytical uses of social psychology. He has previously taught at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Durham, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2018, he founded the European Scholars of South Asian International. He is the celebrated author of (among others) “China and India: Asia’s emergent Great Powers” (2017), “Great Power Attributes: A Compendium of Historical Data” (2020) and “China’s Coming Authoritarian World Order” (forthcoming). His works can be accessed in his website http://chris-ogden.org and his latest book Great Power Attributes: A Compendium of Historical Data (Edinburgh: Fifth Hammer) can be read for free at tiny.cc/GPA–Ogden . Prof. Ogden spoke to renowned India-China boundary specialist Jaideep Saikia about the latter’s novel concept of Line of Amity and other aspects related to the boundary issue between the two Asian giants.
Chris Ogden: Jaideep, you are one of the world’s most important observers of the India-China Boundary relationship. Indeed, your specialisation and expertise is primarily about the boundary problem between the two giants. You have come to the limelight as a result of your novel concept of “Line of Amity” which you have constructed with an eye to a possible resolution of the India-China boundary. How can China’s previous experience of resolving border conflicts—such as with Tajikistan and Russia, which often favoured the opposing actor rather than Beijing—act as precedents for solving the disputed eastern sector with India?
Jaideep Saikia: Yes, they can! Indeed, I think it is very important to analyse the manner in which China has solved its boundaries with other countries in order to attempt a resolution of the boundary problem with India. However, equally—or more important—is a comprehension of the People’s Republic’s approach towards territorial issues and consequently the problem of boundary settlement. Although high patriotism is uppermost in my mind when I contemplate about the problem that pertains to the India-China boundary issue, the fact of the matter is that the unbiased academic observer in me takes centre-stage and to that end I have always felt that most countries around the world perceive the designs of China as one that is primarily aggressive. Indeed, viewed through the prism of China as an “evil empire,” the widely held belief is that China’s policy is only a continuance of imperial China, i.e., its outlook towards territoriality is “fierce, almost rabid” with an attitude that is characterised by “unforgetting and implacable irredentism.” However, the significance of dispute does not diminish the value of diplomacy. As a matter of fact it actually stresses on and places adroit negotiation as an important factor.
China—as you are aware—has not solved its boundary problem only with Bhutan and India. The reasons range from intractability on the part of all the sides to problems that pertain to simple terrain manoeuvrability. After all, the fact that borders can be unambiguously linear is fictitious and the India-China and Sino-Bhutan borders are particularly uneven. As Kerry Goettlich states in The rise of linear borders in world politics in the European Journal of International Relations, 16 March 2018,“The specification of borders as precise lines by no means eliminates the complexity of borderlands, but it does make possible a certain kind of borderland by creating a position from which authorities and “experts” can claim a monopoly over the ability to know and manipulate border geographies.” If that is the case then the way in which China has solved its border conflicts with other countries, primarily Tajikistan and Russia have important lessons for a possible India-China boundary solution.
The Republic of Tajikistan inherited the border dispute with China from the erstwhile Soviet Union when it became independent in 1991. It agreed to delimit its boundary with China in 1996. In 2002 preliminary accords were inked between the two countries on the basis of which a new boundary was defined. As a result and based on the customary line that had been held by the USSR, the new boundary witnessed Beijing relinquishing its claims to 28,000 Sq Km of disputed land in the Pamirs. The abandonment of territory amounted to almost 20 percent of Tajikistan’s territory taken as a whole. Although, the fresh boundary also saw Tajikistan relinquishing its claims to approximately 1,000 Sq Km of claimed territory, Dushanbe claimed that the agreement as a triumph of diplomacy. It stated that the land ceded by Tajikistan to China constituted only three percent of the disputed area in the Pamirs.
In the case of the Sino-Russia border dispute, I would attribute the ideological falling-out between the two communist parties as the main reason for the prolongation of the dispute. It led to a state of distrust and ultimately to hostility. The deadlock persisted until the 1980s and the situation seemed unsustainable. In any event, the “new USSR” under Mikhail Gorbachev witnessed a shift in strategy. M. Taylor Fravel in an article published in the International Security, Vol 30, No. 2 (Fall 2005) titled Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation, had provided three classifications of strategies that a country may take recourse to deal with boundaries that are disputed. These are:
- A delaying strategy involves doing nothing except maintaining a state’s claims to disputed territory through official cartography and public declarations.
- An escalation strategy involving the threat or use of force to resolve territorial disputes.
- A strategy that involves cooperation in exclusion to the threat or use of force. Such a strategy entails an offer to compromise by dividing control of contested land or moderating outstanding claims.
The strategy was a switch from the failure of the “escalation strategy” to the “cooperation strategy” and Moscow informed Beijing in 1986 about its willingness to discuss a comprehensive boundary settlement with China on the terms that the latter had been insisting on. It primarily pertained to the Thalweg principle or a Ligne Mediane on the Amur and the Ussuri rivers. Although it took almost a decade for a final settlement to be signed, an amicable settlement between the two countries by which the Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island or the Bear Island was halved come into play.
Both the treaties between China and Tajikistan on one hand and China and Russia may be applied to a possible resolution of the boundary problem between India and China. Firstly, the most important lesson that should be gotten from the above is that an “escalation strategy” must be avoided at all cost. It entails only loss of life and property. In the case of the Sino-Russian conflict, the Zhenbao (Damansky) Island incident on the Ussuri River between 2 March 1969 and 17 March 1969, 306 lives were lost before a cessation of hostilities was signed and both sides withdrew. The Zhenbao incident is in some sense quite similar to the incident that took place in Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan in May 2020. I may be accused by many for my pacifist views, but the fact of the matter is that innocent lives were lost on both sides for undertaking a course of action that could have been avoided. However, the skirmish in Galwan took place as a result of the “salami slicing” technique of China and it intruding into Indian territory. Skirmishes and stand-offs at the levels of local commanders may take place at the drop of a hat. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the highest leadership not to postpone issues such as border settlements and if necessary (as has been seen in both the above cases of Tajikistan and Russia) with a modicum of compromise which the “cooperation strategy” that Fravel has written is all about. It is my considered opinion that a negotiated settlement would eventually be the outcome of any sort of belligerence, especially if it is confined to small pockets of land. There are many areas in the 4,056 Km long India-China border. However, these are not huge swathes of land mass that two countries need to wage war over. In my view the most pragmatic manner in which the boundary issue between India and China can be gotten over is to first comprehend that a negotiated solution is better than massive troop deployment of the sort that both India and China are presently engaged in the border. And, at what cost? I do not see a reason as to why moderation cannot be the way out in sorting out border claims. Besides, what is the motivation for “fighting over every each of land” or as Nehru had once quipped about Aksai Chin as a desert “where not a blade of grass grows”. Furthermore, I do not fathom the possibility of a solution to the entire India-China border in one fell swoop. If a beginning has to be made then it has to be in a sector wise or even in a sub-sector wise manner. To that end, I have been attempting to put forward the concept of “Line of Amity” for a sub-sector in the Kameng Sector of the Eastern Sector. The concept is quite simple and has been arrived at after years of research and travel and the basis of the proposal is “as-is-where-is”. In the sub-sector in question, there exists an expanse which lends itself well to at least a change of nomenclature. I mean one which would at least considerably lessen the belligerence that characterises the present atmosphere of mistrust between India and China.
CO: Could you elucidate the concept of “Line of Amity”?JS: The 18th round of talks between the Special Representatives of India-China on the Boundary Question had once again resulted in the predictable status quo, albeit with the usual appendages about maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the frontiers. Observers of the boundary issue are of the view that continuation of status quo is as much an Indian doing as that of the Chinese desire to leave the issue to the “next generation”. The Chinese attitude, in all probability, is a result both of the Indian refusal to accept China’s east-west swap proposal of 1960 and 1980, which were “carefully unofficial and elliptical” and the fact that the Chinese side is reportedly “not unified on the issue” with the moderate school stating that “China’s case for ownership of all that region (entire southern slope) was actually rather weak”. This was clearly brought out by John W. Garver in his seminal book on Sino-Indian rivalry in the 20th century, “Protracted Contest”. But Beijing had already shifted the “goalposts” in the 7th round of talks in July 1986 and China had “explicitly reversed the geopolitical logic of the 1960 (and 1980) swap by asserting that India accommodates China in the east”. At any rate, a solution of sorts—with an eye to circuiting the status quo that prevails—was proposed by me on 26-27 August 2014 during the course of an Indo-China “Track II Dialogue” in which I was a member of the Indian delegation. With the knowledge that neither sides would surrender ground (the instances which I quoted was that of Thagla Ridge held by the Chinese and the Namka Chu River that runs south of the Ridge held by the Indians) as well as the fact that the only solution lie in converting the “Line of Actual Control” into an International Boundary, I took recourse to semantics. The phrase “Line of Actual Control”—if even a step is to be taken in the direction of later-day resolution (even by the generation that is to come!)—must be replaced by a classification that does not ring of belligerence. “Line of Amity” is the name that I proposed as an interim arrangement before the Line of Actual Control becomes the International Boundary. If unyieldingness is inevitable and status quo is the only outcome of protracted negotiations, it is my considered opinion that at least a change of nomenclature that resonates of accommodation could herald a positive mindset change from continual and non-progressive status quo. I had laced my plea by stating that altering the name from “Line of Actual Control” to “Line of Amity” would not have any legal implications or bring forth questions about the principle by which delineation of boundaries are normally undertaken. I hazarded this aspect despite the fact that the watershed principle is applicable to the Thagla Ridge which the Chinese presently occupies. The name “Line of Amity” also has the distinct possibility of bringing future leaders of both the countries to the table without the baggage of the past as well as the suspicion that has accompanied almost all India-China boundary dialogue and could well be the prerequisite for entente cordiale.
CO: Have you actually been to the area? I mean have you seen the Namka Chu?
JS: Oh yes, I have. It took me a great deal of trouble to get first to Tawang (where I have been thrice) and thence to places such as Zimithang, Lumpo, Khinzemane and finally Namka Chu. I am not a very healthy person and am suffering from multiple ailments. Besides, I have metallic implants inside my right leg which I broke in 2009 as a result of slithering in an Indian army battalion in the Dima Hasao district of Assam where I had gone to deliver a lecture. I had to walk the last five kilometres or so in the India-China border to reach the southern bank of the Namka Chu where the Indian army is deployed. My right leg swelled up like a balloon and my blood pressure (I was later told by the Brigadier who accompanied me to the area!) was sky-high, in all probability because of the elevation. But I persisted and sat by the Namka Chu, saw the Thagla Ridge and the Gordong Camp in the Ridge in which the PLA is perched. On crossing the foot suspension bridge over another river, the Nyanjang Chu that criss-crosses the area, I got the unmistakable feeling that Namka Chu—which the Indian army never crosses nor the PLA ever visits less cross—is the place which lends itself to a solution. It is, after all, a natural feature that could be proposed as a boundary! You know what Lord Curzon, one of India’s Viceroys, had said during the course of a 1907 lecture in the University of Oxford! He said that “rivers make attractive features for those negotiating boundaries…The position of a river is unmistakable, no survey is required to identify or describe it…rivers are lines of division as a rule of very familiar to both parties, and are easily transferred to a treaty or traced on a map.” By the way, Chris, you have studied the India-China war of 1962. What according to you is the reason for the Chinese having gone back all the way to sit atop the Thagla Ridge when they had come all the way down to Misamari in Assam?
CO: For the more proactive countries, crisis equals opportunity. With this in mind, how does the current pandemic open up possibilities for resolving the current dispute? And as India flounders in the face of mounting infections and possible political upheaval, would China wish to try to take advantage of such instability to benefit regarding shared borders?
JS: There is a saying that one cannot choose a neighbour. Therefore, if peace is to reign, good neighbourly relationship is one of the most important prerequisites. To that end the India-China War of 1962 was unfortunate as has been the skirmishes of 2020. The lone victor was the vanquished on both sides of the invisible fence. Humankind has been endowed with a tremendous power to overcome the greatest of odds. But for some reason or the other this has not been the case with India and China. Analyses seem to suggest that the almost complete lack of the “charity principle” by both sides is the real culprit. Indeed, India and China have been subject to the unkindest of cuts ever to have been inflicted on civilisation: the truth. The end result has not only witnessed heart-rending deaths but the amplification of mistrust, misshapen tales and misperception. Threat discernment on either side has been shaped not only by ground realities (such as differing perception about where a line begins or ends!), but even by the topography of the terrain that “detaches” the Westphalian aspects of the two countries—so complicated is the dilemma that governs the geo-politics that the two Asian Giants are heir to. Indeed, the isolation that China has been subjected to (as a result of the Covid-19 virus, a scourge that some among many state was unleashed onto the human race by a deviant Chinese mind) could well have be one of the reasons for its “reproachable” behaviour in Eastern Ladakh.
CO: Have all avenues for external arbitration been extinguished concerning this dispute? Through common outlooks relating to non-intervention and negative colonial experiences, both sides are notoriously sensitive to the involvement of third party actors but could there be any scope for another country to create positive developments in this regard?JS: I am quite clear that the India-China boundary issue can be solved bilaterally. Some amount of “charity principle” (as aforesaid) combined with a push from the respective populations to adopt Fravel’s “Cooperation Strategy’ would, I sincerely feel, pay rich dividends. I am confident that the latter half of the 21st century belongs to the two Indian giants. I have written a paper in the Defense and Security Analyses (Vol.22, No.4, December 2006) titled Quest for a Chindian Arc: Leadership in the Asian Century.
CO: What would you recommend should be the next step in your pursuit of the “Line of Amity”?
JS: The Government of India should examine my proposal and it should constitute a Boundary Commission in order to study it. Such a formation by India should be followed by a similar course of action by China and eventually the formation of a Joint Boundary Commission in order to closely scrutinise the concept of “Line of Amity”.