Since 1962, China and India have often faced each other in border conflicts that still today leave everyone unsatisfied. In the last half century, endeavours were often made to untie the situation, with many ups and downs. If, from one side, the SCO gives the possibility to each country, through a background institutional structure in numerous fields (from the economic to the military one) that calls for cooperation, to set aside their differences, on the other, the complicated and complex situation inherited from the past events is still too heavy for them to move on. In this article, there will be narrated the major attempts to appease the relations – as well as the critical moments – considering the period between 1979 (when a first serious approach to reach a solution was tried) and 2005 when India obtained the SCO observer status. Afterwards, from 2005 on, it will be shown how the SCO could constitute a framework in which a more intensive dialogue can be built, with its achievements and limits, since the full membership that India attained in 2017.
Only in 1979 China and India re-established diplomatic relations after more than 15 years from the 30-days war in 1962, which caused ten thousand of casualties in total. During this period, many times they tried to take over the disputed lands: proxy wars (1965 and then 1971 Indo-Pakistani wars where China backed Islamabad (1)), direct actions (the 1967 Nathu La and Chola La clashes near the Sikkim’s border), or diplomatic attempts to isolate the other (as in the case of the Soviet-Indian treaty of Friendship, Peace and Cooperation of 1971) were at the same time peculiar and typical of their relationship. But when Indira Gandhi’s Congress party lost the elections against Janata Party, in 1977, the neo-minister of External Affairs in 1979 decided to take up another path to reduce the distance with China and, after two years, the Chinese minister of Foreign Affairs Huang Hua as well visited his Indian equivalent in New Delhi. It was not the end of conflicts but it was the first step towards something. Thus, the years after that can be seen in a different light then: what appeared is that there was at least a renewed motivation, an urgency, from both of them to solve the problem that had never been seen before.
1. Border situation
After a referendum, the kingdom of Sikkim (between Nepal and Bhutan) reunited with India in 1975, becoming one of the 28 federal Indian states, managing to avoid falling into the Chinese sphere of power. China not only did not oppose to this but in 2005 the prime minister Wen Jiabao declared how Sikkim would not constitute anymore an area of tension between India and China (2). In fact, as concerns the north-eastern border, China lost indeed interest in the specific area of Sikkim, but not in Arunachal Pradesh, another federal Indian states, that borders on Tibet and whose area of almost 90.000 km2 is still claimed by China. This will be the objective of the 1987 skirmish which will be told about below. For the western borders confusion, the claimed territories are much vaster and the role of another player – Pakistan – is pivotal in both China’s and India’s defence policies. We are now referring to the Kashmir conflicts that have been going on since 1947 without a true appeasement between the parts but just an armistice that lasts from 1962 that created between the two the “Line of actual control” (LAC). Within Kashmir, there is Aksai Chin, an area that seems to have been often motive of divergence between China and India since 1951 when the former built a highway that linked Tibet to Xinjiang. From 1962, it is still nowadays under a de facto Chinese administration that sees it as strategically relevant (3) to better connect the two autonomous regions. India claims it as a part of Jammu and Kashmir, while Pakistan, although claiming all the Kashmiri region, never drew any demand for Aksai Chin specifically, therefore accepting the Chinese rule.
2. Negotiations and tensions
In 1981 border negotiations between the two parts were first conceived to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner and henceforth, for exactly six years, China and India would hold meeting regularly. Various western observers saw in this a first positive sign, but they will nonetheless face problems.
One of these is what happened from 1984 to 1987 in the Sumdorong Chu valley (Arunachal Pradesh) where Indian troops were deployed to patrol the area to force Chinese troops to move away. In 1986 India granted Arunachal Pradesh statehood, a territory that, as said above, China entirely claims as under its sovereignty. In the same year, when the Indian Army discovered that the PLA had occupied the Sumdorong Chu valley and had built a helipad at Wandung, three Indian divisions (as part of the exercise “Chequerboard”, but de facto a military operation) were deployed in the Hathung La Ridge, across the Namka Chu river, re-occupying a land they owned 25 years earlier, during the 1962 war. General Sundarji’s decision to airlift an entire brigade to Zimithang alarmed the Chinese who, in the meantime, were moving their forces forward (4)(5). All of this built up to the 1987 skirmish. At the time the situation was so tense and so similar to 1962 that quite a lot of analysists predicted another war that, luckily, was eventually impeded by the cautious decision of Rajiv Gandhi’s government. Both Indian and Chinese government understood the importance of a new collaboration to avoid a major conflict and thanks to the visits of 1988 in Beijing, numerous forms of cooperation (with bilateral agreements in the scientific, technological and cultural field) sprouted. From them the dialogue developed into new forms of higher-level cooperation.
In fact, 1991 onward, the premier Li Peng and president Venkataraman continued their predecessors’ policies throughout the first half of the 90s with the six rounds of the Indo-Chinese Joint Working Group on border questions but as it is shown before (1981-1985 negotiations that preceded the skirmish in 1987) these were not really effective. Despite most of the agreements regarded cross-border trade as well as a new proposal about how to deal with common natural resources; despite from both sides there had been declaration of good intents to foster friendly relations, already in 1993 things were pointing again in the wrong direction. India’s concerns about Burma worsened for the Chinese military support in Coco Island.
This swinging relation goes on into the 1994 and 1995, when Beijing asserted how Kashmiri independence should not be considered as a good solution, auspicating the reduction of armed forces along the line of actual control to boost security. India’s decision in 1998 to carry out nuclear tests, along with the Minister of Defence George Fernandes’ declaration that China is to be considered as a rival (in the economic and military sense mostly) wasted the talks held in July and August in 1995 upon demilitarization of the region and all the progress that had been done seemed, to political analysts, fruitless at the end.
3. Birth of the Shanghai Five and Indian admission in 2005
Coincidentally, in 1996, the Shanghai Five, a multilateral cooperation programme between China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Kirghizia joined the Asian landscapes of international organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asia Nation (ASEAN), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building measures in Asia (CICA) or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India, notwithstanding his prominent role in the continent (it is evident nowadays but, as Mackinder stated a century ago already, “he who controls the Central Asia controls the world”(6)) was not among the Shanghai Five Group’s founders. What’s more, within this organisation, beginning from the first summit that border issues were held as the point to start with. In other words, the founding-countries in order to develop their cooperation had to face border issues at first, which historically have represented a reason of confrontation and war (cf. 1997 Treaty on the reduction of military forces in border regions). In the 2001 summit, the fifth, Uzbekistan was accepted in the organisation and the group changed name in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Subsequently, one major step forward was taken by China that recognized Indian sovereignty over Sikkim in 2003, after 28 years from the referendum that made the integration possible. Wen Jiabao, as reported above, defined the Sikkim question as a gone matter between the countries, adding another brick to the foundations of the Sino-Indian relations that allowed India to be a favourite country to enter the SCO. Although wanted by the Russian administration (7), the admission of India in 2005 as SCO observer was at the end welcomed by China – that replied with the Pakistani admission briefly afterwards. It is worth to remind how in the same year India let China become an observer of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and even though it is true that a couple of years later the EU and the USA too gained this status, China was the first to submit the request.
4. From 2005 to 2017 and after the full membership to India
Until 2006, the area of Nathula (oriental border) had been disregarded and, as far as trade routes are concerned, it was quite isolated. Only in that year, after Hu Jintao’s visit, a Sino-Indian agreement changed the things with the reassessment of the border trade(8). The 2006 was declared by Wen Jiabao and the Indian PM Singh as the “Year of China-India Friendship”. Indeed from 2000 on, relations have steadily improved, notwithstanding the 1998 Indian nuclear test. In 2007 after decades of confrontation and a long-term process of negotiations, there was the first military drill (Hand in Hand I) with the PLA and the Indian army in Kunming, China (9). From 2007 to 2018, seven military drills (10) will strengthen their relations and in particular one is noteworthy: the SCO military drills of August 2018 (11) after the full membership of India after the 2017 summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.
In the 2012 SCO summit on counter-terrorism and regional security, Hu Jintao stressed the importance of the SCO to coordinate members’ efforts to ensure each own’s national security and within this event, India’s position and interest were taken as a serious commitment to the cause and the organisation. In fact, incidentally, China and India had bilateral meetings where the vice premier Li Keqiang and the Indian Foreign Minister Krishna had a formal talk regarding border issues and Indian nationals incarcerated in China. (12)
In 2014, at the 13th summit held in Dushanbe (Tajikistan), India and Pakistan were told to be accepted in the SCO (it was decided in the previous BRICS meeting (13)) but only in 2015, at the summit in Ufa, Russia, the SCO members formally announced these two candidatures: a couple of years, in 2017 they participated in the first session.
In these summits, one of the main topics was the counter-terrorism but also the increasing economic connections that members are maintaining to grow as an organisation. In the context of summits, Indo-Chinese relations showed a positive trend: since an Indian active role had been noticed by the others, we could say that the SCO platform was peculiarly useful to the Indian state to conciliate with China, overall. Ahead of the multilateral meeting in 2014, Xi Jinping, who had previously highlighted the expanding of the SCO as auspicious, and Modi had a bilateral one where they agreed on the importance to improve the border situation (14). After it, Xi pointed out how the Belt and Road Initiative could be beneficial for the Indian economy too, even if we now know how the External Affairs Minister Jaishakar answered in 2019 (15) (16): it was maybe too early to think that India would join to such an ambitious project, despite the increasing trade volume between the countries that reached 100 billion dollars in 2015.(17)
Thus, is there a rule of thumb, a pattern or something that guides us through the future of the area, or at least to the next step? It does not seem likely: the nature of India and China’s rivalry is not ideological or historical, but purely strategical (i.e. not impossible to solve if there is a good compromise) and the unpredictability of the situation pushes both governments to fall into a political unreadability. During Hu Jintao’s and Wen Jiabao’s offices as respectively President and Prime Minister (2003-2013), India and China relations performed better, despite the everlasting dispute on Arunachal Pradesh that still goes on. As shown, SCO summits, at first with India as an observer and then as a member, resulted productive so far, also given the role of military drills as an important component in confidence-building measures. In the last 50 years, their relations have been often fluctuating now in a positive way, now in a negative one but, supported by a more robust institutional framework, the political (or in some cases, like in the 2017 standoff, even military) dimension of threats are much smaller. It is not an easy or brief process. What is still at stake is, again, Arunachal Pradesh. China’s idea of sovereignty is quite different from the western one: it is almost tangible the difference while analysing the Chinese approach not only with Arunachal Pradesh but also with Taiwan, and to a lesser extent, Tibet. Even though it is quite undisputable that China is not administratively governing Taiwan and Arunachal Pradesh, in both cases it acts as they did. Their way of getting along is actually very slow and cautious (as their size suggests) but we now have good motivations to say that, even if it is everyday unpredictable what will happen, an encouraging path towards peace seems to be clearer and clearer of obstacles.
*About the author: Alessandro Russo is currently studying at SciencesPo (Institut d’études politiques de Paris) as an exchange program with university of origin, “L’Orientale”, University of Naples.
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