The disengagement of Indian and Chinese frontline troops from the north and south banks of the Pangong Tso is, of course, excellent news. Reports of likely further disengagement in the Depsang plains and in Demchok are equally promising. It speaks in no uncertain terms to the firm-headed approach of Indian military and diplomatic negotiators in mediating the best result possible.
Not everyone will be convinced with the outcome. The creation of ‘no patrol’ zones is a matter of some debate. Has India conceded territory by accepting ‘buffer zones’, remains the sub-text of the criticism.
Whether or not China adheres to the disengagement will need to be seen, and carefully watched over the next many months. Yet, this period also provides an opportunity to begin to think of the prospects of a future strategic relationship with China. It’s never too early to brainstorm strategy.
Unlike in the past, this will not be a journey designed to grow peacefully alongside each other. Chinese actions in Galwan in the summer of 2020 destroyed the promise of peace. What is clear is that India and China are at the cusp of entering a period of increasingly armed, markedly competitive, and ever-cautious cohabitation. This is a turning point. What exactly it looks like in practice will remain the central puzzle for India’s decision-makers for some time to come.
To this end, revisiting India’s changing dispositions in the past merits reflection. The year 1976 is a useful place to start.
Why India and China reached out
On 8 April 1976, the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) daily briefing to the President of the United States started with the headline: “India and China have agreed to exchange ambassadors”. Diplomatic relations had frozen following the India-China border war in 1962. In 1976, India was under Emergency rule. The primary rationale to rebuild relations with Mao’s China, CIA analysts correctly argued, was to establish “independence from the USSR”. Russia, and the KGB, in particular, unhesitatingly supported the Emergency.
Wanting to remain un-aligned, Indira Gandhi’s government was desperate to lower its dependence on Moscow. Further, in 1974, China pledged its first major commodity assistance loan to Pakistan. China’s presence and engagement in South Asia was a reality. Lastly, Mao’s demise in September 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping provided a tremendous moment for change in the bilateral relationship. It made sense to bridge differences.
It ultimately provided the necessary bureaucratic and political drive for Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit to Beijing a little more than a decade later, in 1988. In addition, it made geopolitical sense. India’s decision to reach out was partially shaped by Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempted détente with China. The Soviet leader arrived in Beijing in the middle of May 1989, just as student demonstrators gathered near the Great Hall of the People. Upon his return to Moscow, he remained silent as Chinese troops tore through the Tiananmen demonstrators.
The signals in New Delhi were clear. The international landscape was changing. Russia and China had reached the point of truce, following three decades of hostility. For India, finding a new equipoise with China was crucial. A range of agreements between 1993 and 2005 set the framework for the renewal.
‘Peace and tranquillity on the border’ became the defining mantra of the post-Cold War pledge. It was meant to leave enough room in the relationship to focus on strengthening economic ties, whilst also remaining focussed on breakthroughs on the border. It presented mixed results.
Fortified cohabitation from now
There were some gains on the border negotiations that are noteworthy. This process brought a degree of peace on the border. A Joint Working Group was created to find a solution for the contested boundary. As Shyam Saran recounts in his book ‘How India Sees the World‘, China “agreed to recognise Sikkim as a part of India,” and as Shivshankar Menon underlines in his treatise ‘Choices‘, “bilateral trade expanded sixty-seven times between 1998 and 2012”.
Yet, booming trade favoured China, and the boundary negotiations remained frozen.
By 2013-14, it was all but clear that the 1976 moment had lost steam. The Chinese incursions at the Galwan valley in the summer of 2020, in one fell swoop, ended ultimately this old chapter in China-India ties. As external affairs minister S. Jaishankar stated, the clashes left the relationship “profoundly disturbed“. Previous attempts to find an equilibrium with China had passed its expiry date.
Given that India and China share a 3,488-kilometre-long border, not all of it can be manned, it would make imminent sense to begin to design a new compact. Except, this time, and for the integrity of this compact to hold, it needs to be shaped by and through the spirit of coercion rather than accommodation.
Continuing to gate Chinese investments, further expanding infrastructure developments on the border, using tried-and-tested mechanisms to stabilise the boundary — such as the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination that has provided an adequate forum for negotiations at the present time — further investing in the Quad and the Indo-Pacific, more broadly, and continuing to work even more closely alongside the United States and other democracies ought to serve as the outer contours of a strategy designed for a period of fortified cohabitation.
To begin to put this compact in place, and if, and only if, China adheres to the continued disengagement and de-escalation of frontline troops over the next many months — and as unpopular as this view might be — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping should meet, again, in yet another bilateral summit. The main difference being that this time, the shadow of tranquillity ought to be replaced by the realities of sharp market and technology competition, and the high potential of armed confrontation.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. Views are personal.