A question of boundaries

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Alys Francis talks to Madhu Bhalla, a professor of Chinese Studies in the University of Delhi’s East Asian Studies department, on the PLA’s alleged incursions in the Sino-Indian border area.

Delhi is facing “a very difficult period ahead” on the Sino-Indian border, with a spate of alleged incursions into disputed territory by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) being fuelled by rising nationalism in Beijing that shows no signs of letting up, according to a China expert.

“We’re looking at a very difficult period ahead on the border issue,” says Madhu Bhalla, a professor of Chinese Studies in the University of Delhi’s East Asian Studies department.

“It’s more difficult also because with this global domestic downturn, one way to tie people together domestically is with nationalism to overcome domestic dissent, and that’s what’s happening with China.”
The flare up of India and China’s long running border dispute seemed to come out of nowhere when news broke that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops had crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into eastern Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, in April.

Indian news networks reported that PLA troops were standing in the disputed territory holding a banner that read: “you’ve crossed the border, please go back”.

The incident turned into three-week stand-off in which the Chinese troops pitched tents in the Depsang Valley until finally, after several threats from Delhi, Beijing eventually ordered them to move. Meanwhile, China denied any wrongdoing and said the PLA troops were simply patrolling the LAC as normal.

This all took place just weeks before China’s new Prime Minister Li Keqiang was due to visit India in May, his first foreign visit as the country’s leader.

The visit went ahead and the joint statement released by both sides at the end was positive, speaking of economic ties and mutual interests. It touched briefly on the “Boundary Question,” saying both leaders wanted to push forward the process of negotiations for a solution. “Pending the resolution of the boundary question, the two sides shall work together to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas,” the statement said.
Despite this, there has followed a flurry of further alleged incursions by Chinese troops, thrusting the border issue to the forefront of public debate in India.

But why has the border, which India and China went to war over in 1962, suddenly bubbled up as a hot issue again now?

Professor Bhalla believes the recent spate of alleged incursions are symptomatic of the increasingly stark nationalist positions coming out of Beijing since the leadership change in March.

Previously, border incursions into the LAC happened fairly regularly from both sides but troops typically left some signs they had been there and returned, says Prof. Bhalla.

According to the Union Ministry of India, there have been more than 600 border incursion incidents in the last three years, which Delhi has been accused of either downplaying or suppressing.

But Prof. Bhalla says the incident in April was different.

“This time the army didn’t go back. Not only that but they actually set up camps and they sat there for weeks. Obviously there was something going on here between the PLA and Beijing that either Beijing couldn’t control of that they didn’t want to control,” she says.

“My sense is that this whole political transition in China and this whole notion of the China dream has spilled over into the most stark nationalistic positions, especially on territory.”

She says the nationalist bent is being fuelled by civil unrest in China, stirred up by the affects of the global economic downturn and Beijing putting the brakes on its high-speed economy.

Prof. Bhalla said China’s shifting attitude could be seen in the South China Sea Dispute, where it’s preparing to build a structure on disputed land, and tensions with Japan over disputed islands.

She says the current spate of incidents is hurrying India to resolve the border issue.

“India is now pushing for a faster resolution – putting maps on the table and starting the whole process of delineating the border and demarcating the border, which is a very difficult process. I think pressure from within the country and pressure from what China did is going to move the Indian government towards working out the border,” she says.

And a bit of hurrying may not be such a bad thing for India, as Prof. Bhalla believes the country has found itself in a better position to negotiate the border than ever before due to its growing ties with countries such as the US and even Australia.

“We have never been more in touch with the world than we are now and I think that’s a huge strength. In terms of diplomacy we’ve gained brownie points if you will that enable us to perhaps speak to China differently today than we could speak to them five years ago,” she says.

But Prof. Bhalla warns that there is another issue affecting China’s attitude towards the border that could throw a spanner in the works of a speedy resolution – the issue of Tibet.

“I think what’s interesting with the border issue is to watch what’s happening with Tibet. If China can control Tibet and control dissent in Tibet that would lead to less tension or apprehension over Tibet and that would help the Chinese government to relax a little bit with the border.

“But until that happens, and it’s not likely to happen given the policy of Beijing in Tibet, the resolution of the border is going to be extremely difficult.

“The first thing about this whole border issue is how China deals with Greater Tibet (a plan for an autonomous region pushed by the Dalai Lama). We have to look at what the present new regime is going to do in Tibet and how the Tibetans are going to respond with that.

“If politics becomes more stable within China, if society becomes more stable and the economy goes well, you will have a more relaxed China and less nationalism,” she says.

But with no signs of stability in the near future, tensions on the border look set to remain on high.

Photo Credit : http://strategicstudyindia.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/standoff-at-15000-feet.html

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