Warm handshakes to border standoffs: Highs and lows in India, China ties

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByPramit Pal Chaudhuri
Apr 26, 2018 08:04 PM IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping meet in China’s Wuhan city this week.

India and China may not be friends, but they are not wholly enemies. Here is a history of the ups and downs of the relationship between Asia’s two giants ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping’s meeting in China’s Wuhan city this week.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (L) is greeted by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on December 22, 1988 .(File photo)
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (L) is greeted by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on December 22, 1988 .(File photo)

BREAKTHROUGH, 1988–1997. Rajiv Gandhi’s state visit to China in 1988 opens door to ending a diplomatic freeze that goes back to the 1962 war. Chinese Premier Li Peng reciprocated three years later, the first such visit to India in over three decades.

The first of a series of border management agreement is signed in 1995 and the two agree to not use force in settling their territorial disputes a year later.

Curiously, this period of bilateral repair work was initiated by a major border standoff involving tens of thousands of troops at Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh that ended in 1987. Beijing’s isolation after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 also made it more amenable to India.

But, China through the 1980s begins providing the technology that will be the basis of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal including a reliable bomb design and missile technology. US study estimates China violated its non-proliferation pledges 15 times during this period, all to help Pakistan.

NUCLEAR WINTER, 1998-2002. India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and New Delhi’s admission the tests were partly driven by concerns about China’s military capabilities infuriates Beijing.

China joins other countries in imposing sanctions on India. But is surprised when the US makes a U-turn under Bill Clinton and begins wooing India.

Beijing indicated it was not opposed to India developing its nuclear capacities, but unhappy that New Delhi spoke of China as a “nuclear threat” to India.

BUT, when the Kargil war broke out between India and Pakistan a year later, China maintained a position of near-neutrality and showed a degree of irritation with Pakistan for having started the incident.

FALSE DAWN, 2003-2006. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee carries out a make-up state visit to Beijing. Two sides agree on status of Tibet and Sikkim. Following year, in 2004, Beijing gives up claims on Sikkim.

By 2006, relations look like they are on a long-term positive trajectory. China hints at supporting India’s bid for a permanent Security Council. Two sides ree on a military exchange programme and Nathu La, a pass between Sikkim and China, is reopened after 44 year gap.

But, while India and China have extremely constructive border negotiations during this time Indian diplomats believe Beijing’s attempts to act nice to India are driven by concerns that a US-India strategic alliance is under consideration.

ROCKY PATH, 2007-2010. Beijing suddenly becomes more publicly assertive about its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. In 2007 Arunachali Indian official is told in Beijing that he is a Chinese citizen so does not need a visa in 2007. Chinese ambassador calls border state “South Tibet,” Beijing denounces Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for visiting Arunachal and, by 2010, India has cancelled defence exchanges between the two countries.

Beijing beings stapling visas of Indian Kashmiris to their passports, changing its hands-off posture regarding dispute with Pakistan. Furious India warns it will change its policy on Tibet, forcing China to end visa policy.

Border incidents between the two spike, but noticeably China’s belligerence in territorial claims on Japanese islands and South China Sea also increases at the same time. View is that after US is weakened by global financial crisis of 2007-08, Beijing sees opportunity to become more assertive in Asia.

But Prime Manmohan Singh was still able to make a state visit to China in 2009. Bilateral trade flourishes, passes $ 50 billion mark and China emerges as India’s number one trading partner.

This file photo taken on July 10, 2008 shows a Chinese soldier (L) next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in Sikkim. (AFP)
This file photo taken on July 10, 2008 shows a Chinese soldier (L) next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in Sikkim. (AFP)

WORLDLY WISE 2010-2018. Wary of Beijing’s push into the Indian Ocean and its infrastructure expansion into Tibet, Singh governments seeks a maritime dialogue and a final border agreement. Barack Obama’s initial overtures to China further fuel a sense that New Delhi needs to work more closely with Beijing.

However, possibly because of an internal succession struggle, Beijing does not respond. Instead, bilateral relations are marred by a series of major border intrusions in the Ladakh and western border areas.

Newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi had hoped to build a new relationship on the basis of economics. But his first summit with Xi Jinping was marred by one of the largest border stand-offs in recent years at Chumar, Ladakh, in 2014. Relations worsen with China venting over the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal, India’s public opposing the Belt Road Initiative and all of this culminating with the Doklam crisis.

But, the Doklam crisis was followed by the two leaders meeting in Xiamen and agreeing to bring down temperatures. China, already fire fighting on a number of other fronts, indicates it is open to what has been dubbed a “reset”. This paves the way for the Wuhan summit.

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