Why India & China See Any Border Breach As A ‘Threat’ to Identity

“India-China border is no longer merely a question of territorial nationalism,” writes Arunabh Ghosh, Harvard Uni.

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Opinion
6 min read
Image of China’s flag (l) and India’s flag (R), and maps of UTs of J&K and Ladakh, used for representational purposes.
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Recent clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Galwan Valley have taken observers by surprise. The brutality of the fighting, the casualties that have resulted, and the breakdown in communications they reflect, all suggest that this may be a pivotal moment for the future of China-India relations. The reasons for the clashes, and their implications for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of India (ROI), and global politics more broadly, have become the subject of exhaustive coverage and expert analysis. Whether any measure of clarity will be achieved remains to be seen.

What might a slightly longer durée historical perspective add to these discussions?

Perhaps a reminder that this skirmish comes at a time when there has been an important qualitative change in the factors that influence each country’s foreign policy.

An Analysis of India-China Row Must Acknowledge Dramatic Growth of Ethno-Nationalism

If previous disagreements and conflicts were driven largely by the logics of what one might term ‘territorial nationalism’, any analysis of the 2020 standoff needs to acknowledge the relevance of a second factor: the dramatic growth of ethno-nationalism.

The PRC and the ROI are successor states to two large expansionary empires, the British Raj and the Qing. Over the years, they have rightfully highlighted long histories of exploitation. Each has also served as a vital center of anti-imperialist critique and activism.

But there is one matter on which both have enthusiastically and uncritically embraced their imperial legacies: territory.

A distinguished historian once observed that empires are typically preoccupied with centers, not borders. The dissemination of increasingly accurate surveying and cartographic techniques in the sixteenth century forced a rebalancing. Equipped with the atlas and the Mercator projection, empires expanded aggressively across the globe. As they came up against each other, clear delineation of where one ended and another began, became unavoidable. No longer was it sufficient to point to rivers, mountain ranges, or deserts. Instead, jointly agreed upon maps, with specific coordinates for every twist and turn of the border, became the instruments through which treaties were signed and modern political geography born.

But in many places, borders remained ill-defined. It was left to the nation states that emerged in the wake of imperial collapse in the twentieth century to deal with this uneven legacy of border-making.

The Qing Empire Collapsed Partly Due to Emergence of Potent Ethnic-Nationalism

Not lightly did Lord Curzon remark that borders are “the razor's edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations.”

The Qing Empire, whose rule by the end of the eighteenth century extended over Manchuria, the former territories of the Ming Empire, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, ended abruptly in 1911.

A crucial factor in its collapse was the emergence of a potent ethnic nationalism among the empire’s Han subjects, many of whom came to blame the Manchu ruling elite for the empire’s recurrent defeats at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialism.

These revolutionaries participated in intense debates about the possible contours of a future Chinese nation-state.

Should it be restricted only to areas of the Han Chinese majority (what is often called China proper), or should it also include the geographically vast but demographically small peripheries of Xinjiang, Tibet, Manchuria, and Mongolia?

In the end, pressure from various Western empires, who wanted to avoid political fragmentation, and the strategic interests of China’s new national elites, who coveted both the territory and the potential resources of the peripheries, found common cause.

The Republic of China, that was born on 1 January 1912, was to a large extent a territorial replica of the Qing Empire at its eighteenth-century peak.

In 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious in their civil war against the Nationalists, they did little to alter the territorial consensus that had been reached four decades earlier.

Why India & China Have A Mostly Un-Delineated Border

The British Raj, which came to dominate the entire subcontinent through direct and indirect rule by the middle of the nineteenth century, formally ended in August 1947. At its zenith in 1937, it also included present-day Myanmar. Although the subcontinent was partitioned along religious lines, the states of India and Pakistan so created, largely inherited the imperial boundaries of the British Raj.

India mounted a massive campaign to incorporate the 565 princely states that had been British imperial vassals. But many other sources of tension remained. Peripheral areas, such as in India’s northeast and in Pakistan’s west and northwest, all sought autonomy or outright independence, only to see their demands quashed. The kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir (which included Ladakh), originally a vassal of the British, is perhaps the most striking example, because it became the site of not just an attempt to gain independence, but also of a major and continuing struggle between India and Pakistan.

The last significant realignments took place in 1971 and 1975, when East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh and Sikkim was incorporated into the Union of India.

It is this enthusiastic embrace of their imperial inheritance that has saddled the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India with a largely un-delineated border.

In most instances, the persistence of contradictory understandings of where the border or LAC lies can be traced to late nineteenth and early twentieth century meetings between representatives of British India, the Qing (and later the Republic of China), and Tibet. The war of 1962 as well as smaller skirmishes in 1967, 1975, and 1987 represent in large measure an inability to accommodate these different perceptions.

Neither India Nor China Can Claim Moral High Ground

As beneficiaries of imperial legacies, neither side is in any position to claim the moral, or even legal, high ground. In the end, these are territorial disputes, born out of imperial machinations, and sustained by an unwillingness to acknowledge the persistence of imperial ambitions concealed within republican claims.

As if sorting through the contradictions of imperial pasts and republican presents is not difficult enough, the latest confrontation in the Galwan Valley has occurred against the background of a significant shift in the domestic politics of both countries. That shift is represented by the engineered rise of ethno-nationalism in both countries since the 1990s.

For many years after 1949, the Chinese Communist Party encouraged loyalty to the party and to the Chinese revolution.

That changed after 1989, when the leadership decided to shift focus to loyalty to the nation through the Patriotic Education Campaign and other policies. The result, over the years, has been the rise of a proud Han nationalism, sensitive to the slightest affront, real or imaginary. In some ways it echoes the years leading up to the collapse of the Qing over a century ago. Its influence is visible across much of Chinese society today, but nowhere is it clearer than in the attempt to Sinicize Xinjiang’s large Muslim Uighur population via systematic internment in large purpose-built camps.

A Triumphant Han-Nationalism in China Vs A Belligerent Hindu-Nationalism in India

In India, the rise of ethno-nationalism is the story of the rise of the Hindu-chauvinist BJP. From relative obscurity in the 1980s, the party now dominates politics and political discourse in India. Its promotion of a muscular upper-caste Hindu nationalism has upended India’s proudly proclaimed but tenuously maintained commitment to secularism.

With more registered members today than the Chinese Communist Party, the BJP has sought to remove institutional checks to its power. 

It has undermined the independence of the judiciary and the press and attacked civil society. But perhaps most emblematic of this religio-chauvinist turn is the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act, which, if followed through, will make 200 million Muslims ‘second-class’ citizens of India.

The border, therefore, is no longer merely a question of territorial nationalism.

Those long-standing issues have now been coupled with a triumphant Han-nationalism in China and a belligerent Hindu-nationalism in India. Under these conditions, it is virtually impossible not to view any reverse or any slight along the border as anything but a threat to one’s identity and pride. As other standoffs and skirmishes occur, the probability of significant escalation is nontrivial. Any reasonable path forward has to acknowledge this new reality.

(Arunabh Ghosh teaches modern Chinese history at Harvard University. He is the author of Making it Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the early People's Republic of China. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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