The contested periphery
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The military conflict with India in 1962 has never been a moment to publicly recall, let alone celebrate, in Beijing. The war against Japanese occupation and the war in Korea with the United States are the ones that have considerable significance in the modern Chinese political consciousness.
At a time when relations with the US have entered a difficult phase, and with maritime territorial disputes with Japan and the Southeast Asian nations on the boil, China has no reason to spoil the atmospherics of its relations with India by venturing into the debate on 1962. Beijing has been hoping that the 50th anniversary will pass quickly and it can get back to regular business.
In India, the debate on 1962 generates more heat than light. Much of the problem lies in the fact that the government of India is not willing to put out a comprehensive version of its story or open its archives to the scholarly community to construct an objective account.
With no effort to historicise the conflict, all kinds of myths and half-truths have acquired lives of their own.
"Chinese betrayal", Nehru's policy failures, and the incompetence of the Indian military leadership, to name a few, are dredged up again and again, with no excavation of new information on the sources of the Sino-Indian border conflict, its evolution during 1959-62 and the consequences.
India, however, cannot afford to wallow forever in self-pity over 1962. The opportunities that beckon and the challenges that China presents for India are of an immensely larger magnitude than at the turn of the 1960s.
In the 1950s, India and China were weak developing countries and had little to offer each other except political rhetoric and presumed solidarity. Today, China is the world's second-largest economy and India is in the top ten.
If the opportunities for mutually beneficial economic engagement are real, the costs of political and military conflict are much larger. Both are nuclear powers and their conventional military capabilities are rather impressive.
Yet, there is no denying that the sources of Delhi's conflict with Beijing, rooted in territorial nationalism, are alive despite
the growing economic and political cooperation between the two Asian giants over the last two decades.
For one, the logic of forward policy that brought Indian and Chinese military forces face to face in 1962 remains in play. The phrase "forward policy" is usually associated with Nehru's presumed failures on the northern borders.
The fact is China had an even more ambitious forward policy that resulted in its control over Tibet and Xinjiang. As a result, Delhi's buffers to the north vanished, making China a new neighbour of India.
It makes little sense at this stage to apportion blame between Mao and Nehru. Both represented the rise of modern territorial nationalism in China and India, and had no option but to extend their boundaries to the farthest possible extent.
Large parts of Xinjiang, Kashmir, Tibet, Yunnan and India's northeast were for centuries loosely governed territories in between the large empires that surrounded them. The imposition of modern borders with clearly expressed territorial sovereignty over these regions was bound to generate conflict between the new states.
Two, while drawing lines on the map was easy for China and India, integrating these frontier regions into the new nations has been quite difficult for both Beijing and Delhi.
China has done an impressive job promoting economic integration with these frontier regions in the last two decades. But as the continuing turbulence in Xinjiang and Tibet shows, economic growth alone is not enough to win the political loyalty of the people in its peripheral territories.
India extended political democracy into these border regions but has failed to bring economic prosperity, internal security and reasonable governance to them. For all the criticism of Nehru's policy, Delhi is struggling to provide, 50 years later, basic road connectivity to its frontier regions.
Half a century after 1962, China and India remain major obstacles to the consolidation of the territoriality of the other. China's claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir are contested by India. Beijing resents Delhi's historically close relationship with Tibet.
China tilts towards Pakistan in its dispute with India over Kashmir and has supported, in the past, rebel movements in India's Northeast. India too has armed Tibetan insurgents in the past and continues to provide a safe haven for the Dalai Lama.
China and India can't complete the consolidation of their territoriality without each making a major political compromise with the other. Ten years ago, the two sides agreed that such a compromise cannot be produced on the basis of legal or historical claims.
The search over the last political decade for a solution from a political perspective has produced some gains, but the talks have stalled again amidst the inability to agree on a mutually acceptable territorial compromise and the two countries' changing relations with other powers, such as the US.
The final resolution of the contested territoriality between China and India can only come as part of the construction of a larger political equilibrium between a rising China and an emerging India. Such an equilibrium must necessarily involve, in Delhi and Beijing, a new political imagination of their own peripheries, a framework for trans-frontier connectivity and cooperation, avoiding competition in their shared Asian spaces and greater cooperation in the international arena.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express', email@example.com
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