India's shifting alliances means border disputes in its neighbourhood now come with higher stakes.

Rarely has India’s relationship with its northern neighbours China and Nepal plummeted so low as is being witnessed currently over the issue of encroachment of territory. Matters came to a head on June 15, resulting in the death of an Indian colonel and at least 20 soldiers in the disputed Galwang valley on the India-China border. 

The deaths, the first since 1975, came about following a reported scuffle between the troops of the two countries,  and not due to firing. There were reports of around 40 casualties on the Chinese side as well, but there has been no official word on it. Physical scuffles such as these in the Himalayan region at an altitude upwards of 14,000 feet can be deadly as individuals exposed to the biting cold and rarefied air have little chance of survival.  

Reports quoting military sources pointed this out as the reason for so many casualties. 

The border dispute between has been a constant since India’s independence and the coming to power of the Communist party in China in the late 1940s.  The legacy of the dispute goes further back to 1914 when British-Indian rulers attempted to draw a boundary (the McMahon line) with China.   

They almost succeeded in persuading China to sign a border treaty at the 1914 conference in the northern Indian town of Shimla, but the Chinese delegates walked out leaving the agreement in limbo. 

Since then, the 3500 km long border along the Himalayan ranges between the two countries has been fermenting with its lowest point in 1962, when the dispute degenerated into a full-fledged war.  

Since then, however,  both countries created mechanisms to prevent a repeat of the conflict.  It has largely worked except for occasional minor flare ups. The latest one too was a flare up that happened even while talks to defuse the situation were taking place between senior government officials on both sides. 

Realistically speaking, a solution to the dispute can be found only through a political settlement between the two countries.  

Unfortunately, in a relationship that is multi-layered, hostility and friendship co-exist making it difficult to foresee a solution to the dispute in the immediate future. The reason is,  historically, the two countries known for their ancient civilizations have co-existed peacefully with the Himalayas as a natural boundary between them.  

The British attempt to draw a boundary failed, as China questioned the locus standi of the “outsider” to do so.  The next best chance after 1914 was in the period between 1950 and 1962 when China offered territory to the north-east of India (to the north of Arunachal state) in exchange for areas to the northwest of India (to  the north of Ladakh). But, this did not work. The war followed, and chances of resolving it peacefully receded.  

The ground reality, therefore, is the absence of a clear boundary along the vast stretches of the inhospitable Himalayas. This has resulted in a situation where troops in the forward areas occasionally charge the opposite side with intrusion, causing flare-ups. More often than not, these accusations seem interconnected to the larger geopolitics of the region.  

Moving parts

The current flare-up, for instance, is happening at a time when India is firmly moving towards the West in an alliance that is inherently adversarial to China. New Delhi has also veered towards the United States’ view that China is responsible for the emergence of the Covid-19 disease.   

The US administration’s move to back Taiwan’s attempts to join the WHO as observer received India’s support, much to Beijing’s chagrin. An impending decision was put off to a later date, but China resented India’s pro-Taiwan stance. 

India’s Mutual Logistics Support Agreement with Australia that opens up its naval bases for war ships from down under and for Indian ships to berth in Australian ports too does not seem to have gone down well with Beijing. 

India’s accord with Australia is part of a broader tie-up of  New Delhi with the US, France, Singapore and Japan that is expected to undercut  Chinese naval activities in the Pacific. 

Despite the flare-ups on the border and the flexing of military muscle on both sides, there is little threat of large scale conflict as both countries are deeply tied to each other in trade,  worth around $90 billion annually.  

China is, in fact, India’s largest trading partner and the chances of minor border clashes turning to a conflagration is remote. 

But there is no doubt it is a war of nerves and the situation has turned complex for India from an unexpected quarter, Nepal.  

Arguably India’s closest neighbour in terms of cultural affiliation and a historical connect right from the time of the British, the government in Kathmandu has raked up a dormant unresolved border dispute with India.  

Nepal, which is wedged between China to the north and India to its south, is raising an issue that most people were not even aware of. This concerns a 372 sq km area to the west of Nepal in the  Limpiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh triangle that is of strategic importance to India. Lipulekh is the trading corridor between India and China that New Delhi considers part of its territory.  

The dispute can be traced to the 1816 Sigauli treaty between British India and Nepal according to which a river Kuti was demarcated as the border. To the west of the river was India and to the east Nepal.  

However, in 1860, the British reworked the map with the result that the area came to be part of India. But this modification was not codified into an amended treaty, with the result that from then until the 1990s, it was assumed that the region was India’s.  

Nepal’s monarch King Mahendra too dropped the territory from the country’s maps. Again,  there was no formal agreement between the two countries, a reflection of the friendship between the two, where it was probably never thought it would be necessary at some time in the future. 

When the monarchy was abolished in Nepal in the 1990s, and replaced by a democratic republic, the elected government claimed the disputed land as theirs, quoting the 1816 Sigauli treaty.  

However, the issue again became dormant until recently when India built a road through the territory as part of its forward defences with China and showed the area in India’s official map as belonging to New Delhi. 

The government in Kathmandu woke up and claimed that India had built its road on Nepali territory. Not just that, it amended the Nepali map to incorporate the disputed Kalapani triangle in it. 

Speculation is rife in India whether Nepal is raking up the issue under Chinese instigation.  In the last six years, since the advent of the Narendra Modi government, the relationship between  the two countries have hit a rough patch.  

In 2015 India supported a local Nepali agitation of the Madhesi community (who are of Indian origin) and the resulting blockade of essential commodities from India to Nepal by road caused severe shortages in the neighbouring country.  

The relationship between Nepal and India was scarred and China took advantage by helping Kathmandu with basic goods and services. 

The latest dispute with Nepal therefore is being viewed within India as an opportunistic move by Kathmandu though there is every possibility that the combined flare up could just be a coincidence.  

For the Indian government, the situation vis-a-vis China and Nepal is hugely challenging as the entire country is watching how the Modi government is handling the twin dispute.  

For a government that has constantly attempted to project itself as a dispensation different from the earlier Congress-led formations in New Delhi, the pressure is immense to walk the talk and bring about an amicable resolution without appearing to give in. 

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