NEW DELHI, India — New Delhi stopped backpedaling and drew a line in the sand for Beijing in 2012, bolstered by support from Southeast Asia and America's pivot toward the Pacific. Look for more tough talk from India in 2013 — but don't expect much of a result.
“I simply cannot visualize a breakthrough of any sort,” said Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly.
“The changes will be incremental, neither side will make significant concessions and the PRC will keep a close watch on Indo-US relations. While professing friendship and goodwill it will compete actively in India in third areas such as Burma, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Of course, if India continues its maladroit policies it will lose out to the PRC in every sphere.”
India's relatively new Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid met with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi for the first time at the end of December. And Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon will again meet with outgoing state councilor Dai Bingguo on Thursday.
But even though the two countries have started a dialogue on West Asia and Africa, and plan talks on Central Asia and issues like the dispute over the South China Sea, according to the Times of India, more talk isn't likely to translate into more action.
The problem? The year 2012 might have been earmarked as a “year of friendship” for the two would-be superpowers. But it also marked the 50-year anniversary of India's defeat in its 1962 war with China over the disputed borders of Indian-administered Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.
India's continued obsession with China's “betrayal” and India's “humiliation” makes an Asian arms race appear to be inevitable — even if Asia's two giants manage to avoid a shooting war over territory or vital resources.
In 2012, New Delhi resisted Beijing's attempts to bully India out of the South China Sea — inking an energy accord with Vietnam that flew in the face of Chinese opposition to Indo-Vietnamese oil exploration in the disputed waters.
India matched China man-for-man as Beijing stepped up its activities on the countries' disputed borders in the Himalayas. And New Delhi fought to counter China's so-called “string of pearls” strategy — which observers argue is intended to encircle India with Chinese naval installations — by stepping up its engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and working on its relationships with South Korea, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar.
All for one reason.
“There's little question that [the war] continues to shape the Sino-Indian relationship, for the simple reason that it was such a humiliating defeat,” said Ganguly.
“This is an issue that will simply fester, and the [Indian] military is not about to let its guard down anytime soon.”
In the 1950s, China and India might have seen themselves as allies fighting the lingering remnants of Western imperialism. But today, despite many reasons for cooperation in areas like climate change negotiations and the removal of trade barriers, New Delhi will never see Beijing as anything but an adversary.
“[The war] left a legacy of deep distrust in China's attitude and policies toward India,” said India's former foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal.
Following years of negotiations and an ill-considered Indian move to advance its military border posts, China launched a blitzkrieg across the Himalayas on the night of Oct. 19, 1962, historian Ram Guha writes in “India After Gandhi.” Attacking in waves, the Chinese soon overwhelmed the Indians, using five times as many soldiers, and eventually occupied both of the disputed border regions before inexplicably packing up to retreat.
Soon after, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru moved a resolution in parliament claiming that China had “betrayed” India's “uniform gestures of goodwill and friendship” with the “massive invasion.”
Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had for several years been hashing out the dispute over the borders in the Aksai Chin region, which lies between Tibet and Xinjiang, and the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh, which once paid a yearly tribute to the king of Tibet.
From Beijing's perspective, Nehru's embrace of the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees was an equal betrayal.
India's success in casting the war as a “betrayal,” however, has had dramatic effects, according to Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Not only does India distrust China, but also the military is intent on avoiding another humiliation.
Moreover, the Indian media — which once propagated a rose-colored fantasy of “Hindi Chini bhai bhai” (India and China, brother and brother) — now views every Chinese maneuver as part of a dastardly plot.
The dispute over the borders of Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin — from which China retreated despite routing India's troops — remains unresolved.
Every few months there are reports in the Indian media of “provocations” or “incursions” by the Chinese army, and India has responded to its 1962 defeat by dramatically increasing its defense budget and militarizing its Himalayan borders.
The focus of India's forces is gradually shifting from Pakistan — which it already has outgunned — to China. And both the Indian air force and Indian army have huge acquisitions planned for the near future.
India now demands reciprocity from the Chinese on almost every issue — requiring Beijing's recognition of India's claim to Kashmir in exchange for New Delhi's acceptance of China's claim to Tibet, for instance. And even though India, as another poor, populous and rapidly developing country, naturally shares many of the same interests in negotiations with the US and Europe, Beijing continues to oppose New Delhi's advance to prominence in international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council at every turn.
Meanwhile, the border dispute has now become both China's greatest asset in constraining India's influence outside of South Asia and the most dangerous potential flashpoint between the two rising powers, say experts.
“China essentially wants to contain us without use of military force, so they have fostered Pakistan and at the same time they have engaged us or agreed with us in 1993 and 1996 on certain confidence building measures to maintain peace and tranquility on the border and avoid any chance of a direct military conflict,” said Sibal.
The two nations' nuclear capabilities make all-out war virtually impossible. But the cost of militarization on both sides — much like the Cold War for the Soviet Union and the US — threatens to bankrupt projects that are vital to bringing the huge populations of both countries out of poverty. And the incessant saber-rattling leaves Asia's two largest armies always just one misunderstanding away from a deadly skirmish like the fighting that occurred in 1962 — when nearly 3,000 Indian soldiers were killed.
“There is always that chance that something could go amiss,” said Ganguly.
“The Chinese decide to probe along the border and they happen to make an incursion wider or deeper than previously, and the Indians decide they cannot simply let this pass, and they decide to respond, and the Chinese say we'll teach you a real lesson now, and the next thing you know you're in a real shooting war.”