CCP Deems Indo-China Border Dispute a ‘Legacy Issue.’ Analysts Say China’s Words Are a Means to an Expansionist End.

While claiming historical issues, China will change the status on the ground, says one expert.

NEW DELHI—China has criticized the Indian government for making bilateral relations conditional on peace along the border between the two countries, deeming the dispute a “legacy issue.” However, experts say this narrative supports China’s “salami-slicing” tactics and ensures its larger interest in the region.

The remarks by the Chinese side were delivered on Jan. 25 by Chinese defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian, in response to a recent statement by Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

Speaking at an event on Jan. 13, the Indian minister said that China violated the bilateral agreements in 2020 by deploying a larger number of troops along the de facto border, termed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and this triggered the bloody Galwan conflict in June 2020.

“I have explained to my Chinese counterpart that unless you find a solution on the border, if the forces will remain face-to-face and there will be tension, then you should not expect that the rest of the relations will go on in a normal manner, it is impossible,” Mr. Jaishankar said.

Responding to Mr. Jaishankar’s words at a press briefing, Mr. Wu called the border conflict a “legacy issue” and said it “does not represent the whole picture of the bilateral relations.”

“Therefore, it is unwise and inappropriate for the Indian side to link the border issue with the overall relations. It goes against the shared interests of the two countries,” the Chinese spokesman said.

Aparna Pande, a research fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, told The Epoch Times the “legacy issue” argument means China can argue that any territory it took forcefully is not part of the discussion until the legacy issue is settled. In the meantime, she said, China will change the status on the ground.

“For a long time now China has played the ‘legacy issue’ card to ensure it gets its way in border disputes,” Ms. Pande said, adding that appealing to legacy issues means China will take its time.

Changing Maps

The legacy argument is a slippery one, experts said, because China has its own interpretation of the borders involved. China’s interpretation doesn’t match India’s perception of its border, as Beijing became India’s neighbor only after its annexation of Tibet.

Since that time, China has also started claiming regions currently administered by India. For instance, it claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as a part of Tibet and identifies it as such on Chinese maps.

“Saying it’s a legacy issue means each side will need to go back to old maps and records, Ms. Pande said, “and China has created its own maps and records that align with its arguments.”

Claude Arpi, a noted Tibetologist, author, and historian, told The Epoch Times that in actuality, all borders are a “legacy” of the past. In fact, it is more correct to say that all borders have a history, he said.

“Similarly, the border between India and Tibet has a history,” said Mr. Arpi. “Terming [the] India-China border conflict as a ‘legacy issue’ means nothing.”

Mr. Arpi’s mention of the India-Tibet border is significant. Until communist leader Mao Zedong annexed Tibet in 1951, India and China did not share a border. India’s Trans-Himalayan border, which includes most of the northern region of Ladakh, separated India from Xinjiang, or what Uyghur activists call East Turkestan. Portions of Ladakh and thousands of miles of western, central, and eastern Himalayas marked India’s border with Tibet.

“Until 1950, there was never a Sino-Indian border; it did not exist; simply because Tibet or Eastern Turkestan for the border in Ladakh, were large independent or semi-independent countries. Having peaceful neighbors, the northern borders of India were peaceful,” said Mr. Arpi.

However, China’s interpretation of its borders since the annexation has been a flashpoint in recent conflicts.

In fact, according to information that emerged this month from the Indian Army’s gallantry award citations, Indian soldiers clashed with People’s Liberation Army troops at least twice, as recently as 2022. The incidents involved hand-to-hand combat and occurred even as India and China were in peace talks.

Mr. Wu brought up the conflict issue in the context of the “legacy” argument by saying that the Galwan Valley falls on the Chinese side and alleging that the bloody conflict in 2020 happened because Indian soldiers transgressed into its territory.

“We hope the Indian side can work with the Chinese side towards the same goal, enhance strategic mutual trust, properly handle differences, and safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas,” Mr. Wu said.

Burzine Waghmar is an affiliate at the SOAS South Asia Institute, London, and was the inaugural India Visiting Fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Mr. Waghmar told The Epoch Times that China correctly restates the obvious by declaring the Sino-Indian frontier crisis to be a “legacy issue.”

“But, ostensibly appearing reasonable, by declaring that it is only one facet of a bilateral relationship which does not militate against the entire spectrum of Sino-Indian relations is to sugarcoat ground realities,” he said.

Mr. Waghmar also stressed that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses the border conflict to feed its domestic audience.

“The stalemate in the Galwan Valley notwithstanding, saber-rattling continues because the Chinese leadership has always felt the urge to appear hawkish and defiant for domestic consumption, especially during times of domestic or regional crises, be it the economic slowdown since the pandemic or recent presidential elections in Taiwan,” said Mr. Waghmar.

A Permanent Solution

The complexity of the conflict on the highly militarized border heightens concerns. Some experts say that any permanent solution between India and communist China appears farfetched.

Some of that complexity derives from “salami slicing,” an incremental approach that uses a series of smaller actions to produce a result that would be difficult or illegal to perform all at once. From China’s perspective, that involves gradually and in small portions grabbing India’s territory.

A permanent solution would require expansionist China to “back off from its salami slicing and changing borders policy and in effect become a status quo power,” said Ms. Pande, adding that doing so would be “difficult under [the] CCP.”

Mr. Waghmar gave the example of China’s border conflicts with other nations. Sparring with a medium-sized regional power like India is one thing, but Beijing feels the need to do so even with far smaller and weaker neighbors such as Bhutan or Tajikistan, he said.

“Salami-slicing, sparring tactics deployed by Beijing against Bhutan in recent times [are] a case in point,” he said.

Meanwhile, he cited a 2011 incident in China’s border dispute with Tajikistan, in which some claims were “amicably resolved,” by Tajikistan ceding 1,158 sq. km. (about 450 sq. miles) of its territory to China. Such language is a cognitive warfare tactic against China’s opponents, he said.

Retired Indian vice-admiral Shekhar Sinha, a former Chief of India’s Integrated Defense Staff, told The Epoch Times that the Chinese claims on other nation’s territories are unlike the border dispute between India and China.

“India has a long land border, which Taiwan doesn’t,“ Mr. Sinha noted. As a result, although China can act aggressively toward Taiwan without eliciting an offensive reaction, ”India will always react,” he said, adding that in Asia, the huge country is China’s primary concern.

Mr. Sinha also cited China’s relationship with Pakistan. With Pakistan to the west and China to the east, that raises the prospect of a two-front war: “not a desirable proposition,” he noted, and a major reason why “a settlement [that is] permanent in nature is prudent.”

However, all those interviewed were of the opinion that a permanent resolution to the Indo-China border dispute is very unlikely. New Delhi and Beijing have held 20 rounds of military talks since the 2020 Galwan conflict, with no clear indication of a breakthrough.

The last round of two-day talks happened at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point, on the Indian side of the LAC on Oct. 9-10, resulting in just an affirmation of further dialogue and negotiations through the relevant military and diplomatic mechanisms.

Cleo Paskal, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Epoch Times that India’s rise isn’t in Chinese interest. Beijing has much to defend in its geopolitical calculus vis-a-vis New Delhi, Ms. Paskal said.

“A strong, stable India will always be seen by the CCP as a threat.  And they [the CCP] consistently break agreements if it’s in their interests and they have the power to do so,” said Ms. Paskal.

When asked about the possibility of a permanent resolution, Ms. Paskal responded “I don’t know.“ While negotiations may produce agreements with China, ”they consistently break agreements if it’s in their interests and they have the power to do so,” she said.

 

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