Ancient India and China never coveted others lands. Both feared the marauding hordes from Central Asia who ultimately assimilated into both the Indian and Chinese fold.
India was protected to an extent by the Himalayas whereas the Chinese had to build a great wall, but both the obstacles were breached a number of times.
China was influenced by Indian ideas when Hieun Tsang and others before him visited India and took back manuscripts. India and China together accounted for 80 per cent of the world's GDP. The apple cart got upset when a big corrosive force came from across the high seas, which was the East India Company, which nibbled away and annexed divided India.
The East India Company, with a sword in one hand and ledger in the other, found it profitable to not annex but force unequal treaties on China. The East India Company pried open gates to flood China with opium, grown in India.
To protect the shipping lanes running through choke points like the Malacca straits (between Malaysia and Indonesia), they secured outposts like Singapore and Hong Kong. When the British finally left in 1947, they left behind an independent Tibet to act as buffer between India and China. The British also left behind a border called the McMahon line which was not acceptable to China.
The border problem festers till today; however, both countries have shown maturity to not to try and force-resolve the seemingly intractable issue but to leave it to the wisdom and maturity of future generations to kiss and make up. However, suspicions between India and China persist, and strangely, trade between the two is increasing. It is real-politic at work.
Fast forwarding to the recent past, we see China getting back Hong Kong but not Taiwan. The Russians gave up control over some territory and put an end to the Sino-Russian border problem. Economically, China has grown Sumo-wrestler like with a voracious appetite for iron ore and crude oil.
For uninterrupted supply of raw materials, China has to protect its shipping lanes, and is nurturing bases in Burma, the Southern tip of Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan. Gwadar is within striking distance of the choke point, the Straits of Hormuz.
China desperately needs a land route access to the Arabian Sea for its western province of Xinjiang to prosper. Pakistan has offered the Karakoram Highway (KKR) connecting the Khunjerab pass on its border with Xinjiang to Gwadar and Karachi. The ambition is to have both an oil-pipeline and rail-line close to the KKH alignment.
The development of ports in Burma, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, Gwadar, and the communication link to Xinjiang, are defensive measures. Alarmists in India see it as a noose being strung around India to be tightened at an opportune time.
The Karakoram Highway (KKH)
The KKH unfortunately is a tenuous link as it runs along stretches of the Himalayas which are the most earth quake prone in the subcontinent. The 2005 earthquake resulted in landslides which blocked the KKH for months. Even without earth quakes, frequent landslides occur blocking the KKH. Starting from Islamabad, the KKH follows the Indus till the confluence of the Gilgit River and the Indus.
Between the confluence of the Gilgit and Indus, and the Tarbela dam, another dam at Basha is on the cards. The filling of this dam will submerge a portion of the KKH which has to be realigned before work on the dam can be stated. This is another block to the ambitious Xinjiang- Gwadar link.
From the confluence of the Gilgit and the Indus, the KKH turns west and follows the Gigit till it the confluence of Hunza River and Gilgit River. From the Hunza-Gilgit confluence point, the KKH turns north and follows the Hunza river. The Hunza river flows through a valley with steep mountains on either side.
Frequent landslides take place on this stretch and on 4th January 2010, a portion of a mountain slid down raining boulders the size of multi-storied buildings. The landslide blocked the Hunza river creating a lake more than 20 km in length, submerging the KKH. At the landslide end the lake is 120 metres deep. The Qutb Minar is 73 metres in height.
Using earth moving equipment, the Pakistanis tried to pare down the block and create a spillway. They dared not to use explosives as the detonation might have triggered further landslides resulting in the block getting bigger. The earthmoving equipment barely managed to scratch the surface as the huge boulders could not be budged. Two years have passed and the thinking now is to not to pare down the dam but construct another road above the water level of the lake. This should take a couple of years.
More than the Pakistanis, the Chinese are wringing their hands in frustration.
An offer to China
Can an offer be made to China which cannot be refused?
National Highway 22 goes from Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, right up to the Tibetan border at Shipki La. When China annexed Tibet in 1958, Tibetan refugees streamed into Shimla along this route. This is an old trade route. Google Earth reveals that this route is gentler than the KKH. An offer of a link could be made to China to connect up Tibet and Xinjiang with Shimla, Chandigarh and beyond by rail or road to Mumbai or Jamnagar.
Pakistan can be isolated. India will earn revenue, and employment will be created to service the link. Tibet and Xinjiang will boom. Cross-border, road-accessed tourism will boom.
Old communication links through Ladakh, Arunachal, and Sikkim exist and can be developed to reach Mumbai or Kolkata. The advantage of developing a link through Ladakh will be that China will frown on Pakistan if it tries another Kargil like adventure with India. There are remote areas in Tibet more easily accessible from India than China, and the Chinese will be beholden to India if it transports essential goods to these remote areas.
Joint patrolling & breakthroughs
Indo-China joint patrolling of the sea lanes from the straits of Mallaca to the straits of Hormuz and beyond to the Red Sea to guard against Somalian pirates and others will cut costs for both. Chinese patrol boats and ships could be given a safe harbour in our ports.
In spite of Pakistan and China cozying up to each other, trade between them is a paltry $8.6 billion. India-China trade is booming at $60 billion. Both are bristling with nuclear weapons which deters force-resolving of the border issue. For the trade to burgeon sufficiently to relegate vexatious border issues to the back burner, ideas to meet more than halfway will have to be generated. An additional sweetener: Both should be induced to salivate at the idea of a peace dividend.
Pakistan is a fast failing state armed with nuclear weapons and is barely being kept alive on an aid-drip, courtesy Western short term interests. Pakistan will fall in line, to the relief of the whole world, if India and China cooperate. Afghanistan can be jointly rehabilitated and the Buddha statues at Bamiyan restored. India and China can jointly unlock Central Asia.
(Major CN Anand is a retired Bombay Sapper. Observing Pakistan and China remain his passions.)