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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

India-China Dialogue Process Must Continue

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Bharti Chhibber


The 13th round of border talks between India and China were held in New Delhi recently. Though there have been some positive results, like both the sides agreed to set up a hotline between the Prime Ministers and observe peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control, nothing substantial could be achieved on the border issue.

Though the issue has a long history, if we look at the post-independence phase the McMahon Line is not accepted by the Chinese as the legal boundary between India and China. In 1958, China published a map showing the Aksai Chin plateau on the western part of the line as its territory to which India protested. Further China secretly constructed a road through Aksai Chin connecting Tibet and the province of Xinjiang. This was a prominent reason for the Sino-Indian war in 1962. As a result of war China annexed Aksai Chin and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. Following the ceasefire China withdrew its forces from Arunachal Pradesh, but retained Aksai Chin. The unresolved border dispute still colours Sino-Indian relations. India says Beijing is illegally occupying 43,180 sq km of Jammu Kashmir including 5180 sq km of northern Kashmir ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963. On the contrary China lays claim to 90,000 sq km of land on the eastern sector of the border in the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh. In 2000 India and China exchanged maps on the least controversial middle segment of their frontier and three years later special envoys were appointed to work in the direction of resolution of the dispute. Another forward movement took place in 2005 when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed an agreement on political parameters and guiding principles to work out a solution to the problem. As a result China formally abandoned its claim to the Himalayan State of Sikkim.

However, of late China has adopted a more aggressive stance on Arunachal Pradesh and also laid claim to the town of Tawang—which goes against the very spirit of the guiding principles which clearly state that settlement of the border dispute would not include exchange of populated territory. Tawang has around 20,000 people, all Indian citizens. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has categorically made it clear that only uninhabited areas can be exchanged. Though as a diplomatic manoeuvre just prior to the recent discussions, which encompass the “second stage” of the border talks, China has signalled a friendlier approach towards India, India is very firm that she will not entertain any Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh.


In recent years as Chinese economic influence is on the rise so is its frequent incursions into the Indian State of Sikkim. Further, China has also developed its infrastructure along the disputed border in a very planned way with highways and railways which provide easy access to large number of Chinese goods and troops. We must continue with our dialogue process with China but we cannot turn a blind eye to China’s greater accumulation of military power and infrastructure development either. In June this year India announced that it will deploy two additional Army Mountain Divisions in the North-Eastern State of Assam bringing India’s troop levels in the region to more than 100,000. The Indian Air Force will also station two squadrons of advanced Sukhoi-30 aircraft in Tezpur, Assam. They will be complemented by three Airborne Warning and Control Systems and the addition or upgrade of airstrips. This will help in boosting India’s military and transportation infrastructure in northeast.

Further, China is also trying to increase its influence in the neighbouring South Asian states that India believes to be a single strategic area. Apart from Pakistan and Nepal, China is also active in Sri Lanka. The Norochcholai coal power plant is being built with Chinese assistance, as well as the expressway from Colombo to the Katunayake Airport and the construction of the Hambantota Port. Moreover, there is growing suspicion that China’s naval drills are only to reinforce its strength in the Indian Ocean.

At the international level China opposes India’s bid to join the United Nations Security Council. China also tried to derail the US-India civil-nuclear deal being a member of Nuclear Suppliers Group. More recently it even tried to block a $ 2.9 billion loan to India at the Asian Development Bank, as that would fund a $ 60 million flood-management programme in Arunachal Pradesh.

But if we have lot of negativity in Sino-Indian relations, there are some positive developments too to take note of however small they may be. The trade ties between India and China have been growing steadily. China is now one of India’s largest trading partners. In 2008, India-China trade was $ 52 billion with an increase of 34 per cent over 2007. Of course, a lot more can be done on the bilateral trade front—for example, steps could be taken to correct the present scenario of a low level of mutual investment. Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to China in January last year culminated in the signing of an agreement called ‘A Shared Vision for the 21st Century of China and India’. In the field of defence and security too there seems to be some kind of cooperation with the Chinese Navy Marshal’s visit to India. In December 2008, a joint Army training exercise on combating terrorism was held in India between the two countries. Both the states are also coordinating at the international level on climate change issues, energy and food security, the Doha Round of talks and international financial crisis.

A continued engagement between the two Asian powers is imperative for the peaceful resolution of any conflict. Increased interdependence and growing relations in other fields like economic and common approach to issues like environment will go a long way in stabilising relations between the two states. Improved relations in one area have a tendency to have a sobering effect in other fields. It is time that India and China move into realpolitic and appreciate the ground realities of the time. Both the countries must move beyond rhetoric and come up with concrete and lasting solutions to any border dispute.

India and China have to adopt a practical and realistic approach. For building a stable relationship and keeping long-term interests in mind perhaps both the states can decide to give up claims to territory controlled by the other. India would lose little by giving up Aksai Chin. Way back in the early 1960s while replying to a parliamentary debate Jawaharlal Nehru reportedly said that Aksai Chin, a mountainous region, is not of much use to India. India could also make pertinent use of the fact that Aksai Chin is of strategic advantage to China given its proximity to the troubled province of Xinjiang. At the end of the day one cannot expect a radical settlement to the border issue overnight. However, it is also high time that the two states make a substantial movement towards its resolution.

Dr Bharti Chhibber teaches Political Science at the University of Delhi.

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