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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 9, February 16, 2013

India - China Relations — A Closer Look

Monday 18 February 2013


by O.P. Sabherwal

From the scenario of the sixties, let me recall an episode in October 1960 that is of contem-porary relevance. The then Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, on his last visit to India, addressed a press conference comprising some 300 Indian and foreign journalists on the roof-top of Rashtrapati Bhavan. The theme: India-China boundary dispute and its solution.

It was a lucid and comprehensive solution that the Chinese leader proposed. This, in substance, is what Zhou Enlai put forward as a solution to the border dispute.

(a) The China-India boundary can be divided into three sectors: the middle sector, where the dispute is minimal and the areas in dispute can be easily negotiated, and the eastern and western sectors, where the claimed areas by both sides are large and efforts to solve the dispute need to be concentrated here.

(b) In the eastern sector, India projects the boundary line along what it terms the McMahon Line. While China does not recognise the McMahon Line since it was an imperialist imposition, China is willing to give up its claims on the areas India is occupying here, largely following the natural high ridges. On the western sector, China seeks India’s acceptance of the line of demarcation along what India calls Aksai-Chin.

(c) This is a reasonable solution of overlapping claims in which historical legacy is entirely on China’s side; Indian nomenclature itself speaks out—Aksai Chin: the rock of China….

The four-hour press conference terminated past mid-night when a British correspondent fervently asked for closure, so that “we might not miss the story”.

History records a tragic aftermath. Zhou Enlai’s pragmatic solution to the India-China border dispute did not prevail, the consequence of which was the disastrous 1962 India-China border war, which meant humiliation and a military setback for India.

It is not easy to delve into the lessons of 1962—at one end, they are humiliating and bitter, and they rouse emotions based on one’s national pride. An objective assessment becomes difficult, more so because of layers of historical obfuscation.

Yet it is necessary to undertake an unbiased look at the 1962 events, to ensure a corrective, so that relations of the two most populous nations of the world are placed on a sound pedestal.

Often forgotten in the whirlpool of emotions is the setting of the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century: an era of newly won freedom. Both ex-colonial nations had broken their shackles and were gripped by buoyant nationalism, thirsting to regain their territorial dimensions to the farthest point, even those exaggerated by hazy historical accounts.

It is in this setting that the 1962 conflagration occurred. From the Indian side, it was assertion of the McMohan Line to its farthest point, on the eastern sector, and exaggerated claims on Aksai Chin, based on British explorations into the then no-man’s land, the desolate Aksai Chin plateau. Chinese territorial ambitions swept across Tibet and Xinjiang (formerly spelt ‘Sinkiang’) and reached India’s borders, claiming the entire Aksai Chin plateau in the West and lands south of the McMahon Line in the east—present-day Arunachal Pradesh.

No purpose would be served by delving into the sticky points that led to the sudden outbreak of the 1962 border war—Indian outreach to “forward positions”, at some points even beyond the McMahon Line, and Mao’s terse dictum of ‘teaching India a lesson’. But the development that ended the border war was equally notable: Chinese unilateral withdrawal from the areas they had conquered in the eastern sector.

The unusual result was that despite a militarily humbled India, the Chinese voluntarily withdrew to what India had claimed at the outset—the McMahon Line—and it is this positioning of Indian and Chinese troops that has since served as the Line of Actual Control. n the western sector, termed as the Aksai Chin border, the Chinese projection of the Line of Actual Control however retained some areas beyond the 1962 positions.

Five decades later, one witnesses a new scenario, a dramatic change—booming trade relationship, and the prospect of valuable interaction of the India-China economies. China and India have surged as economic superpowers. The two-way India-China trade has risen to a massive figure of $ 75 billion and is heading towards $ 100 billion by 2015. China is presently India’s biggest trade partner. The latest develop-ment is large Chinese investment in Indian infrastructure development is under discussion —roadway construction, high speed railways, power, and vice versa, Indian industries getting a foothold in China. It is possible to extend the India-China economic collaboration on a global scale. There is talk of India-China cooperation in Afghanistan; and of building a road linking Kolkata and Kunming via Myanmar, and extension of India’s road linkage from Kunming to South-East Asia.

While the prospect is of expanding economic and trade relationship, problems remain: the balance of the India-China trade is heavily tilted in China’s favour. There are, however, moves to rectify this uneven trade relationship. The India-China trade and economic relationship has grown despite the territorial dispute, both countries realising, wisely, that economic relationship was valuable for both countries, and must grow despite the border dispute.

This dramatic change of scenarios can partly be explained by a change of India’s viewpoint. Why and how? Let me make a revelation. From the turmoil of the sixties emerged a research scholar, John Lal, a former Defence Ministry expert, whose hefty research on Aksai Chin helped in reviewing Indian thinking. John Lal’s book on Aksai Chin gave an altered view than the one with which the Indian Foreign Office was fiddling. Its substance: while Chinese claims on Aksai Chin are loose—only partly correct and lacking continuity—Indian claim to a large part of Aksai Chin is untenable.

John Lal, in fact, considered Zhou Enlai’s offer of 1962 to be fair and pragmatic and served India’s needs as also China’s. This realisation helped in bringing about a transition. The Line of Actual Control on the borders that came into being when the 1962 conflict ended, was firmed up in negotiations at the apex level in 1993 and 1996. Notwithstanding periodic pin-pricks resulting from varying interpretations, the Line of Actual Control has served to project peaceful border relations.

All this does not mean end of the border dispute. Apart from the fact that the nightmarish memory of 1962 lingers on and clouds India’s global viewpoint, the possibility of conflict on the border dispute has not been erased because of divergent interpretations of the Line of Actual Control.

Strategic issues now loom large. In the fast changing global setting of the twentyfirst century, the status of superpowers of yesteryears has changed, and instead of the erstwhile Soviet Union it is China that increasingly confronts the United States. The European Union has lost its clout, and a host of other countries, Japan in particular, have filled the vacuum. India’s standing has enhanced. But simultaneously, China’s growing economic clout is vetting its territorial ambitions. What does all this add up for India, and its strategic policies?

India has to evaluate according to its national interests. At a time when China’s relations with the United States have entered a difficult phase, and with its oceanic territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines on the boil, China has no reason to spoil the atmospherics of its relations with India.

This should be the right moment to settle the India-China border dispute, especially so because of China’s leadership change. Hints have come from the high-level Chinese political team recently in India that with give and take from both countries—such as embodied in the Zhou Enlai formula referred to above—the long-standing border can be finally settled. It is in India’s interest to take the next steps.

While India needs to retain its strategic option of close relations with the United States, it can balance its strategic ties with China too on the basis of reciprocity, keeping in view the opportunities for mutually beneficial economic engagement. In the 1950s and 1960s India and China were weak developing nations and had little to offer each other except political enga-gement against their former colonial rulers. In he world of today, China is the world’s second largest economy and India is among the top six. The opportunities of mutually beneficial engagement are immense, and can be best realised once the border dispute is finally out of the way.

Summing up the varied facets of the India-China relationship, one can point to a requisite for positive and steady future development. The requisite is that India and China can—and should—be competitors, but they must not be adversaries. Competition and cooperation go hand in hand, but adversarial competition is a different commodity. While the fruits of beneficial India-China interaction are vast—almost limitless —the results of adversarial competition between the two are frightening.

Final settlement of the border dispute is an important requisite for optimising the positive facet of India-China relations—the border dispute must finally be put out of the way. And so, urgently needed are effective steps to end the border dispute. There is a feeling that final settlement of the border dispute is complicated and should be put on the backburner. But that would be a mistake. Actually, the final settlement is just a step away from the ground that has already been covered.

A proposal similar to the Zhou Enlai formula was endorsed by Deng Xiaoping, the leader who transformed China, from which followed constructive forward steps and a promising move for solution during the Narasimha Rao visit to China. The formulation of what was termed the ‘Principles’ on which the solution should rest served as a guideline.

Pursuing a pragmatic solution of the boundary dispute, negotiations through a high-level panel covered much ground in the last decade. But for some time, progress seems to have stalled. Global factors, distrust generated by the legacy of 1962, happenings in Tibet have all rolled up hampering solution. But the time has now come to end the logjam and give the final push to settle the border dispute.

To achieve this onerous task, some special steps are needed. Only then can the obstacles be cleared. What are these steps?

(a) The Line of Actual Control has been in operation for over a decade. It can, with certain amendments, be transformed into the final border. Only a package deal, in which the eastern and western sectors are taken together, can accomplish this.

(b) This package deal can be clinched only at the apex political level.
(c) Channel two diplomacy and political missions on both sides such as the recent high-level political team from China are deployed to clear sensitive points in the varied interpre-tations of the Line of Actual Control. The divergent interpretations of the Line of Actual Control relate to small territorial adjustments, and heavens would not fall if these small patches of land in the high hills were to go either way. Yet the sensitivities should as far as possible be removed.

(d) For instance, on the eastern segment, the main sensitive point is Tawang which houses a famous Buddhist monastery. China perhaps is worried that the monastery could be used for rousing Tibetan insurgency, while India has to respect sentiment of the Buddhist population of Arunachal, more so, since Tawang, according to Indian interpretation, is below the McMahon Line. On the western segment, the Chinese have at some points moved up beyond the original delineation of the Aksai Chin border. These areas should be restored to Ladakh, in keeping with the ‘Principles’ evolved by both sides for settling disputed points.

(e) Consensus among main political parties is needed in India, such as the Congress and BJP, over the terms of the package deal to obtain acceptability in the two countries.

The final settlement requires that China with its larger clout should show bigger response on ticklish points. On its part, the Chinese leader-ship would be influenced by the overall relation-ship—not only economic but also political and strategic.

Lately, there have been fair indications from the Chinese side that it is keen to build a healthy relationship with India. Beijing has welcomed Ratan Tata’s statement that the 1962 chapter should be closed and a cooperative relationship built by the two countries. One notes that while there has been tremendous anguish in India over the 1962 debacle, in Beijing there is silence—no tom-tomming of China’s military superiority. India and China, officials in Beijing say, are partners in trade and wider cooperation, not adversaries.

The political level Chinese teams on visits to India, meeting the leaderships of the political parties, have been an important indicator. India too should undertake political-level missions and clear the way for settlement by initiating channel two missions to tackle the specific aspects of the dispute, and the wider strategic relationship.

One should not miss the point that India-China relations fall into a class of their own. History and demography show this. Their huge populations and the vast territories that the two occupy pose similar basic problems, compounded by their parallel civilisational past—development of empires, knowledge-based achievements in different spheres, to their being subjected to colonialism of different patterns. The mutual sympathies that took shape from Tagore and Nehru to Sun Yatsen, including the Medical Mission of Dwarkanath Kotnis, sprang from sympathy in the anti-colonial fight.

The border clashes of 1962, however, marked an abrupt breach in this past of friendship and knowledge-based exchange. Taken together with the subsequent brisk development of trade and the promise of significant economic interaction, they denote a new chapter of their relations based on nation-building in the twentyfirst century – both in the domestic and international spheres.

India and China are presently embroiled in a stupendous domestic struggle for nation-building, each facing tough political and economic tasks. While their economies are in buoyancy, the political edifices of both are rocking.

On the strategic global front, equilibrium between the main players—the United States and China in particular—appears far away. Where does India stand? India has to exercise its options based on its national interests, certainly. But perhaps to India, destiny casts a bigger role—in favour of global cooperation and peace—intervening so that the frightful vista of wars, too horrendous to contemplate, is ruled out.

The author, a veteran journalist, edited India Press Agency for many years.

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