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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 41, September 26, 2009

Hotting up with China?

Saturday 26 September 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Once again China has appeared on the radar screen of Indian security. Although officially the Indian authorities have so far denied any knowledge of Chinese troop concentration all along the far-flung frontier, the fact that for over two weeks now a Chinese patrol has dug in at about seven kilometres within the Indian territory at a strategic point in the Arunachal Pradesh, can hardly be dismissed as just an accidental intrusion, innocently undertaken. Those who have been following the Chinese movements in the area would not like to take a light view of this intrusion, the deepest since the Chinese invasion in 1962.

This is because there is a history behind this latest development. Ten years ago, India took the initiative in normalising relations with Beijing by posting its Ambassador after a gap of sixteen years. As the possibility of improving India-China relations brightened up, it was made clear to the Chinese authorities that the border dispute could not be glossed over and would have to be taken up for the normalcy to be enduring.

At first, the Chinese did not pay any heed to the proposition, and during the Janata Raj, they hoped to improve relations by-passing the border dispute. But the Janata’s quest for friendship with China was scotched when its Foreign Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had to cut short his Chinese trip on hearing about China’s sudden blitz on the Vietnam border after Deng Xiaoping’s famous teaching-the-lesson warning.

Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980, promptly followed by her extending diplomatic recognition to Kampuchea, seemed to have sent the right signals to Beijing. Followed the visit to Delhi of the then Chinese Foreign Minister, Huang Hua, in 1981. It was made clear to China that the border dispute could not be shelved if the normalisation of relations between the two countries was to be put on a stable footing. The Chinese thereafter agreed to official-level border talks, the first round of which took place in December 1981. About the same time, the Chinese floated the so-called “package deal” which meant that it would accept India’s claim to status quo on the eastern sector in return for India conceding status quo to the Chinese on the western sector. The Chinese would not recognise the McMahon Line, but were ready to recognise the line of actual control which more or less agreed with the McMahon Line. The Indian contention throughout has been that while the line of actual control in the eastern sector tallied with the McMahon Line, it would, in the western sector, leave China with the vast area it had occupied since its 1962 invasion: the Indian demand therefore has throughout been that the position in the western sector would have to be re-examined. One may venture to predict that if Beijing at that stage had offered to withdraw in the western sector from its 1962 line to its claim-line of 1960, the climate could have qualitatively improved for a genuine give-and-take approach towards settlement of this vexed border question.

Here, it would be worthwhile having a brief resume of the border claims. In 1954, when the India-China Treaty on Tibet was signed, the Chinese raised no objection to the official Indian maps; rather six border passes were recognised which by implication meant the recognition of the traditional border. The first intrusion started in 1955 when the Aksai Chin road was built. From then on the Chinese constantly pushed forward what they claimed “the line of actual control”. In 1956, an official map of China claimed about 32 thousand square kilometres of Indian territory. In December 1959, Zhou Enlai in his message to Nehru confirmed this position. However, in 1960, during the official level talks, the Chinese presented a fresh map adding a further five thousand square kilometres of Indian territory. When the 1962 invasion came, they occupied a further five thousand square kilometres, and they are holding on to all this uptil today.

On the eastern sector, they refused to recognise the McMahon Line, though in a Chinese Government publication in 1962, captioned Select Documents on Sino-Indian Relations, the McMahon Line is shown as the alignment along “the Himalayan mountains”. At the angry outbursts of 1960-1962, the Chinese of course laid claim to most of what has come to be known as the Arunachal Pradesh, but they did not hold on to the area south of the McMahon Line except for the temporary occupation in the wake of the 1962 invasion. Last month’s intrusion into a strategic valley in the Kameng district is the only significant intrusion in the eastern sector since 1962.

There is thus good ground for concern at the latest developments. This is particularly so, because it was noticed during the last round of official level talks in November 1985 in Delhi, that a deadlock was imminent as the Chinese began to talk about the so-called package deal not as a proposal but a “concept” while they specifically mentioned that any concessions by them to India in the western sector would have to be matched by corresponding concessions by India to the Chinese side in the eastern sector.

Meanwhile, when Rajiv Gandhi had met Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziang in New York in York in October 1985, Zhao himself suggested that in case the border talks did not succeed, the dispute could be settled at the political level. So, after the virtual deadlock in the last round of official talks in November 1985, an attempt was made to probe the Chinese at the political level. Early this year, on the strength of a pending invitation, the Prime Minister’s then special envoy, Shiv Shankar, was sent to Beijing as the head of a fairly high-powered goodwill delegation which included former Foreign Secretary Rasgotra. Nothing tangible was achieved by this delegation except the emphatic impression that the Chinese would not budge from their official stand on the border talks.

This was followed in June 1986 by a visiting party of Indian journalists which was told by the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister, Liu Shuquing, who is also the head of the Chinese official team to the border talks, that “we hope that India will make some adjustments and concessions in the eastern sector” and “we could then be expected to make corresponding readjustments in the western sector”.

There is thus a sharp difference between the positions of the two countries. While India holds that the eastern sector is not negotiable, and whatever adjustments were to be made would have to be largely on the western sector, the Chinese have taken the position that there have to be changes in the eastern sector if India wanted changes in the western sector. From all accounts, the present intrusion may be in the nature of testing the Indian approach. It also looks like the beginning of a new approach under which the Chinese by stealthy occupation, might hope to turn de facto occupation into de jure possession.

The Indian Government position, reached after extensive discussions at various levels—including the newly-formed Policy Advisory Committee—has two elements in it. First, it had to consider if the news of the intrusion should be published and it was decided to do so largely because it wanted to avoid the serious charge of withholding the news from Parliament, which would be meeting from July 17 onward. The other decision was that the official Indian team should participate in the joint meeting scheduled to open at Beijing on July 21 onward. In other words, it refused to be deflected by the Chinese intrusion; rather it felt that such intrusions precisely demand urgent talks.

Compared to the scenario prevailing twentyfive years ago at the time of the mounting Chinese attacks culminating in the invasion in October 1962, the country is far better prepared militarily. Moreover, the powerful lobby that attacked Nehru throughout the 1960-62 crisis, changed its tune overnight when Kissinger and then Nixon began to make up with China: in fact, some leading lights of that lobby are today all unusually soft towards Beijing. Also, the government so far has preferred a cautious approach, and not let the public anger well up against China. On the other hand, the present government is faced with serious problems such as the Punjab crisis, the backlash of the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka, the persistent communal violence in different parts of India, the unrest in parts of the North-East (even after the Mizo accord), of which the agitation for a Gorkhaland is the most ominous. Add to these the Chinese activities in Nepal, quietly whipping up anti-India feelings; as also in Bhutan, where its pressures and blandishments are directed towards poisoning Indo-Bhutan amity. In contrast, of course, the Indo-Bangladesh relations show improvement in bilateral understanding as borne out by President Ershad’s visit to Delhi this week.

There are also disturbing developments in our neighbourhood. The massive build-up of US arms has become a matter of concern, as the Rajiv Government has come out of the wishful expectation that Washington would curb the military hotheads in Pakistan. The report of a project for building a fighter aircraft in Pakistan, for which the engine would be supplied by the US and the body-frame by China, raises fresh misgivings about the resumption of what has come to be known as the Sino-Pak-US axis.

To face such a formidable challenge both at home and abroad, Rajiv Gandhi needs a powerful and unified rear, a task which he can ill afford to neglect any more in view of the dark, lowering clouds around.

(Mainstream, July 19, 1986)

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