A Carnival of Endless China-India Border Talks Since 1981

The Drag of a Dragon

Brahma Chellaney

© Asian Age, April 21, 2007

Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, India  

Yet another round of India-China border talks begins today in what is a 26-year saga of unending negotiations that of late are acquiring an even more laid-back spirit. Breaking the monotony of alternate meetings in New Delhi and Beijing, the two countries’ “special representatives” now confer in holiday hideaways, which have ranged from Kumarakom and Khajuraho in India to Xian in China. The latest meeting is in the hill station of Coonoor, in the Nilgiris.

            As if to publicize that India offers more exotic retreats than China, the Indian government is generously hosting a second consecutive round of talks. It will be remarkable if the Coonoor talks conclude in any way different from the houseboat diplomacy on the Kerala backwaters of Kumarakom — with warm handshakes, a statement applauding the “open, friendly, cooperative and constructive atmosphere,” and a promise to meet again. If stunning Khajuraho, Xian and Kumarakom failed to lift the talks to a higher plane, rugged Coonoor is unlikely to invigorate a wilting process.

         It has been almost 45 years since Mao Zedong’s regime launched a military invasion of India that led Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru — the world’s best-known panda-hugger until then — to make a national broadcast denouncing China as a “powerful and unscrupulous opponent.” That surprise aggression, and the ignominy it inflicted on the Indian state, followed the consolidation of Chinese hold over Tibet and three years of calculated efforts by Beijing to dispute the Tibetan frontier with India.

When the People’s Liberation Army had marched hundreds of miles south to annex independent Tibet and nibble at Indian areas, this, in Beijing’s eyes, was neither an expansionist nor forward policy. But when the outgunned and outmanned Indian army belatedly sought to set up posts along the mountain frontier to discourage further Chinese encroachments, Beijing and its friends dubbed it a provocative “forward policy” and proceeded to employ it as a rationalization for the attack.

Decades later, the Himalayan frontier is peaceful, but India and China are still not separated by a mutually defined frontline. Worse, the wounds of that war have been kept open by China’s publicly assertive claims to Indian territories, including some areas it overran in 1962, only to move back quickly so as not to overstretch its tenuous logistic and communication lines.

The invasion established firm Chinese control over the Aksai Chin plateau, with the ejection of Indian forces from the area of the Karakoram Pass, Pangong and Spanggur Lakes and Demchok. In NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh), Beijing’s first offer, after the PLA advanced up to 65 kilometres into India, was for both sides to pull back 20 kilometres from the “line of actual control,” which it had refused to define — and which to this day it remains averse to delimit. While the PLA ultimately moved back to the McMahon Line in 1962, Beijing is still loath to exchange maps with India of the main sectors — the eastern and the western — so that the ambiguities plaguing the line of control are purged. In the western sector, China actually maintains an outer and inner line of control.

All in all, the ongoing process of border negotiations since 1981 redounds to China’s credit but not to India’s. There are three main reasons for this.

            First, a long, barren but continuing process chimes with the Chinese interest to keep India under strategic pressure. In assiduously seeking to drag out the negotiations indefinitely, Beijing is following the principle, “negotiate to engage the other side, not to reach accord.” This principle dovetails with China’s broader two-pronged strategy to present a friendly face while building up its power-projection force capability through military, economic and diplomatic means.

Rich in symbolism, the talks continue to be woefully short of progress on specific issues. Not only has there been little movement on reaching a settlement on the large chunks of territories in dispute, but also India and China remain the world’s only neighbours without a defined frontline. Their 4,057-kilometre frontier represents neither a line of “actual” control nor even a mutually agreed line in maps.

The Manmohan Singh-Hu Jintao joint declaration of last November committed India and China to pursue a “10-pronged strategy.” But in accordance with Beijing’s wishes, the declaration merely cited the need for an “early settlement of outstanding issues,” including “the boundary question,” without putting it among the strategy’s top five prongs. Instead of good fences making good neighbours, China believes that disputed fences help keep India in check.

Second, China persuaded India in 2003 to shift from the practical task of clarifying the frontline to the abstract mission of developing “principles,” “concepts” and “framework” for a border settlement. This shift was designed to release Beijing from its commitment in 2001 to exchange maps with India of first the western sector and then of the eastern sector — a pledge it had already breached by missing the mutually agreed deadlines.

The fact is that the contours of a possible settlement have been known for long — a simple trade-off involving India foregoing its claims to territories it has lost to China, in return for Beijing’s abandonment of its claims to Indian-held areas. It was clear at the outset that an exercise to define “principles” and “concepts” would, at best, be academic — contributing little to settlement prospects — and, at worst, diversionary, holding up progress.

As Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee admitted at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo last month, India and China have yet to reach agreement on “substantive” issues. Indeed, no sooner had the two countries identified six “guiding principles” in 2005 for a border settlement, including “due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests” and “safeguard due interests of settled populations in the border areas,” than Beijing scoffed at those very principles by publicly renewing its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang.

Given its vantage point, China in unwilling to settle on the basis of the status quo. It knows no Indian government can cede even a slice of Arunachal, yet it persists with its egregious territorial claims with a twofold objective: to up the ante against India, and to keep progress at bay. By redirecting the process from frontline clarification to the enunciation of principles, and then cynically reinterpreting the agreed principles, Beijing, however, has laid bare its intentions.

            Third, India has sadly retreated to a more and more defensive position, bringing itself under greater Chinese pressure. Nobody is suggesting India adopt an aggressive posture. But if New Delhi is to engage Beijing on equal terms, the latter cannot have a monopoly on outrageous territorial claims that it pitchforks into the negotiations agenda to put the ball in India’s court and stall progress.

Far from adopting a nuanced position on the core issue, Tibet, to gain leverage, India continues to be excessively cautious and obliging in its diplomacy, arming Beijing with an open licence to demand more. It is bad enough that the Indian public is discovering after more than a quarter-century of border talks that China is unwilling to settle on the basis of the status quo. It is worse when India countenances such intransigence by opening negotiations on Chinese claims, however preposterous. 

Nothing better illustrates this than the separate statements earlier this year of two capable and level-headed officials — Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan — that because China lays claim to Tawang, that issue is on the agenda to find a final border resolution. The truth is that the Chinese claims epitomize a classical pursuit of incremental territorial expansion, with Beijing citing not any Han connection to Arunachal/Tawang but purported Tibetan ecclesiastical ties. India today militarily is a far cry from 1962, when the Chinese invaders poured through the mountain passes in a three-pronged drive that decimated the Indian brigade in Tawang. Yet it is no small irony today that Tibet’s exiled god-king says Tawang is part of India while New Delhi discusses Tawang with China in the border talks.

World history testifies that a border settlement has rarely been arrived at on the basis of the status quo when the more powerful party is overtly revisionist. It is only when both sides seek to alter the existing territorial control that a resolution respecting the status quo becomes possible.

Pitted against status quoist India are two irredentist regional adversaries. And because India has not sought to build and exploit counter-leverage, the advantage in negotiations tends to lie with these neighbours. The Sino-Indian negotiations have brought out in sharp relief that New Delhi’s acquiescence to China’s annexation of Tibet has come to haunt it, as Chinese claims on Indian territories are predicated on their alleged links with Tibet.

As the special representatives meet amidst tea plantations in Coonoor, their dialogue has gone from the agreed-but-now-contested guiding principles to another ethereal task — “finalizing an appropriate framework for a final package settlement.” Given that they are still discussing conceptual, not concrete, issues, the special envoys are likely to run out of new exotic retreats for their meetings even before they get to negotiate any real settlement package.

A periodic treat for the special representatives, in any event, cannot substitute for progress. Indeed such stagecraft hardly honours the memory of the 3,270 Indian army men killed by the Chinese invaders in 1962. What India needs is high-quality statecraft to ensure that no prime minister will tell the nation what Nehru did in 1962 — that China returned “evil for good.” The 32-day invasion in 1962 lasted longer than the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan and claimed the lives of more Indian soldiers than any other aggression faced by India since independence, with the exception of 1971.

The border-talks process has yielded what it could — an agreement to maintain peace, tranquillity and stability along the Indo-Tibetan frontier, and the initiation of modest military-to-military cooperation. The process offers little more. Staying put in a sterile, everlasting process cannot become an end in itself for India. Indeed it only emboldens China to be publicly intractable and pugnaciously revanchist. Indira Gandhi, who initiated the process, would be turning in her grave over the way the negotiations have lost their direction, with India playing into China’s game plan.

Copyright: Asian Age, 2007

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