Chinese Diplomacy: Make Principles to Lull Your Foe

Unprincipled Principles

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, June 16, 2007

One passion of Chinese diplomacy is to go in for numbered policy pronouncements, like the “10-pronged strategy” unveiled in the joint declaration with India during President Hu Jintao’s visit last November. Another fetish is to enunciate diplomatic principles with another state and later, at an opportune time, reinterpret them unilaterally to add force to Chinese claims and ambitions.

Defining high-sounding principles to advance bilateral relations or dispute resolution helps Beijing to hold the other side to basic parameters, including a one-China policy, and foster a belief that the enunciation of cadenced concepts is progress by itself. Yet the idea behind formulating such principles is to bind the other party to them more than oneself. The principles devised are invariably so general and nebulous that Beijing, in any event, has ample room to reinterpret them or emphasize a single principle over the rest.

At times, the Chinese reinterpretation is nuanced, intended to bring the other state under transient pressure, with a particular aim in mind, such as to “correct” its behaviour. At other times, it is designed to be less subtle by signalling a diplomatic breakdown, as happened in the run-up to the 1962 Chinese invasion of India.

Beijing has proven an international past master in such diplomatic play. A fresh reminder of that was the message the new Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, conveyed to his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee in Hamburg recently that the “mere presence” of settled populations does not affect Chinese claims on Indian territories.

Contrast that with what Premier Wen Jiabao had signed on to just two years ago in New Delhi. One of the six main principles defined in the much-touted “Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary Question” mandates that the two sides “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.”

While the message signals that Beijing is hardening its stance over the territorial disputes, should India be surprised by the development? The history of Sino-Indian relations, in fact, is largely a cyclic narrative of noble principles being framed, only to lull India into a false sense of complacency.

Consider the famed 1954 Panchsheel Agreement that defined the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Officially titled as the agreement on “trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India,” the accord simplistically identified the following principles, without elaboration:

(i) “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty;”

(ii) “mutual non-aggression;”

(iii) “mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs;”

(iv) “equality and mutual benefit;” and

(v) “peaceful coexistence.”

No sooner had the accord been signed than China began finding new and different meanings in the Panchsheel principles. It laid claim to Indian border areas like Barahoti (located at the Uttarakhand-Tibet-Nepal tri-junction) and then stealthily intruded south of Niti and Shipki mountain passes — all specified border points in that accord. Before long, China began building a highway through India’s Ladakh region to link rebellious Tibet with another vast, occupied region, Xinjiang, home to Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups.

Indeed, even as it started furtively encroaching on Indian territories, Beijing kept asking New Delhi to honour the principles of “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” and “mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.” That call only reflected the fact that everything about the Panchsheel Agreement was one-sided.

First, the Panchsheel was the first accord signed by any third party with China recognizing Tibet to be a “region of China”.

Second, the accord involved no give-and-take, only give from India’s side. It incorporated a formal Indian recognition of Chinese control over Tibet, without securing Beijing’s acceptance of the then-existing Indo-Tibetan frontier. When asked about the border having been left undefined, Jawaharlal Nehru blithely said: “All these are high mountains. Nobody lives there. It is not very necessary to define these things.”

Third, India forfeited all its extra-territorial rights and privileges in Tibet. The accord’s operative parts read as if victor China was imposing its will on vanquished India. Consider the following language: India “will be pleased to withdraw completely within six months from date of exchange of the present notes the military escorts now stationed at Yatung and Gyantse in Tibet Region of China;” “will be pleased to hand over to the Government of China at a reasonable price the postal, telegraph and public telephone services together with their equipment operated by the Government of India in Tibet Region of China;” “will be pleased to hand over to the Government of China at a reasonable price the 12 rest houses of the Government of India in Tibet Region of China;” and “will be pleased to return to the Government of China all lands used or occupied by the Government of India…”

Just eight years later, the Panchsheel principles went up in smoke when China invaded India.

Now fast-forward to the 2005 “guiding principles” for a border settlement. In substance, they are a tad less simplistic than the Panchsheel principles. But these six broad principles hardly lay the basis for a frontier settlement:

(i) “a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution through consultations on an equal footing;”

(ii) “meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments to their respective positions;”

(iii) “due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests;”

(iv) “take into account, inter alia, historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas;”

(v) the “boundary should be along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features to be mutually agreed upon;” and

(vi) “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.”

Amazingly, it took several rounds of negotiations between the “special representatives” of the two countries to arrive at principles that are actually grist for the Chinese mill. A succession of three Indian national security advisers participated in this exercise in which, as is evident now, India struck a dry well. After 26 years of continuous border-related negotiations, a settlement is still no closer.

After every hardline action, be it the denial of a visa to any Arunachal Pradesh official or a provocative statement in public, like by Chinese Ambassador Sun Yuxi, Beijing repeats a platitudinous line borrowed from the so-called guiding principles: “We hold that the boundary issue be settled fairly and reasonably at an early date through friendly consultations.” When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged in his meeting with Hu Jintao in Berlin last week that the two sides adhere to the full set of guiding principles, the Chinese president merely repeated the “fair and reasonable” line.

The mechanical recitation of such bromides highlights that China neither wishes to settle issues with India fairly and reasonably nor seeks result-oriented consultations.

From Panchsheel to the border-related guiding principles, the road is littered with shattered principles. Yet the 1993 agreement to maintain “peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control” — a line that has not been mutually defined up till now — repeated the defiled Panchsheel principles. How can peace and tranquillity be ensured if the frontline remains unclear and Chinese forces aggressively patrol certain sectors to sustain military pressure on India, not hesitating to carry out forays into, for instance, the Sumdorong Chu Valley?

Just as India tried unsuccessfully to persuade China between 1954 and 1962 to live up to the Panchsheel principles, it now seeks to promote the guiding principles. Yet China’s increasingly blunt assertion of claims to Arunachal Pradesh — a state more than twice the size of Taiwan — shows that those principles are already of little guidance.

All this begs a question: Why expend political capital, in the first place, to put together a set of principles, knowing that the strength of Chinese diplomacy is to design vain principles and then translate them in a way to suit Beijing’s convenience? What makes this question more troubling is that India, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, agreed in 2003 to the diversionary Chinese proposal to shift the focus of the negotiations from the much-needed frontline clarification to the enunciation of principles for a border settlement.

Beijing’s partiality for numbered declarations, similarly, doesn’t mean it respects what it commits to. It continues to drag its feet on setting up what the “10-pronged” joint declaration of last November called for: “an expert-level mechanism to discuss interaction and cooperation on the provision of flood-season hydrological data, emergency management and other issues regarding trans-border rivers.” With China seeking to divert the waters of rivers flowing southward from the Tibetan plateau, a future conflict over the sharing of interstate water resources can no longer be ruled out.

Sardar Vallabhai Patel was the first Indian leader to grasp the enormity of the challenge from China. What he wrote 57 years ago still resonates today: “We have to take note of a thoroughly unscrupulous, unreliable and determined power practically at our doors… Any friendly or appeasing approaches from us would either be mistaken for weakness or be exploited in furtherance of their ultimate aim.”

© Asian Age, 2007

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