In what has become a 26-year-old saga of unending negotiations to settle the Himalayan territorial disputes, India and China have ended yet another round of talks in typical fashion – acclaiming the discussions as constructive and worth continuation. Let’s be clear: Staying put in a barren process that offers little hope of a breakthrough works to China’s strategic advantage. It provides China diplomatic cover to be intractable and revanchist, as underscored by the way it has provocatively upped the ante since last November.
India and China stand out in the world today as the only neighbours not separated even by a mutually defined frontline. The task of clarifying the long line of control – initiated by Indira Gandhi in 1981 – was abandoned by the Vajpayee government in 2003 under the persuasion of Beijing, which by then had already reneged on its commitment to exchange maps of the contentious western and eastern sectors. Instead, the two countries have since pursued the more-ambitious goal of a complete border settlement, defining six “guiding” principles in 2005 and now seeking a framework for such a resolution.
Yet the truth is that like in the aborted task to define the frontline, China is loath to go beyond the first step. It took two decades of negotiations before Beijing exchanged maps with India of just one sector – the least-disputed middle segment. Having done that, it then broke its word on the other two sectors. After the process restarted on a different pathway in 2003, it took several rounds of bilateral negotiations – with a succession of three Indian national security advisers participating in the exercise – before China agreed to the six broad principles with India.
These noble but simple principles can hardly lay the basis for a frontier settlement: “a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution through consultations on an equal footing”; “meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments to their respective positions”; “due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests”; “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”; the “boundary should be along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features to be mutually agreed upon”; and “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”.
Still, it did not take long for Beijing to repudiate one key principle – not to upset settled populations. That this disclaimer came a few months after the Chinese ambassador’s Beijing-supported bellicose public statement on Arunachal Pradesh was positive proof of China’s calculated hardening of its stance. Having wrung the concessions it desired from India on Tibet, Beijing is now presenting Arunachal as an outstanding issue that demands “give and take”, ingeniously putting the onus on India to achieve progress.
Lest the message be missed, New Delhi is being repeatedly exhorted to make concessions on Tawang – a critical corridor between Lhasa and the Assam valley of immense military import because it overlooks the chicken-neck that connects India with its north-east.
Make no mistake: The core issue remains Tibet. To focus on Arunachal or even Tawang is not only to miss the wood for the trees, but also to play into China’s attempts at incremental territorial annexation. Having gobbled up Tibet, Beijing now lays claim to Indian territories, on the basis not of any purported Han connection, but of Tibetan Buddhist ecclesiastical influence or alleged long-standing tutelary relations with them. Ecclesiastical influence or even tutelary ties cannot signify political control of one region over another.
In any event, China has forcibly separated from Tibet two regions where Tibetan ecclesiastical jurisdiction and political control were undisputed – Amdo (the birthplace of the present Dalai Lama) and Kham. These have been incorporated into the Han provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. Before claiming Tawang to be part of Tibet, China should first restore Amdo and Kham to Tibet and its tutelary lamas. In fact, a correct analogy to China’s expansionist territorial demands would be Saddam Hussein’s claim, following his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to areas in Saudi Arabia on the basis of alleged Kuwaiti links to them.
When India shifted from the practical task of frontline clarification to the elusive pre-1962-style search for a border settlement on the basis of vacuous principles, it should have known that Chinese diplomacy’s forte is to enunciate elastic principles with another state and then reinterpret them later to add force to official claims.
Indeed, the history of Sino-Indian relations is largely a narrative of high-sounding principles being framed, only to lull India into a false sense of complacency.
The 1954 Panchsheel Agreement, under which India forfeited all its extraterritorial rights and privileges in Tibet without securing any quid pro quo, had defined five principles of peaceful coexistence. Yet eight years later, China carried out a full-scale invasion of India. Indeed, no sooner had that accord been signed than Beijing began laying claim to or stealthily intruding into areas south of the identified border points. Little surprise thus that the road from 1954 to 2007 is littered with shattered principles. Given that Beijing is today unwilling to accept the territorial status quo as the basis for a settlement, India needs a more nuanced, realistic and leverage-playing approach.
(The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.)
Copyright Times of India, 2007
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