A Fruitless Dialogue
The New Indian Express, August 17, 2009
The broadening of the Sino-Indian border talks into an all-encompassing
strategic dialogue is an unmistakable reminder that the negotiations stand
deadlocked. Yet neither side wants to abandon the fruitless process.
In the period since the border negotiations began
nearly three decades ago, the world has changed fundamentally. Indeed, with its
rapidly accumulating military and economic power, China itself has emerged as a great
power in the making. The longer the negotiating process continues without
yielding results, the greater the space Beijing
will have to mount strategic pressure on India and leverage its position. After
already holds the military advantage on the ground. Its forces control the
heights along the long 4.057-kilometer Himalayan frontier. Furthermore, by
building new railroads, airports and highways in Tibet,
China is now in a position
to rapidly move additional forces to the border to potentially strike at India at a time
of its choosing.
is a contented party, having occupied what it wanted — the Aksai Chin plateau,
which is almost the size of Switzerland
and provides the only accessible Tibet-Xinjiang route through the Karakoram passes of the Kunlun Mountains.
chooses to press claims on additional Indian territories as part of a grand
strategy to gain leverage in bilateral relations and, more importantly, to keep
under military and diplomatic pressure.
At the core of its strategy is an apparent resolve to indefinitely hold off
on a border settlement with India
through an overt refusal to accept the territorial status quo. In not hiding
its intent to further redraw the Himalayan frontiers, Beijing only helps highlight the futility of
the ongoing process of political negotiations. After all, the territorial
status quo can be changed not through political talks but by further military
conquest. Yet, paradoxically, the political process remains important for Beijing to provide the façade of engagement behind which
to seek India’s
engaged in endless talks is a key Chinese objective so that Beijing can continue its work on changing the
Himalayan balance decisively in its favor through a greater build-up of
military power and logistical capabilities. That is why China has sought to shield the negotiating
process from the perceptible hardening of its stance towards New Delhi.
Let’s be clear: Chinese negotiating tactics have shifted markedly over
the decades. Beijing originally floated the swap idea — giving up its claims in
India’s northeast in return for Indian acceptance of the Chinese control over a
part of Ladakh — to legalize its occupation of Aksai Chin. It then sang the
mantra of putting the territorial disputes on the backburner so that the two
countries could concentrate on building close, mutually beneficial relations. But
in more recent years, in keeping with its rising strength, China has escalated border tensions
and military incursions while assertively laying claim to Arunachal Pradesh.
According to a recent report in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong paper with close ties to the
establishment in Beijing, China is seeking “just” 28 percent
of Arunachal. That means an area nearly the size of Taiwan.
In that light, can the border talks be kept going
indefinitely? Consider two important facts.
First, the present border negotiations have been going on continuously
since 1981, making them already the longest and the most-barren process between
any two countries in modern history. It seems
the only progress in this process is that India’s
choice of words in public is now the same as China’s. “Both countries
have agreed to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement of
this issue,” Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna told Parliament on
July 31. “The matter, of course, is complex and requires time and lots of
patience.” It was as if the Chinese foreign minister was speaking. Isn’t it odd
to plead for more time and patience after nearly three decades of negotiations?
Second, the authoritative People’s Daily — the
Communist Party mouthpiece that reflects official thinking — made it clear in a
June 11, 2009 editorial: “China
won’t make any compromises in its border disputes with India.” That reflects the Chinese
position in the negotiations. But when Beijing
is advertising its uncompromising stance, doesn’t New Delhi get the message?
So the key question is: What does India
gain by staying put in an interminably barren negotiating process with China? By
persisting with this process, isn’t India
aiding the Chinese engagement-with-containment strategy by providing Beijing the cover it
needs? While Beijing’s strategy and tactics are
has had difficulty to define a game-plan and resolutely pursue clearly laid-out
objectives. Still, staying put in a barren process cannot be an end in itself
India indeed has retreated to an
increasingly defensive position territorially, with the spotlight now on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh than
status itself. Now you know why Beijing invested so much
political capital over the years in getting India
to gradually accept Tibet
as part of the territory of the People’s Republic. Its success on that score
has helped narrow the dispute to what it claims. That neatly meshes with China’s
long-standing negotiating stance: What it occupies is Chinese territory, and
what it claims must be on the table to be settled on the basis of give-and-take
— or as it puts it in reasonably sounding terms, on the basis of “mutual
accommodation and mutual understanding.”
As a result, India
has been left in the unenviable position of having to fend off Chinese territorial
demands. In fact, history is in danger of repeating itself as India gets sucked into a
1950s-style trap. The issue then was Aksai Chin; the issue now
is Arunachal. But rather than put the focus on the source of China’s claim —
Tibet — and Beijing’s attempt to territorially enlarge its Tibet annexation to
what it calls “southern Tibet,” India is willing to be taken ad infinitum
around the mulberry bush.
Take the period since the border talks were “elevated” to
the level of special representatives in 2003. India
first got into an extended exercise with Beijing
to define general principles to govern a border settlement, despite China’s
egregious record of flouting the Panchsheel principles and committing naked
aggression in 1962. But no sooner had the border-related principles been
unveiled in 2005 with fanfare than Beijing
jettisoned the do-not-disturb-the-settled-populations principle to buttress its
claim to Arunachal.
Yet, as the most-recent round of talks highlighted this
month, India has agreed to
let the negotiations go off at a tangent by broadening them into a diffused strategic
dialogue — to the delight of Beijing.
This not only opens yet another chapter in an increasingly directionless
process, but also lets China
condition a border settlement to the achievement of greater Sino-Indian strategic
congruence. Worse still, New Delhi is to observe
2010 — the 60th anniversary of China
becoming India’s neighbor by
gobbling up Tibet — as the
“Year of Friendship with China”
About the author: Brahma Chellaney is
professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.