Deadlocked Sino-Indian border talks

Clueless on China

Brahma Chellaney

India Abroad, September 18, 2009

The latest round of the unending and fruitless India-China talks on
territorial disputes was a fresh reminder of the eroding utility of this
process. It is approaching nearly three decades since
China and India began these negotiations. In
this period, 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, with
Washington’s
Asia policy now manifestly Sino-centric. Not
only has
India allowed its
military and nuclear asymmetry with
China
to grow, but also
New Delhi’s
room for diplomatic maneuver is shrinking. As the Indian navy chief, Admiral
Suresh Mehta, has put it plainly,
the
power “gap between the two is just too wide to bridge and getting wider by the
day.”

Of course, power asymmetry in interstate relations does not mean
the weaker side must bend to the dictates of the stronger or seek to propitiate
it. Wise strategy, coupled with good diplomacy, is the art of offsetting or
neutralizing military or economic power imbalance with another state. But as Admiral
Mehta warned, “
China
is in the process of consolidating its comprehensive national power and
creating formidable military capabilities. One it is done,
China is likely
to be more assertive on its claims, especially in the immediate neighborhood.”

It is thus obvious that the longer the process of border-related talks continues
without yielding tangible results, the greater the space
Beijing
will have to mount strategic pressure on
India and the greater its leverage
in the negotiations. After all,
China
already holds the military advantage on the ground. Its forces control the
heights along the long 4.057-kilometer Himalayan frontier, with the Indian
troops perched largely on the lower levels. 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.

Diplomatically, China
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.
Yet it 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
India 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
containment.

Keeping India
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 and the
vituperative attacks against
India
in its state-run media. Add to the picture the aggressive patrolling of the
Himalayan frontier by the People’s Liberation Army and the growing Chinese
incursions across the line of control.

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 Sino-Indian 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. The record includes
eight rounds of senior-level talks between 1981 and
1987, 14 Joint Working Group meetings between 1988 and 2002, and 13 rounds of
talks between the designated Special Representatives since 2003.
 

It seems the only progress
in this process is that
India’s
choice of words in public is now the same as
China’s. “B
oth 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
for
India
— the country at the receiving end of growing Chinese bellicosity — 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?  The recent essay posted on a Chinese
quasi-official website that called for
India
to be broken
into 20 to
30 sovereign states cannot obscure an important fact: Dismember India is a
project
China
launched in the Mao years when it trained and armed Naga and Mizo guerrillas. In
initiating its proxy war against
India,
Pakistan
merely took a leaf out of the Chinese book. 

Today, China’s
muscle-flexing along the
Himalayas cannot be
ignored. After all, even when
China
was poor and backward, it employed brute force to annex Xinjiang (1949) and
Tibet (1950), to raid South
Korea
(1950), to invade India
(1962), to initiate a border conflict with the Soviet Union through a military
ambush
(1969)
and to attack
Vietnam
(1979). A prosperous, militarily strong
China cannot but be a threat to its
neighbors, especially if there are no constraints on the exercise of Chinese
power.

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
apparent,
India
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
for
India.

India indeed has retreated to an
increasingly defensive position territorially, with the spotlight now on
China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh than
on
Tibet’s
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. Just because
New
Delhi
has accepted Tibet
to be part of
China should
not prevent it from gently shining a spotlight on
Tibet as the lingering core issue.

Yet India’s
long record of political diffidence only emboldens
Beijing. India
accepted the Chinese annexation of
Tibet
and surrendered its own British-inherited extraterritorial rights over
Tibet on a
silver platter without asking for anything in return. Now,
China wants India to display the same “amicable
spirit” and hand over to it at least the Tawang valley.

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.
The process now has become a means for the two sides to discuss “
the entire gamut of bilateral relations and regional and
international issues of mutual interest.”

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
in
India.

(c) India Abroad,
2009.

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