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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1584

Indo-Chinese Relations: Cold Peace

By Suresh Kr Pramar – Asian Tribune

The recently concluded third round border talks between India and China has received few but varied reactions in the Indian press. While a sizeable section of the vernacular press (read Hindi language) has expressed serious doubt about the final outcome, a majority among the English language media is divided in its opinion.

The Hindi press has yet to get over the “betrayal” of 1962, when, at the height of the Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai days the Chini bhai had attacked and occupied large tracts of land in India. The betrayal continues to rankle most Indians. To add to their misery is the fact that the Chinese have continuously displayed their preference for the Pakistani. Even on the most emotion filled issue of Kashmir the Chinese have tended to side with the Pakistanis.

Writing in the Dainik Jagran, a Hindi publication and one of the two highest circulated newspapers in the country, Rakshat Puri, has questioned the government of India’s constant softness towards the Chinese. He says, “the Chinese speak about give and take on the border issue. So far India has only given and received nothing in return. It is difficult to understand why India is constantly trying to appease the Chinese whereas the Chinese on their part constantly provide evidence of their anti-Indian attitude.”

Puri says that there are scuttle moves by the Pakistani government to promote China in South Asia. He quotes President Musharraf saying that with the changed political situation in south Asia China should play a more active role in the Region. The Pakistanis have even suggested that China should be made a member of SAARC, a proposal which seem to interest the Chinese as well.

Brahma Chellaney writing in The Hindustan Times says “after 23 years of negotiations the two neighbors have not achieved even the bare minimum.” He says that since the negotiations started China has emerged as a global economic and political force and strengthened its leverage vis-à-vis India. “As negotiations have preceded Beijing has shown a weakening inclination to settle the border or even clarify the so-called line of actual control.”

He says this suits the Chinese since the status quo places India under strategic pressure and pins down along the Himalayas hundreds of thousands of troops who would otherwise be available against China’s all weather friend Pakistan. “More importantly China is sitting pretty on the upper heights, having got what it wanted, either by furtive encroachment or by conquest. It certainly sees not strategic imperative to accommodate India, a potential peer competitor.”

Chellaney writes that the first requisite to good neighborly relations is a defined front line. “As a well known proverb goes, good fences make good neighbors. It is high time India insisted that the two sides clarify the line of control as a starting point for any potential border settlement. Otherwise, long after the Manmohan Singh government becomes history, China will still be making India go round and round the mulberry bush.”

C.Raja Mohan writing in The Hindu takes a more positive view. He says “the official engagement between New Delhi and Beijing has reached a level of maturity that has not been anticipated by either side of the long divisive debate on China within the nation. Within a short span of time after the brief chill that descended on Sino-Indian relations following the nuclear tests of May 1998, New Delhi and Beijing have rapidly transformed their bilateral relationship. The public debate on China has tended to lag behind the official policy direction.

“Rajiv Gandhi and Mr. Vajpayee were instrumental in burying the victim mentality that India carried since the 1962 war with China. A new generation in India with greater self-confidence about its own future is now capable of thinking about the difficult issues with China in a more relaxed manner… India and China are negotiating their boundary dispute in a radically different manner. In the past they argued on the basis of historical precedent and legal claims. While both sides have inherited what seemed inflexible positions, they have agreed to resolve the question within the overall political perspective of the evolving bilateral relationship. In short the current negotiation is a political one rooted in their calculus of national interest.”

The fact that the talks are being held in a near in camera situation is adding to misunderstanding and misconception among the people. From the first round itself neither government has been very public about the contents of the discussion except to say that they are being held in a cordial and friendly atmosphere. One is not sure what is actually being discussed or the progress achieved so far. The Press Release issued two days after the first meeting held earlier in Delhi merely said “the meetings were held in a cordial, constructive and cooperative atmosphere.”

There seems to be reluctance on the part of the two countries to spell out the details of their discussions for fear of raising controversies. This happened after details of the agreement on Sikkim and Tibet became public through the media. Both sides went overboard to play down the implications of the agreement claiming that nothing new had been done or said about the two issues.

On Sikkim the Chinese Foreign Office spokesman had said “the question of Sikkim is an enduring question which cannot be solved overnight.” The then Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha had tried to explain away the changed stand on Tibet by claiming that “what we have said on Tibet is consistent with what we have said in the past and I do not think the question of the Dalai Lama leaving India or asking him to leave India arises at this time.”

It is now generally believed that a final solution to the border issue is unlikely to fructify soon. As the Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Shen Guolang recently told visiting Indian journalists in Beijing “settling the border question won’t be smooth and we expect specific problems.” The Chinese say that they are aware that both governments have the political will to push forward negotiations on the border issue and that the atmosphere in which discussions are held is very good.

There is however a growing demands among the people that relations between the two giants of Asia should be normalized. There is a sizeable section within the Indian public opinion which feels that the future demands that the two nations live in peace and cooperate in the area of economic development.

As Mira Sinha Bhattacharjee, of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi has said the process of normalization “has not been easy and it has been difficult to surmount the many obstacles that divide” the two countries. These difficulties according to Bhattacharjee include “the territorial issue and the nature of the Sino-Pakistan equation which arouse strong national emotions and have a complicating domestic dimension.

‘There is the Indian image of a belligerent China, unwilling to see India emerge as an equal, determined to seek hegemony in Asia, befriending Pakistan to keep India tied down to the sub continent. China’s shadowy role in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programme, it Myanmar connection and its economic dynamism only add to Indian fears. There is the Chinese mirror image of an equally hegemonistic India, lording over its smaller neighbors, seeking superpower alliances to encircle China.”

A columnist has said that in view of the plethora of claims and counter claims put forward by the two countries an easy settlement of the border issue is not feasible and will not work without a hitch. Two and a half decade after discussions were first started the two countries have come nowhere close to a solution.

The two countries have put forward claims on large tracts of land in each other’s territory. India has repeatedly said that the over 40,000 square kilometers territory the Chinese continue to occupy in the Aksai Chin region in the western sector constitutes illegal occupation by the Chinese. It also disputes China’s claim on the 6,000 square kilometers of territory in Kashmir gifted to them by the Pakistanis.

On its part the Chinese have claimed almost the entire territorial area of present day Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing has launched a strong protest when India made Arunachal Pradesh first a Union Territory and later a full fledged state. Till date the Chinese have refused to consider Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India. China’s claims in Arunacal Pradesh are regarded as nothing more than a bargaining instrument for a better and more favorable deal in the western sector.

The Chinese have indicated that they are prepared to go in for a swap deal on the border issue. Under the swap deal, first made by the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En Lai in 1959, China is prepared to give up areas they claim in the eastern region for complete ownership of areas in the western sector. The Indians are however not willing to accept such an absurd proposal. Indian diplomats point out that the proposal is very absurd because it means that India give up its own territory to China to get Beijing drop claims on other pieces of India territory.

In fact talks, say observers, have resulted in one step forward and three steps backward. The Indians blame the Chinese for the slow progress. The Chinese, it has been pointed out, have entered the negotiations with the intention of wearing out their Indian opponents to get a better deal. The Chinese on their part claim that progress because India is not willing to consider the east west swap. Present relations between the two countries has been described as ‘cold peace, if not a cold war’

The only tangible result so far has been on Sikkim and Tibet. In an agreement signed during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2003 Chinese visit it was agreed to open an additional point for border trade via Nathu La in Sikkim. In a political significant state Article 1 of the Agreement reads that “the Indian sides agree to designate Changu of Sikkim state as the venue for border trade market: The Chinese side agrees to designate Renqinggang of the Tibet Autonomous Region as the venue for border trade market.” Reading between the lines it is a statement of the fact that Sikkim has been recognized as a part of India and Tibet as a part of China.

The decision to open a trade route has enormous economic significance. Prior to 1962, when the route was closed down, a very flourishing trade existed between the Chinese and India through the Nathu La pass. Indian traders used to make trade trips across the wind swept pass to sell bicycles, motorcycles, trucks and cars in Tibet. It was on the basis of this trade route that towns like Kalimpong in West Bengal and Gangtok in Sikkim developed into trade centres.

The present two routes through Shipki La in Himachal Pradesh and Lipulekh in Uttaranchal suffer from lack of motorable roads whereas there is an all weather black topped road connecting Changhu to Nathu La. Overland trade between the two countries is likely to pick up considerably.

While most people in India are concerned over the slow progress of talks and complete normalization of relations between the two countries there is a growing hope that the new growing economic relations will help speed up the process. Trade between the two countries is picking up fast. Starting with a few hundred million US dollars in the mid-1990s bilateral trade between the two countries is expected to cross over 10 billion US dollars this year.

- Asian Tribune -

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