What's a good price to pay for 'heavenly peace' with China?

Hong Kong: When the wheels of diplomacy start to squeak, they need a bit of lubricant to get them to spin freely again.

During a ground-breaking official visit to China in 2003, the then prime minister AB Vajpayee invoked an unusual lubricant to grease the tracks for the rusted relationship between the two countries.

Vajpayee broke into song.

At an event organised in his honour by the Indian Embassy in Beijing, Vajpayee, who had a well-earned reputation as a poet who could encapsulate complex ideas into simple poetry, allowed himself to be cajoled by the audience into reciting a poem.

The poem itself was barely three lines, and the idea that it appeared to convey was, on the surface, a very simple one.

Indo-China border

India’s negotiating position has become weaker over time, simply because China has used the interim period to strengthen its strategic hold while successive Indian governments have done nothing more than watch with mild alarm. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

It spoke of a poet who, in times past, used to sing a mellifluous melody; but then, for a while, the poet ceased to sing; but now, the poet has again found his voice, and has begun to sing a new melody.

For all its simplicity, Vajpayee’s poem was a metaphor for the larger Sino-Indian relationship that had witnessed wild swings and been frozen, but were experiencing a thaw from his visit. India and China, which were civilisational twins, had “been singing a mellifluous melody” for centuries until 1962, when the war stilled their music. But now, Vajpayee appeared to be saying, the two could sing a melody again.

Upbeat mood

As China and India meet for another round of border talks in New Delhi, the mood on the two sides is again distinctly upbeat. The special representatives at the talks – India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon (who, incidentally, was the Ambassador in Beijing who hosted Vajpayee in 2003) and China’s topmost diplomat Dai Bingguo – haven’t quite broken into song, but in every other way, their body language — and their public pronouncements – convey immense goodwill.

Even though it comes so soon after China, yet again, declined to issue a visa to an Indian Air Force officer from Arunachal Pradesh who was to have been part of a Indian military delegation to China, the bonhomie at these meetings doesn’t appear forced.

As two leaders who have held several rounds of talks and who hold each other in personal high esteem, both Menon and Dai perhaps represent among the safest pair of hands that can be entrusted to handle the border talks, which are about as delicate and fragile as a Ming vase.

These talks have been enveloped in secrecy for so many years that it is difficult China’s negotiating position, as gathered from its public sentiments, appears to have moved some way away from its earlier position.

A Chinese about-turn 

For instance, China’s demand over Arunachal Pradesh, which it refers to as Southern Tibet, was not articulated until 1985.

Until that year, China had conveyed the impression to Indian leaders on several occasions that although it did not recognise the validity of the McMahon Line (the British-delineated borderline between India and China), it was willing to abide by a reciprocal formulation.

Under this formula, China would acknowledge Indian sovereignty in the ‘eastern tract’ (that is, the 90,000 sq km tract of land on the eastern wing of the Himalayas, which broadly corresponds to present-day Arunachal Pradesh and which has been under Indian administration since the 1940s.

In return, India would abandon its claim to Aksai Chin, the 38,000 km tract of cold desert in Ladakh in the western Himalayas, which China had brought under its control when its army “liberated” Tibet in 1951.

But India rejected this ‘east-west’ swap proposal (as it was called) on the principled ground that Chinese ‘concessions’ in the eastern tract were not concessions at all since China had never administered this area and had no right over it. And from its perspective, Aksai Chin was Indian territory that had been “illegally occupied” by China.

In 1985, soon after Rajiv Gandhi took over as Prime Minister, the Chinese side first staked its claim to the “eastern tract” (that is, Arunachal Pradesh); in fact, Chinese negotiators even turned their original east-west swap proposal on its head by claiming subsequently that China would be willing to make concessions in the western tract (that is, Aksai Chin) if India reciprocated by giving up its claims in the eastern tract (that is, Arunachal Pradesh)!

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Changed geopolitical needs

The shift in China’s negotiating stand, which wrong-footed India, was presumably linked to China’s changed geopolitical needs in that time.

In the decades leading up to 1985, China had completed numerous road and rail links to Lhasa from other parts of China. Given this heightened accessibility to Tibetan areas, Aksai Chin did not hold for China the same strategic significance that it had in the 1950s and 1960s.

In terms of natural resources, too, Aksai Chin is the place “where not a blade of grass grows,” as Jawaharlal Nehru once dismissively said in Parliament. In contrast, Arunachal Pradesh has mineral and timber resources, and is also a potential source of hydroelectric power.

But above all else, China perhaps feels that given its increased stature on the world stage in recent decades, and its capacity to work the levers of power, it no longer has the compelling need to make the kind of concessions it might have made in an earlier time. This may account for why it has played hardball on Arunachal Pradesh in recent years.

Shiv Shankar Menon  and Dai Bingguo

The body language of India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and China’s topmost diplomat Dai Bingguo and their public pronouncements convey immense goodwill. Prakash Singh/AFP

Two things are immediately clear.

First, India’s negotiating position has become weaker over time, simply because China has used the interim period to strengthen its strategic hold (by building a network of road and rail links on its side of the border), while successive Indian governments have done nothing more than watch with mild alarm.

And since China’s economic might – and its military spending – has enhanced vastly relative to India, the gap in the two countries’ military capability has widened over time.

Second, whenever the contours of an agreed settlement are drawn, and it’s unlikely to come about any time soon, it will entail some form of land-swap, the terms of which may not be as good from an Indian perspective as even earlier Chinese offers were.

A national consensus

The challenge of forging a national consensus around it will be immense, particularly given the hyperpartisan political environment in India, where even a regional ally of the ruling coalition can hold foreign policy to ransom (as the Trinamool Congress demonstrated with the Teesta agreement).

‘Land for peace’ agreement are notoriously hard to sell to a domestic constituency – even for a government that enjoys immense popular support. For one thing, they always entail giving away something now (land) in return for a promise of peace for eternity (which can be broken anytime).

The absence of a meaningful discourse within the Indian political space with the objective of forging some form of a national consensus on any future agreement cramps the space for our diplomats when they go in for negotiations.

In the absence of any progress, India seems fated to more of the pinpricks that it has received from China – in the form of occasional border intrusions or stapled visas. They are just a reminder from our neighbour across the Himalayas that the border dispute is still pending resolution – on its terms.

It looks like the wheels of diplomacy will likely squeak till another poet finds his voice again...

Updated Date: Jan 18, 2012 09:23 AM

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