A new phase

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Vajpayee with Chairman of the Central Military Commission and former President Jiang Zemin in Beijing. - FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP

Vajpayee with Chairman of the Central Military Commission and former President Jiang Zemin in Beijing. - FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP

The promise of the Vajpayee visit is that what has been achieved will be institutionalised and regularised, that both sides will now look to the big picture in the attempt to put the past behind them.

IF there were any doubts that the lack of a political driver was the principal reason why the relations between India and China remained becalmed even as the world around them was turbulent and fast changing, these should have been put to rest by the thrust and nature of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to China. If the visit has "transformed the quality of the bilateral relationship", as the Prime Minister said in Shanghai, it is because Vajpayee and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took bold public decisions on the two principal differences that have bedevilled the bilateral relationship - the territorial issue and the lack of trust that shrouded growing shared interests and strategic commonalities.

Interestingly, however, in the run-up to the visit, media comment and public expectation centred around the new and exciting prospect of exploring and enlarging economic interaction with China - bilateral trade had risen rapidly to $5 billion and is expected to triple within this decade. Some even argued that this was the new mantra that the Prime Minister should invoke in China, which would bridge the political divide between these, unfortunately, still distant neighbours. Indian interest in the stunning performance of China's economy and its modernity, national confidence and ambition was growing; so was the awareness that without quickening the pace of its all-round development, India was in danger of falling far behind China. Moreover, in 2002, the then Chinese Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, had led what has been described as the first truly friendship delegation to India (Frontline, February 15, 2002). Focussing strongly on economic matters, he commended India's rate of growth, its skills, its great potential and the prospects that existed for all-round cooperation between the two countries. In Bangalore, he fired the imagination of the people of the world when he suggested that in the universe of information technology, a combine of Indian software and Chinese hardware would have no rival. In the economically globalising world of today, the magic lies in the statistics. Consequently, the prospect of these two gigantic and gifted states looking beyond their unhappy past and their sterile present to join hands is an image of extraordinary power and dynamism.

Given the popular mood and the feel-good factor generated by these economic prospects, it is not surprising that there was little if any serious debate on sensitive politico-strategic or territorial issues. There were a few voices that projected worst-case scenarios, arguing about the deeply malevolent intentions of a rising and economically dynamic China. Generally speaking, in the public realm at least, the politico-strategic issues in the India-China relationship were given little salience and were just set aside. Also, it would seem that the Indian public had come to accept that there are no quick solutions to this problem, that while the territorial issue would certainly be discussed by the two Prime Ministers, negotiations would continue to be slow-paced, given the complex and emotive nature of the problem that has bedevilled the relationship for almost the entire half century of their modern statehood.

Of the issues that have divided India and China over time, only the territorial issue lends itself to being resolved through bilateral negotiations, including the issues of Tibet and Sikkim. Most of the other issues, such as the China-Pakistan equation, China's role in Pakistan's nuclear and missile programme, and China's Myanmar connection, which revived fears of a Chinese desire to encircle India and so on, are not and cannot be negotiable. They reflect the state of the relationship, Indian perceptions of China, and perhaps India's own lack of confidence. Such issues have to be countered diplomatically and politically and, in the last analysis, by the recovery of national confidence and the awareness that there are overriding strategic commonalities.

These issues have been raised and addressed in one way or another since the visit of President Jiang Zemin to India in 1996 (Frontline, December 27, 1996). Since then China has indeed been `adjusting' its policies towards India and Pakistan, which became evident at the time of Kargil. Pokhran-II and India's new relations with the United States and the European Union, together with its enhanced conventional and missile capability and steady economic growth, have enhanced both India's self-reliance and capabilities as well as its confidence in dealing with China, which has begun to show India greater respect. Moreover, both sides took initiatives that have helped to reduce the irritant potential of some of these problems. Both have, for instance, reiterated time and again, at all levels of government, that neither poses a threat to the other. In attempting to clear the ground to make adjustment and understanding easier for the other, both took steps to tackle their own problems. Vajpayee did so by making an unexpected offer to Pakistan for the resumption of dialogue on bilateral issues and the reopening of contacts at all levels. This was supported and encouraged by China, which also welcomes the growth of a South Asian economic community. On its part, the new leadership in China responded positively to the Dalai Lama's offer to reopen dialogue on Tibet. Based on this, one delegation went to China in December 2002 and another just weeks before the visit of the Prime Minister. Apparently, both were well received and rumours have been afloat that the Dalai Lama may even visit Tibet, though this does not seem politically feasible just yet.

Both these initiatives and others of the same genre convey the important message that neither country now expects the other to interfere in, or take advantage of, the problems it may have with other states or domestically. The promise is that there will no longer be an external factor to complicate existing problems. So, suddenly, the decks have been cleared for developing bilateral cooperation unshadowed by intangible fears and complications, and the relationship can, hopefully, be moved from the path of contention and rivalry to that of cooperation and healthy competition bilaterally, regionally and globally. Hence in Shanghai, Vajpayee could assert: "The simple truth is that there is no objective reason for discord between us, and neither of us is a threat to the other."

THAT now leaves only the territorial problem to be resolved, and makes it more manageable even though it is perhaps the most complex of all the territorial problems the world has known. It is not a just a matter of adjusting rival claims and delimiting and defining the territorial limits of two neighbouring states. Instead, it is a tangled knot of the tangible and the intangible, of the `real' and the `notional'. Its provenance lies in the history of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism in Asia; in the emergence of India and China as brand new political entities that like all post-colonial states could be defined only in territorial terms; in their self-definition as old civilisations but modern states; in the forging of new `nations' on the basis of an `idea', because they were multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies; in their separate historical memories and their shared sense of a civilising mission; in the search for an alternative or different modernity; and in the `contrived history' of an old friendship to bridge hard contemporary problems. As if that was not enough, to it must be added the critical role of the outer world and their strategic surround as well as the restlessness of their national minorities, divided often from their natural communities by artificial state border. High drama was inherent in this mix as well as in the character and personalities of the founders and policy-makers of the two states. They stood taller than most of the world leaders of the time; they also looked at more distant horizons beyond the politics of the Cold War and sought to encourage a civilising, human dimension to inter-state relations.

It may be safe to say that, for them, all the territory claimed was not the territory demanded, though each had territorial interests that had to be satisfied and were non-negotiable. Fortunately, with Vajpayee's visit, focus and discussion can be on the `real', not the `notional', territorial issue encompassing thousands of kilometres of territory seized, occupied or claimed by the other. The problem has been before us and under discussion between the two sides for 43 years since the failed Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai summit of 1960, and has gone through three distinct phases.

The first was the phase of the official-level talks agreed to in 1960, which produced the Officials Report of the two sides as well as the voluminous White Papers that are still the basic documents on the Indian claim. There is no published Chinese equivalent of these. The second phase began in the early 1980s at the joint secretary/ vice-ministerial level and were really talks about talks or about the principles that should guide the talks. The third phase was initiated by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. It promised high-level political guidance, and broke with the past by beginning the move away from the legal-bureaucratic approach of the earlier two phases (Frontline, January 20, 1989).

It set in motion the quiet, slow search for a political solution to the problem, which has, after almost 15 years, finally led to the present agreement on opening border trade via Nathu La, with all its far-reaching political implications, as well as to the promise given by the Prime Minister on his return that the boundary issue will be taken up soon on "the basis of the principles discussed which are to be followed for an eventual settlement". As he explained it, the exploration will be for a boundary settlement "from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship". The conduct of this exploration has been entrusted to Special Representatives who presumably share the political perspectives and have the full confidence of their Prime Ministers: Brajesh Mishra, National Security Adviser, and Dai Pingquo, the senior-most Vice-Minister in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reputed to have been hand-picked by former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

These are important developments that in sum represent an abandonment of the earlier constraining historical-legal approach to the boundary question. That approach had divided the long border into three separate segments or sectors, each to be discussed and settled individually. Those familiar with the claims and interests of the two sides would understand that this could not lend itself to exchange or compromise in order to satisfy both sides. A more realistic political approach is one which treats the border as a whole as one entirety, takes the long view and permits maximum flexibility in the give-and-take by both sides, without which a satisfactory and reasonable final settlement acceptable to both sides would be unattainable. This writer had argued three decades ago that this was indeed the approach of Nehru to the whole problem until 1958 when, it seems, he was advised to harden his position and put forward a maximum claim in legal form.

The decision of the Indian government to identify Nathu La in Sikkim as the entry point for border trade between the market at Changhu and Renqinggang in Tibet, as well as the changed wording on Tibet contained in the Joint Declaration therefore need to be taken together. Both the Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister have made it clear that these signify acceptance of the existing realities, that despite India's specific acknowledgement of Tibet "as part of the territory of China" there has been no change in its position. This is both true and not true at the same time. It is not true inasmuch as the formulation has been changed. It is true inasmuch as the reality was that it had no option but to hold talks on, discuss and negotiate an India-China border that runs along the southern limits of Tibet, with Beijing, and not an India-Tibet border with Lhasa as McMahon had attempted to do at that historic conference in Shimla in 1913-14. It may also be remembered that this is the sector of India's principal security concerns. It can then be legitimately asked why India did not insist on a formal Chinese recognition of Sikkim as part of India, and why it is so confident that the border trade protocol has "started the process by which Sikkim will cease to be an issue in India-China relations". The answer perhaps lies in the early legal approach to the territorial issue, which predates the merger of Sikkim with India by 15 to 16 years. To the best of this writer's knowledge, the Sikkim-Tibet border did not figure in the official-level talks as part of an India-China border.

With the adoption of a political approach to the problem, it has become easier to surmount this obstacle. The first step perhaps was the earlier Chinese confirmation that the 1875 border agreement held, and that there is no border dispute between China and Sikkim. This writer speculates that the next step was to include that border in the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that was being defined, and to exchange letters and so on across Nathu La. With the symbolisms that abound in developments on the territorial issue, one needs also to recall how the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations was celebrated. At two places in the western sector, at Demchok and Spanggur, the Chinese were the hosts, while in the eastern sector, at Nathu La and Bumla, the Indians were the hosts. There was music and dancing and good cheer. All this suggests that the two sides are prepared to live with and strengthen the de facto situation until the time comes for a final boundary settlement that should encompass Sikkim, complete with maps.

The promise of the Vajpayee visit is that what has been achieved will be institutionalised and regularised, that both sides will now look to the big picture in the attempt to put the past behind them, that the principles and the promises enshrined in the Joint Declaration and other documents signed during the visit will indeed be translated onto policy and political practice.

Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea is Co-Chairperson of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

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