Taking a new road

Print edition : July 18, 2003

A newly nuanced and sensitive formulation on Tibet, an agreement on expanding trade, forward movement on the question of Sikkim and other positive factors mark a new phase in the India-China entente. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to China thus clears the way for further qualitative enhancement of the bilateral relationship.

in Beijing and Shanghai

The Lupu bridge, the world's longest steel-arch bridge, across the Huangpu river in Shanghai. Its 550-metre arch is longer than the previous record holder, the 518-metre-long New River Gorge bridge in West Virginia, U.S. The 2.5-billion-yuan ($302 million), 3.9-km Lupu bridge was inaugurated on June 28.-CLARO CORTES IV/REUTERS

IT may not be a great leap forward, but it is the beginning of a long march. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Beijing, Luoyang and Shanghai from June 22 to 27 and broke new ground. He spoke of a "long road" to rapprochement between India and China, and pleased his hosts on the issue of Tibet while opening border trade through Sikkim.

On June 23 the Chinese red flag and the Indian tricolour fluttered over the majestic Tiananmen Square as Premier Wen Jiabao formally welcomed Vajpayee for "restricted" and "delegation-level" talks at the House of the People. Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army accorded an impressive guard of honour to the Prime Minister. No special gestures were made on June 22 while receiving the Prime Minister at the Beijing International Airport, but both sides described as warm and cordial the overall atmosphere of the talks.

Given the keep-it-close-to-the-chest approach of the bureaucrats who manage India's China policy, the question of what the Prime Minister agreed to or did not will remain. A total of 10 agreements and a Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation between the Republic of India and the People's Republic of China were signed on June 23. While the Declaration contains the sensitive formulation on Tibet, what holds more interest from the Indian point of view is a Memorandum signed on expanding border trade.

If during previous such visits part of the time was utilised to dot the i's and cross the t's on agreements that had already been worked out, on this occasion the actual, solid negotiations on the draft of the border trade agreement submitted by India in New Delhi on June 18 took place after the first meeting on June 23 between Vajpayee and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing. Ahead of the Prime Minister's visit, India had made it clear that it had reservations about using the word "inalienable" while describing Tibet and Taiwan as parts of the People's Republic of China. Given the hard-nosed nature of the bureaucrats who have been talking to each other over the years, no one was in a position to offer the smallest concession or accommodate the other's point of view when it came to the text of the agreement. Prior to the visit, Chinese officials had indicated that a deal on Sikkim was not necessarily related to progress on Tibet, but finally that is what happened. In a sense, concomitant progress on Sikkim and a "little more" Indian "give" on Tibet could well prove to be the model that India and China follow in addressing the border dispute as a whole through the mechanism of "special representatives" that has been put in place by the two Prime Ministers.

This is what the Declaration said on Tibet: "The Indian side recognises that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People's Republic of China and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India. The Chinese side expressed its appreciation for the Indian position and reiterated that it is firmly opposed to any attempt and action aimed at splitting China and bringing about independence of Tibet."

Interestingly, there is a reference to the Taiwan issue, too, in the declaration: "The Indian side recalled that India was among the first countries to recognise that there is one China and its one China policy remains unaltered. The Chinese side expressed its appreciation of the Indian position." In a joint press communique issued on December 23, 1988, following the visit by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, there was no reference to Taiwan. It had this formulation on Tibet: "The Chinese side expressed concern over anti-China activities by some Tibetan elements in India. The Indian side reiterated the long-standing and consistent policy of the Government of India that Tibet is an autonomous region of China and that anti-China political activities by Tibetan elements are not permitted on Indian soil."

Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Wen Jiabao at a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 23.-FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP

Unlike in 1988, there was this time formal, stated Chinese appreciation for the Indian position on Tibet and on Taiwan. The Chinese draft wanted India to use the word "inalienable" for both Tibet and Taiwan being part of its territory, but India did not go the whole hog with this phraseology. Indian officials were at pains to point out that they had used the term "People's Republic of China" and not "China" - the PRC being an entity that came into existence in 1949.

Whatever be the mindset behind such a message, the fact remains that India has also used a very Chinese formulation - the Tibet Autonomous Region. Some analysts have seen the earlier reference to Tibet as an "autonomous" region of China as being a part of its abiding interest in the rights of the Tibetan people, but this does not count for much in terms of realpolitik. There is no Tibet card that India can play, as history has shown. It is in India's larger interests to ensure that China does not feel uncomfortable about New Delhi's position on Tibet. The presence in India of the Dalai Lama and his so-called government-in-exile is an obvious source of irritation for China, and anything that India says about Tibet in relation to China will be appreciated in Beijing.

Official Chinese sources said that it was for the first time that India had conceded explicitly that Tibet is a part of its territory; a claim that Indian officials have repeatedly questioned. In a written statement distributed at his June 27 press conference in Shanghai, Vajpayee said: "There has been much discussion and debate on our position on Tibet, as reflected in the joint declaration. I do not wish to go into long and tedious explanations or analyses of words. I would only like to state that there is no ambiguity or inconsistency in our position on Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. We were therefore happy to reiterate our position in the joint declaration."

Indian officials also circulated, without comment, an extract from the transcript of the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 released by the U.S. State Department that favoured direct dialogue between Tibet and China. It says: "The United States recognises the Tibet Autonomous Region - hereinafter referred to as `Tibet' - to be part of the People's Republic of China. This long-standing policy is consistent with the view of the international community. In addition, the Dalai Lama has expressly disclaimed any intention to seek sovereignty or independence for Tibet and has stated that his goal is greater autonomy for Tibetans in China."

In the area of primary interest for India - the recognition that Sikkim is a part of India - a road map seems to have been agreed upon even as the Memorandum on expanding border trade said: "Desirous of opening another pass on the India-China border and setting up an additional point on each side for border trade... the Indian side agrees to designate Changgu 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."

In response to questions from the media, the Indian side said that the fact that an additional point for trade was being opened on the India-China border amounts to an implicit or de facto recognition that Sikkim is a part of India. For their part, Chinese officials told Indian correspondents that they, too, would have to "sell" the issue of the recognition of Sikkim to their people: Sikkim is now shown on official maps as an "independent kingdom". The indication that New Delhi had received in the original draft, that China would provide a road map on the recognition of Sikkim as a part of India if there was some accommodation in the phraseology with regard to Tibet, has held good. Indian officials have little doubt that de jure recognition of Sikkim will follow in a few months. In a sense, India has put its trust in the Chinese leadership to deliver on Sikkim while being accommodating on Tibet and Taiwan. This trust, should it be followed by a formal recognition, can provide the basis for a healthy and mature relationship between the two countries - one that will be welcomed by the people of the two countries. Most Indians and Chinese, especially those born after the 1962 border conflict, are generally not aware of, or interested in, the disputes of the past. They want to move ahead while being aware of the boundary dispute lingering in the background. On the appointment of special representatives, officials said that the Prime Minister reiterated a suggestion he had made as Foreign Minister during an "ice-breaking" visit to China in February 1979, that a political element be introduced into the negotiations on the border dispute. There was no response from China in 1979, but this time Beijing quickly conveyed its acceptance to the proposal made for appointing special representatives.

Vajpayee with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People.-FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP

In a statement at the press conference, Vajpayee said: "Among the important steps discussed was of course the settlement of the India-China boundary question. Both countries have been discussing principles, which are to be followed for an eventual boundary settlement. Premier Wen Jiabao and I agreed that these discussions can be given an impetus exploring the framework of a boundary settlement from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship, and to appoint special representatives for this purpose. As you are aware, our National Security Adviser (Brajesh Mishra) would be the special representative from India. China has also appointed (the senior-most Vice-Foreign Minister, Dai Bingguo) its special representative. We hope this new initiative will accelerate the search for a solution to this vexed problem. Premier Wen Jiabao and I also agreed that the joint work on the clarification of the Line of Actual Control should continue smoothly. We also agreed that peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control should continue to be maintained."

According to the Declaration, India and China exchanged views on the boundary question and "expounded" their respective positions. They reiterated their readiness to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution through consultations on an equal footing. "The two sides agreed that pending an ultimate solution, they should work together to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas, and reiterated their commitment to continue implementation of the agreements signed for this purpose, including the clarification of the Line of Actual Control. The two sides agreed to each appoint a special representative to explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement."

It is too early now to appoint the special representatives. The phrase "equal footing" used in the Declaration (it was a formulation that was put forward first by Premier Wen Jiabao) could indicate that Beijing will negotiate on the basis of "give and take" - as has been done with regard to Tibet and Sikkim. As the two countries get down to deciding when the special representatives will meet, New Delhi and Beijing are aware that history has stood still after the 1962 conflict in the matter of resolving the border dispute. Aksai Chin, the territory ceded by Pakistan to China in the early 1960s, and Arunachal Pradesh, remain the bone of contention. Clearly, Mishra and Dai have a tough task on their hands.

The Declaration created another new mechanism of dialogue, with both sides agreeing that there was a need for annual meetings between the Foreign Ministers of India and China to deepen their coordination and dialogue on bilateral, regional and international issues. "They also agreed that personnel exchanges and friendly contacts between Ministries, Parliaments and political parties of the two countries should be further enhanced. The two sides recognised the threat posed by terrorism to them and to global peace and security. They resolutely condemned terrorism in any form... both sides shall also promote cooperation on counter-terrorism through their bilateral dialogue mechanism."

This political resolve on the issue of counter-terrorism apart, there was agreement concerning another area. "They are firmly opposed to the introduction of weapons in outer space, use or threat of force against space-based objects and support cooperation through their bilateral dialogue mechanism." Interestingly, through the device of search and rescue missions involving the two navies, the two countries, Indian officials stated, had actually agreed to hold naval exercises together.

However, the bedrock of the cooperation between the two countries is in the economic field. Bilateral trade reached the $5 billion mark and the competing presence in China of business delegations of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) indicated the scope to increase trade.

Near the Nathu La (pass) in Sikkim, a temple.-AARTI DHAR

Trade figures show continued growth, and Indian officials believe that China's accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime has improved opportunities for Indian business. Specifically, the formation of a joint study group to examine complementarities in the economic arena is being seen as a step in the direction of a closer economic relationship, on the lines of what India is doing with Singapore. The group, comprising officials and economists from both sides, should present a study report and recommendations to the two governments by June 2004.

In the information technology sector, Prime Minister Vajpayee, in a speech in Shanghai, called for an alliance between Indian software companies and Chinese hardware companies. In an address at Peking University on June 23, Vajpayee spoke on the theme of many analysts in the Asia-Pacific region who project India and China as natural competitors. He said: "As two large developing countries at roughly the same stage of development, sharing the same neighbourhood, pursuing similar growth trajectories, with comparable economic priorities and similar political ambitions, it is inevitable that comparisons will be made between India and China. It is also an unavoidable characteristic of human nature that there is always a sense of competition between two close and equal neighbours. We should focus on the simple truth that there is no objective reason for discord between us, and neither of us is a threat to the other."

Through the Prime Minister's visit, the theme of India being on a par with China was repeatedly being referred to. This stress from New Delhi despite the fact that China's is a much larger economy than India's, is an obvious attempt to signal "general parity" with China. Informed sources believe that Vajpayee's visit was unorthodox in the sense that negotiations on Sikkim and Tibet and the appointment of special representatives on the border issue reached closure only after the June 23 meeting between the two Prime Ministers. They are also of the opinion that Vajpayee's visit had to be projected as being in the same league as those by Rajiv Gandhi (1988) and P.V. Narasimha Rao (1993), when breakthroughs were made in addressing the boundary dispute.

The Chinese side was appreciative of the decision taken by Vajpayee to travel to Beijing even while a World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory in the matter of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, warning against all but essential travel remained in force. Of course, the advisory was withdrawn midway through the visit. However, members of Vajpayee's delegation had their temperature monitored every morning as a precautionary measure.

The Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, is said to have played a key role in the negotiations after the Prime Ministers met on June 23, especially the discussions that took place to resolve the differences over the language to be used in both the Declaration on Principles as well as the Memorandum to expand border trade.

If visits can provide a map for dispute resolution, these can only be welcomed. As India awaits formal word from China on Sikkim, the two countries need to put their heads together and begin serious and uninterrupted negotiations on the principles of a boundary settlement. After all, other than the dispute over the Spratly Islands, China has settled all its boundary questions with Russia and the other former members of the Soviet Union, besides settling the territorial dispute with Vietnam. The people of India and China deserve nothing less than a full and final settlement of their disputes on the basis of compromise and, if a Chinese formulation is employed, mutual accommodation.

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