The Sino-Indian equation

Print edition : August 27, 2004

The India-China relationship: Rivalry and engagement edited by Francine R. Frankel and Harry Harding; Oxford University Press; pages 377, Rs.595.

SOON after the rift between India and China erupted in the open, a Chinese journal uttered the crie de coeur that there was always a dark side to their relations. This was very true. Neither Jawaharlal Nehru's professional admirers nor his card-carrying detractors care to look beneath the surface of what passed as the "Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai" era of fraternal love. Archival disclosures in Beijing and New Delhi reveal that, even at the best of times, Nehru and Mao Zedong, with Zhou Enlai, had deepest reservations about each other's policies. The admirers and detractors are not the only offenders. Those whose professional duty it is to ascertain and impart the truth are no better. Very many Indian journalists, academics and retired diplomats follow the beaten paths, whether of uncritical adulation or malicious denigration; all in the name of patriotism.

If even at the best of times India and China had deep reservations about each other, the boundary dispute, which was simmering all along, gave them a shape and form tinged with rancour and a bitter sense of betrayal. The bonhomie, which has been fostered recently, for the ends of domestic politics as another achievement by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, is no help in understanding what is afoot and, indeed, what is at stake.

Very recently, on July 20 in Beijing, the Chinese Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shen Guo Fang, told a group of visiting Indian journalists that "we expect problems" in the process of settling "border questions". Amit Baruah reported him as warning that "the deeper the two countries went into the issue the more the problems they would encounter" (The Hindu, July 21). Another correspondent who was present reported: "The officials here admit that the process of negotiations on settling the dispute has been painfully slow" (The Indian Express, July 21).

The Minister's remarks are noteworthy for three reasons. First, the warning and expression of disappointment, if not impatience, are most unusual and unprecedented, coming as they did on the eve of the talks which he was to hold with J.N. Dixit, the National Security Adviser, in New Delhi only six days later, on July 26-27. Secondly, it conveys a clear message that the format and content of the talks are not entirely to Chinese tastes. They are more subtle than those of Indians. Nearly two decades ago, on India's suggestion, China agreed to hold talks on the issue sector-wise. A deafening acclamation greeted this announcement of India's diplomatic triumph. They began with the eastern sector where India hoped to build on China's concession in 1956-59. China simply reiterated its claim to that entire sector in Arunachal Pradesh. Thirdly, China's warning demonstrates how wrong were Indian impressions of progress as reported by the correspondents who had accompanied the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Beijing in June 2003. They relied, doubtless, on official briefings.

The stark reality which New Delhi refuses to grasp is that since 1959 China has consistently favoured talks at a political level, and a high one at that, in order to settle the problem in one go. The leaders would agree on the broad outlines of a pact; officials would settle the details. India has, as consistently, reversed the process for a reason which China knows very well - no Indian government has felt itself strong enough to clinch a deal and sell it to the nation. As far back as in 1979 a Chinese source told a visiting senior Indian journalist that during his trip to China as Minister for External Affairs earlier in the year, "Vajpayee said `let us first settle the eastern sector', but we are for the settlement of all the three (sectors) at the same time" (emphasis added throughout).

If settlement of the border dispute has been beyond us, so has been the kind of dialogue, which Charles de Gaulle had with Adenauer on the Franco-German equation. It is a task far more difficult than settlement of the dispute. But a leadership unready for the lesser task - relatively, of course - can hardly be expected to tackle the larger one.

This collection of essays, like many such, is like the curate's egg; good in parts, from the outstanding to the downright shoddy. The editors are academics of distinction. Harry Harding is a specialist on United States' relations with China. Francine R. Frankel is a highly respected "India hand" author of the deservedly acclaimed India's Political Economy. The book is the result of a joint project by the Asia society and the Woodrow Wilson Centre. A delegation of the editors and authors visited India and China in 2001.

Frankel administers a sound caution in her introduction: "The U.S. preoccupation with the war on international terrorism and with preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction should not divert attention from underlying changes, well under way before the September 2001 attacks, that have the potential to affect the overall balance of power in the foreseeable future. Most important is the rise of China and India in Asia, both states with great-power ambitions. This is a period when old habits of suspicion and distrust could be shaken up by building on the mutual benefits of cooperation among the U.S., China and India against a common new danger. Alternatively, depending on how well U.S. strategy accommodates the security interests of China and India - which as this volume demonstrates, are often conflicting - long-standing suspicions of U.S. intentions in this part of the world could be exacerbated... . The cooperation of Russia, China, India, and - under U.S. pressure - the Pakistani government in the U.S.-led war on Islamist terrorism should not obscure the persistence of their significant concern about the purposes for which American power will be deployed. China, India, and Russia all have been uneasy with America's role as the sole superpower and the Bush administration's inclination toward unilateralism."

It is those underlying concerns and the trends, which they have set afoot, which this useful volume seeks to address. Sino-Russian relations have become close as was signified by the signing of the Treaty of Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation on July 16, 2001. India's relations with Russia have been put on the sure foundations of mutuality of the national interests. All three - India, Russia and China - are concerned to keep friendship with the U.S. in good repair. The weakest link in the chain is India's relations with China, of which the border dispute is only part of the core, albeit a vital one.

Francine Frankel's discussion of India-U.S. relations is refreshingly frank. What is "the specific policy content of the concept that India and the United States are national allies" given the U.S.' relations with Pakistan? And, how close can the relationship be? "India, which is relatively weaker than China, may be willing to accept America's global leadership so long as it is recognised as an equal partner, and to play an informal role with the U.S. in ensuring the Asian balance." But it is unlikely that the U.S. will agree to meet India's expectations.

A couple of Frankel's errors are grave. "The rulers of Kashmir attempted, but failed, to conquer Ladakh. The Chinese government in 1846, refused to enter into negotiations with the British to fix the boundary between Kashmir and Ladakh... . The British, undeterred, drew a boundary in 1846-47 between the Pangong Lake and the Karakoram Pass, which included the totally uninhabited "desolate plateau" of Aksai Chin (desert of white stones) within Kashmir. The boundary was published in an official British atlas in 1868. in the 1880s, China challenged the line, put its own boundary marker in the Karakoram, and in the mid-1890s claimed Aksai Chin. But Aksai Chin remained on British maps as part of Kashmir and as such was subsequently claimed by India."

This is wholly wrong. The Raja of Jammu, Gulab Singh, annexed Ladakh in 1834 and bought Kashmir from the British for Rs.75 lakhs in 1846, by the Treaty of Amritsar, which made him a vassal of the British. It was not "the boundary between Kashmir and Ladakh" which the British sought to settle but one between Ladakh and Tibet. To quote the authoritative Aitchison, "In 1846 and 1847 two commissions were appointed to demarcate the eastern boundary. They were to arrange - first, a boundary between British territory (now districts of Lahul and Spiti) on the south and the Kashmir territory of Ladakh on the north, and then a boundary between Ladakh on the west and Chinese Tibet on the east. The first commission submitted its report in May 1847... as regards the Ladak-Tibet boundary, the Commissioners could not... reach the Tibet border. China refused to cooperate... the demarcation of the boundary had to be abandoned. The northern as well as the eastern boundary of the Kashmir state is still undefined,", a formulation repeated not only in all editions of his compilation of Treaties but also in the maps attached to both the White Papers on Indian States in 1948 and 1950.

What the Commission drew was not "a boundary in 1846-47 between the Pangong Lake and the Karakoram Pass" to the north - it is a matter of common sense that if it had, the dispute would not have acquired the edge it did a century later - but from the Pangong Lake south to the Spiti river. Neither the map attached to Mountbatten's last Report to the King in September 1948 nor those attached to the White Papers of 1948 and 1950 showed Aksai Chin as Indian territory.

Sumit Ganguly's essay dealing specifically with "border issues, domestic integration and international security" is based on shoddy research and is pretentious. Sample this: "The possible alignment proposed by colonial administrators and cartographers for the western sector of the northern Himalayan border was the Ardagh-Johnson line, fashioned between 1865 and 1867. This border labelled the region of Aksai Chin, which is adjacent to Tibet, as part and parcel of British colonial territory under the nominal tutelage of the maharaja of Kashmir. Other surveys discussed included the Macartney-MacDonald line and the Trelawney-Saunders survey of the Karakoram range. Based on evidence in the public domain it appears that the national government of independent India chose a line approximating the Ardagh-Johnson line, as its interpretation of the frontier with China in the west. The decision to take up this particular formation was not arbitrary. Instead it was seen to be chosen on the basis of the body of cartographic, administrative and revenue collection records left behind by the British."

W.H. JOHNSON did a survey in 1865 and produced a map. General Sir John Ardagh, Director of Military Intelligence in the War Office in London, submitted his memorandum "The Northern Frontier of India, from the Pamirs to Tibet" on January 1, 1897, thirty-two years later (vide the text in Parshottam Mehra; An `Agreed' Frontier: Ladakh and India's Northernmost Borders - 1846-1947; Oxford University Press; 1992, pages 213-218. This excellently documented definitive work is neglected by Ganguly as well as Steven A. Hoffman). Ardagh's was an ambitious line. He mentions a couple of missions but ignores Johnson. The Ardagh Line drawn "for military purposes" was accepted neither by London nor Calcutta. Surveys are one thing, lines drawn by diplomats or the officials are another. It is preposterous to assert that "other surveys discussed included the Macartney-MacDonald line" - he does not confide in the reader what it was - "and the Trelawney-Saunders Survey of the Karakoram range". The latter was a cartographic expert, not a surveyor, in the India Office. He drew a map, on June 10, 1873, for the Foreign Office to illustrate an alignment then under discussion in London. Sir Claude MacDonald, the British Ambassador presented to China a Note dated March 14, 1899, proposing a boundary line all the way from the Sino-Indo-Afghan trijunction in the west, past the Karakoram Pass to a point "a little east of 80 east longitude". China did not respond, however. With changes to accommodate China on the road through the Aksai Chin, it could have formed a sound basis for an accord in 1959, giving China a large part of the Aksai Chin. It formed the basis for the Sino-Pak boundary accord on 1963.

There was no "Frelawney-Saundes survey" and no "surveys discussed (sic)" the line of 1899. Surveys had preceded the offer. Nor was it the Chinese who "made overtures towards Pakistan" as Ganguly asserts. It was, as his memoirs reveal, Ayub Khan who pressed a reluctant China to define the border after India had rebuffed both China and Pakistan in 1960.

Steven Hoffman is author of a substantial work India and the China Crisis (OUP; 1990). His essay "Perception and China Policy in India" draws on writings by and interviews with India's "strategic community" to understand Indian perception of China. It comprises academics, journalists and retired officials, civil and military. "Not only does their background lend weight to their views, but their written and spoken output can provide an indication of what their views were while still in government service, and of what they probably left behind in the government's copious files. Journalists, who think and write independently, can help to shape a consensus too. Journalists (and especially columnists and editors) count as members of the strategic community, and some have close government links."

By far the most important part of his essay is the point he makes about some Indian perceptions on the border. "To India's foundational Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (and to the Indian government acting in its formal capacity ever since), border creation was not just a matter of policy set forth by British proconsuls; they rejected the Western imperialist idea that nothing of India's precolonial history, natural geography, and other non-British influences should enter into the determination of its modern borders." In support of this comment he cites a source, revealingly: "For an expression of this viewpoint by a former government official who was highly involved in formulating the case for India's so-called `historical' borders at a critical time, see Sarvepalli Gopal; Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol. 3 (Cambridge; Harvard university Press, 1984), pages 303-6." Hoffman adds: "The point about the British policies and formulations not always having been the right ones was brought to my attention by S. Gopal, former head of the Indian Foreign Ministry's historical division, a major force in compiling the historical case for India's borders and Nehru's official biographer, during conversations held in New Delhi, London, and Madras between 1983 and 1986."

On six occasions in August-September 1959, Nehru admitted that the Aksai Chin was disputed territory, but changed his stand later in the year. Why? Gopal told Hoffman in 1983 of his researches whereby he "was able to influence Nehru", in late 1959 (pages 82 and 281 of Hoffman's book). It was a fateful error.

The note "The Northern Boundary of India", which Gopal appended to Vol. 3 of his biography of Nehru, most unusually, testifies to this ardour. "The inclination of some British officials at the end of the nineteenth century to relinquish Indian sovereignty over parts of the Aksai Chin plateau does not provide China with traditional rights to this area." So, India is bound by the situation it inherited on Independence. It can invoke "history" and - ask for more. This is utterly untenable in international law and morality. A successor state cannot claim a boundary, which its predecessor did not have. There is a name for such claims - revanchism. Sadly, Gopal misdirected himself and misadvised Nehru. But was not the McMahon Line 1914 also a British creation? India occupied Tawang only on February 12, 1951 evicting the Tibetan administration. Gopal wrote: "This traditional boundary of India... as shown by the official Indian maps of 1954, was known to the People's Republic of China when, by the treaty of 1954, they explicitly undertook to respect India's territorial integrity."

But, when the Panchsheel Agreement was signed on April 29, 1954, India's official maps showed the boundary in the western sector as "undefined". On July 1, 1954, Nehru ordered their withdrawal and the drawing of a new "firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody". It spelt collision and a deadlock which persists, still.

NO Indian student of China should ignore Susan L. Shirk's essay "One-Sided Rivalry: China's Perceptions and Policies toward India".

Professor at the University of California at San Diego, she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and cites Chinese sources not easy to come by. "There is a marked asymmetry in the mutual perceptions of India and China. For India, China looms large as an economic and political rival and as security threat. But for China, India merits little attention and, even after India's May 1998 nuclear tests, is not taken seriously as a security threat. Indian polices toward China are broadly debated and handled at the highest level of the political leadership, in contrast to Chinese policies toward India, which are ignored by the public and managed by the foreign affairs and military bureaucracies."

She reveals that "in a series of telephone calls during the days following the Indian tests, Secretary [of State Madeline] Albright and Foreign Minister Tang [Jiaxuan] decided to call a meeting of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in Geneva, not only to condemn the Indian tests but also to come up with a strategy for preventing a nuclear arms race in South Asia." China took the lead in drafting the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1172 of June 6, 1998.

The Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Department of the Foreign Ministry drafted China's response. Established in 1977, it has close ties to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and until 2000 was headed by "Sha Zukang, an intelligent, highly articulate diplomat and arms control negotiator whose wife was serving in the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. Sha, China's negotiator of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), appeared to be the architect of the touch response line, although some Indian and Chinese officials believe that he was reflecting the PLA perspective."

Susan Shirk makes another disclosure. Chinese institutions are not monoliths. "The divergent arms-control and regional perspectives within the MFA bureaucracy shaped China's response to the Indian nuclear tests because the issue was treated as `normal' foreign policy, not as a crisis. According to interview accounts, following the second tests and the publication of the Vajpayee accusations against China, the Foreign Policy Leading Small Group (FPLSG) met to determine China's response. Whereas policies toward the United States, Taiwan, or Japan sometimes merit consideration by the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). In this case, no PBSC meeting was called. Jiang Zemin was the Chairman of the FPLSG, which also included a military representative (usually General Xiong Guangkai), Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, CCP Foreign Affairs office head Liu Huaqiu, the Minister of State Security, and the head of the Xinhua News Agency. Apparently emerging from this meeting were the decisions to issue an MFA statement defending China's record against India's `gratuitous accusation' and to join with the United States and other powers to condemn India and lock it out of legitimate nuclear power status. In subsequent months, however, either the FPLSG did not take up policies toward India, or the group blessed the bifurcated approach of taking a tough official position on India's nuclear status (and needing the United States for being too soft) while at the same time resuming diplomatic engagement of India."

While Sumit Ganguly confidently avers that "India has had no success in persuading China to change its position on the Kashmir dispute except in a mostly semantic fashion", Susan Shirk asserts, twice, that China did shift its position on Kashmir away from the former pro-Pakistan stand. Prof. John W. Garver, a respected Sinologist, holds the same view.

Two other able essays deserve note; Ashley J. Tellis on "China and India in Asia" and George Perkovich on "The Nuclear and Security Balance". Ashely Tellis emphasises that India's growing power, might make China less smug. Perkovich notes that "The public and the state of India's still evolving technical capabilities combine to dampen the urgency for India for elaborating detailed plans for nuclear operations against China." All in all, an instructive volume.

On a personal note, this writer would like to acknowledge here the immense debt he owes in his studies on the subject to Ram Sathe who passed away on July 31. He was India's last Consul-General in Xinjiang, an Ambassador to China and rose to become Foreign Secretary. He was by far one of the best informed Indian diplomats on China, especially the border issue. He knew the Aksai Chin as it were like the back of his hand. He was wise and modest. It speaks for his moral courage and integrity that when the border talks with China were resumed in 1981 he declined to lead the team. He profoundly disagreed with the line Indira Gandhi took largely on the advice of G. Parthasarathy. He sent her a memo and drew up a map suggesting various options. Time has vindicated him on this and many other issues. We shall not see the like of him again.

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