Surveyor or statesman?

Print edition : November 14, 2014

A convoy organised by the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, then in the opposition, heads towards the border with China in Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh, in October 21. The rally paid homage to the martyrs of the 1962 war. Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

Finance Minister Jaswant Singh with his Chinese counterpart, Xiang Huaicheng, at a bilateral during G20 taks in New Delhi in November 2002. Photo: Kamal Narang

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai (second from right) and other Chinese leaders in Beijing on October 10, 1954. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself agreeable to a boundary settlement with China which inevitably must be based on compromise?

NOTHING came out of the visit of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the External Affairs Minister, to China in February 1979. Foreign Minister Huang Hua returned the visit in June 1981.

There are few parallels in international diplomacy for that exercise in fatuity, the charcha that followed from 1981 to 2014. Discussions were held in Beijing from December 10 to 14, 1981, at the Secretary level. India’s opening offer was the Colombo Power proposals of 1963. They were to serve as a basis for discussions for a solution rather than as a basis of a solution itself. They simply laid down the preliminaries for a dialogue. China had rejected them in 1963 and instead suggested an accord on the basis of the status quo in the form of five general principles. In the second round of the talks in New Delhi, from May 17 to 20, 1982, India countered with six. Each tried to get the other to accept conveniently phrased generalities which could then be interpreted to imply acceptance by the other of its proposals in concrete terms.

For example, India’s six “working propositions” were: (1) a solution must be found as early as possible; (2) it should be a just solution taking into account the legitimate interests of both sides; (3) both sides should find a commonly agreed approach and basis for discussions; (4) the proposals advanced by either side, as constituting an approach to problem, should be considered by the other and efforts should be made to narrow the differences; (5) it is necessary to take steps to create a propitious atmosphere, by implementing the Colombo proposals, for instance; and (6) appropriate methods should be adopted to settle the boundary in each sector taking into account the different aspects of each sector.

No progress was made at the third meeting held in Beijing from January 29 to February 3, 1983. The fourth round in New Delhi, from October 24 to 30, 1983, concluded with a procedural compromise of dubious worth. China agreed to “sector-wise discussions… of the boundary with a view to reaching an overall settlement”. India’s suggestion of sector-wise discussion was married to China’s suggestion of a comprehensive settlement.

On the conclusion of the fifth round in Beijing on September 22, 1984, “It was agreed that both sides will, at the next round of talks, commence substantive discussions on the boundary question.” When discussions began on the eastern sector, China claimed Arunachal Pradesh.

Indian officials were shocked out of their smugness. Smart expectations of China accepting the McMahon Line were belied at this sixth round of talks (November 4-11, 1985). Instead, China now demanded Indian concessions in the east. This was regarded in New Delhi as a “setback”. The seventh (July 1986) and eighth (November 1988) rounds were of little value.

Around this time China’s position was clarified in two important pronouncements. On June 2, 1986, Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Shuqing told visiting Indian journalists, “We have no intention of recovering the totality of the disputed area” in the eastern sector; but, “some adjustments will have to be made”. There could be no “unilateral concessions”. He amplified, “If India makes some readjustments and concessions in the eastern sector, then we could also make corresponding adjustments and concessions in the western sector.”

In 1980 Deng Xiaoping was ready to accept “the present line of actual control in the eastern sector” if India did the same in the western sector. In 1985 China demanded concessions in the east first, and it has stuck to it to this day, 30 years later. Whether the hardening is a reaction to India’s tactics (“sector-wise” talks or demarcation) is not clear. But it is China’s style to go along with a suggested ploy and bring the exercise to a head by stating its own position—negotiate an overall settlement in one go. At the end of the eighth round of talks in New Delhi, India proposed a visit to China by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Joint Communique issued by Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Li Peng on December 23, 1988, said that a “Joint Working Group on the Boundary Question” would be established. It was later buttressed with Experts. Next came the Special Representatives.

One is reminded of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Note to the Cabinet Secretary on April 6, 1953: “It is clear… that nothing substantial can come out of a discussion of Kashmir on the official level. The only possibility is noting down various lines of approach without commitment.” That is precisely why their services are enlisted in some cases—to avoid a settlement.

Six agreements

As many as six agreements were concluded between China and India from 1993 to 2013: 1. On Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity in the Border Areas along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) signed in Beijing on September 7, 1993: Respect the LOAC (undemarcated though it was); not overstep it. “When necessary… jointly check and determine the segments of the LOAC where they have different views as to its alignment”; keep the troops along the Line “to a minimum level”; reduce them in “agreed geographical locations sector-wise” along the LOAC. The Joint Working Group (JWG) set up in 1988 will acquire diplomatic and military experts to “advise” each Group inter alia “on the alignment of the LOAC”.

2. On confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the Military Field along the LOAC signed in New Delhi on November 29, 1996: respect the Line and not “overstep” it; reduce the forces, exchange data on the reduction, decide on ceilings on forces and armaments and more in the same vein such as flag meetings and the rest.

Article 10 is important. Since the full implementation of the agreement depended on “a common understanding of the alignment” of the LOAC, the parties agreed “to speed up the process of clarification and confirmation” of the LOAC beginning with clarification in the segments “where they have different perceptions”. Maps were to be exchanged “indicating their respective perceptions of the entire alignment of the LOAC as soon as possible”. Mark the words clarification and confirmation. Each side clarifies its line to the other. Confirmation follows only if the two lines are adjusted and an agreed LOAC is then drawn up.

3. A Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation was issued in Beijing on June 24, 2003, on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit. They “agreed to each appoint a Special Representative to explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement”. In plain words, the boundary dispute was to be tackled, sensibly enough, in the context of the overall relationship between India and China. Therefore, the “framework” of a settlement was to be explored from “the political perspective”.

Yet it was the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary and National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, who was appointed the Special Representative. His successors were J.N. Dixit, M.K. Narayanan and Shivshankar Menon—officials all. The farce of the maps to clarify the LOAC will be considered later.

4. “On the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question” was signed in New Delhi on April 11, 2005, along with a Protocol on the same day.

Article 3 read: “Both sides should, in the spirit of mutual respect and mutual understanding, make meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments to their respective positions on the boundary question, so as to arrive at a package settlement to the boundary question. The boundary settlement must be final covering all sectors of the India-China boundary.”

Articles 5 and 7 said: “The two sides will take into account, inter alia, historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas” and “in reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.”

Article 10 provided for the follow-up. “The Special Representatives on the boundary question shall continue their consultations in an earnest manner with the objective of arriving at an agreed framework for a boundary settlement, which will provide the basis for the delineation and demarcation of the India-China boundary to be subsequently undertaken by civil and military officials and surveyors of the two sides.”

The Special Representatives were, thus, enjoined to arrive at an “agreed framework for a settlement”, on the basis of the alluring Parameters and Principles, which will, in turn “provide the basis for the delineation and demarcation” of the boundary. Nine years have gone by and the framework is yet to be agreed. Those who fondly imagined that the reference to the “settled populations in the border areas” implied a tacit acceptance of the McMahon Line, which has a well-settled population below it, were soon disillusioned. “Safeguard due interests” of the people had a narrower meaning elsewhere. The Indian love of words and passion for legalism gets us nowhere.

5. On the establishment of a “Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs” signed in New Delhi on January 17, 2012. It was to be headed by a Joint Secretary on the Indian side and a Director-General on China’s side; both officials from their respective Foreign Ministries. Its aim was to strengthen the earlier accords on the LOAC. The boundary dispute was outside its purview.

6. “On Border Defence Cooperation” signed in Beijing on October 23, 2013. More of the same. Article 8, for instance, enjoined “maximum self-restraint” in the event of “a face-to-face situation” in areas where they differ on where the LOAC lies. An impressive harness for a horse which refuses to wear it.

For a political approach

The lack of progress on the dispute itself is not hard to understand. China never, for once, altered the approach which Zhou Enlai had defined way back in November 1959. The leader of the Chinese team, Ma Gong Dafei, said in Beijing on October 20, 1983: “Personally, I feel that it is important to hold talks on the boundary level at ministerial level.” This reflected the Chinese emphasis on a political approach. In 1984, China renewed its suggestion for conducting the talks at the political level.

When Gong said “the important thing is to reach an agreement on the question of principle” and added that the “specific question would have to be left to experts”, he clearly meant, in the context of his remarks on the level of discussions, a political agreement on the broad framework which experts could later elaborate in concrete terms. In 1987, China’s Ambassador to India, Tu Guoweei, said that the package settlement must be effected “ at one go” and cover “all three sectors”. The expert Jing Hui wrote: “The border issue has to be solved politically” (Guoji Wenti Yanjiu; January 13, 1988). On April 14, 1988, Vice-Premier Wu Xueqian said: “If the talks are carried at higher political levels then they can only be about some principles and if concrete issues of the boundary question are not settled on principles, then they cannot be settled”—by officials. Cheng Ruisheng served in the Chinese Embassy with distinction; first as Counsellor and next, in the early 1990s, as Ambassador. At a seminar in New Delhi in January 1999, he said, “The border issue can be settled by way of a package deal involving territorial concessions on a give-and-take basis.”

A strong thread of continuity in China’s approach ran for 40 years, from 1959 to 1999. India ignored the hints, with two consequences. China concluded that India was not ready or willing for a compromise and hardened its own stand. Gone are the offers of old.

Zhou taunted in a letter to Nehru on April 20, 1963: “But if the Indian government, owing to the needs of its internal and external political requirements, is not prepared to hold negotiations for the time being, the Chinese government is willing to wait with patience.”

Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi told an Indian correspondent in September 2001 that China was not sure “if the Indian political establishment had arrived at a democratic consensus that would be required to sustain the difficult negotiations.… I am not sure if the conditions concerning ‘mutual understanding and mutual accommodation’ is agreed to by Indian friends”. In sum, he thinks India is not ready to make concessions to secure a compromise. And even if it is, its leaders lack the guts and the clout to put it through. It is not flattering to recall that precisely this taunt was hurled by Zhou to Nehru on April 20, 1963.

Vijay Nambiar, India’s Ambassador to China and High Commissioner to Pakistan, felt that “the Chinese seem to think India is unprepared” for an open debate on the package proposal ( Force; April 2005).

A fierce passion for holding on to territory, regardless of its worth and the national interest, has long held the nation in its thrall. In 1968, shortly after the Rann of Kutch Award, this writer was driving down from Delhi to Faridabad for a Quaker Seminar, in the stimulating company of Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau. A remark he made sums up the national mood: “Yours is the only country in the world which wins 90 per cent of its case before an international tribunal and calls it defeat.” India broke two international agreements on the cession of Beru Bari; the Nehru-Noon Agreement of September 10, 1958, and the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Mujibur Rehman Agreement of May 16, 1974. The matter was finalised in a messy deal after prolonged litigation. Beru Bari is about the size of a football field. The ruthless political warfare which broke out after the Congress split in 1969 continues to this day. Television channels run by loud ignorant anchors have made matters worse. No Indian Prime Minister has shown a willingness to grasp the nettle. All preferred to mark time with agreements on the LOAC. The Chumar incident, doubtless, proved their efficacy.

Meanwhile, China hardened its stand. Gone was Zhou’s offer of 1960. In February 1979, Deng Xiaoping told Vajpayee that it was the eastern sector that was the area of the largest dispute. Zhou had suggested that it was the western sector. On June 21, 1980, Deng Xiaoping proposed a package deal. “Then this question can be solved with [ sic] one sentence. For instance, in the eastern sector, we can recognise the existing status quo—I mean the so-called McMahon Line. This was left over from history. But in the western sector, the Indian government should also recognize the existing status quo.” Since the mid-1980s China has been insisting that India must first make a concession in the eastern sector. Only a political dialogue at the very highest level can break such an impasse.

The drive to define the LOAC was a distraction. It ended in a predictable fiasco. China had made plain its approach on the LOAC. At the sixth meeting of the JWG in July 1993, Vice Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan made a suggestion to let the LOAC be the one “which is well-known to both sides”. We know where you are, and vice versa. But if an LOAC is to be defined, it must be the line “drawn on 7 November 1959”, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Shuqing had said as far back as on June 15, 1987.

What was the magic about that date? Zhou Enlai’s letter to Nehru of November 7, 1959, defined the LOAC as “the so-called McMahon Line in the east”—not the one varied by India—and “the line upto which each side exercises actual control in the West”. China complained that in 1997 India established two posts in the Sumdorong Cha Valley beyond the McMahon Line. In August 1995 the JWG agreed that each side should withdraw from its posts.

Differences on the LOAC have been identified. In the east they are, broadly, the areas around the Namka Chu, Char Ju, Tulung La, Asaphila, Longju, Che Dong, and the Diphu Pass (the trijunction with Myanmar). It is Bara Hoti plus four areas in the middle sector. In the west it is Trig Heights, near the Karakoram Pass, Chushul, Kongka Pass, Pangong Lake, and Demchok in the south, traversed by the Indus. So, what was the problem in demarcation since the differences were small? Evidently, it was China’s reservation of a fundamental nature.

The LOAC must not become a boundary proper. On the 40th anniversary of the October 1962 war, Rong Ying, Deputy Director for South Asian Studies, China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, warned, “No attempt should be made to impose the illegal McMahon Line by taking advantage of the process of verification of the LOAC.” China’s preference has always been for a negotiated political settlement in one go in a package deal based on the status quo, subject to concessions by both sides.

China’s stand and its reservations were all too well-known when the former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh plunged into the fray in 2000. He wrote to Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, stressing the need for an early accord on the LOAC. President K.R. Narayanan was advised to raise it during his visit to China in May 2000. But President Jiang Zemin pointedly replied that it would “take time and patience”.

Exchange of maps

Jaswant Singh triumphantly exclaimed in Beijing on March 29, 2002, that the result of his endeavours was “something India has not been able to achieve in the last fifty years”. He laid down the timetable for maps to be exchanged. Those for the middle sector had already been exchanged. Maps for the west would be exchanged in June, ending the process in 2002. Maps for the east would be exchanged early in 2003.

Shortly after the maps for the mere 545-km-long middle sector were exchanged on November 14, 2000, the COAS Gen. S. Padmanabhan said on January 14, 2001, that perceptions on the LOAC were “poles apart”. To this day the differences have not been adjusted. The LOAC is not “confirmed”. Each side has only “clarified” its line.

When the Experts Group met on June 19, 2002, the Indian side was in for a surprise. India’s sample map for the western sector included Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well as the 5,180 sq. km that India says that Pakistan gave to China. China refused to accept India’s “sample map”.

As far back as on June 27, 1960, in the official level talks, the Director, First Asian Department in China’s Foreign Office, Chang Wen-chin, presented a map and a written statement excluding the area west of the Karakoram Pass from discussion with India. He objected to India’s map which included that area. Since the exercise was about the LOAC, India could have presented its map confined to just that line while reiterating explicitly its caveat on the China-Pakistan accord. The map it presented created an issue of prestige for both. India did so in full knowledge of the 40-year-old impasse.

Nor will China accept any challenge to the boundary agreement with Pakistan of March 2, 1963. It rests squarely on the British Note to China on March 18, 1899, as varied in India’s favour by Lord Curzon in August 1905.

It is into such a minefield that Prime Minister Narendra Modi blissfully walked in on September 18 when he proposed delineation of the LOAC. It raises serious concerns about his handling of this entire problem in the days ahead. Opinion in his circles is strongly against China, which he himself called “expansionist”. On October 3, 2014, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) boss Mohan Bhagwat urged a boycott of Chinese goods. Is Modi himself agreeable to a boundary settlement which inevitably must be based on a compromise?

It is a daunting task—educating the people about the facts of history, organising a national consensus in support of a settlement since a constitutional amendment will be necessary to effectuate the settlement; and persevering doggedly and skilfully in pursuit of a boundary settlement with China. No Special Representative has yet been named. Perhaps that is just as well. For their remit will be to seek “an agreed framework for a boundary settlement” as envisaged by Article 10 of the “Political Parameters” Agreement of April 11, 2005.

Nearly 30 years ago, a Chinese diplomat remarked to this writer, “Children cannot lift a huge stone; grown-ups must do the job”—political leadership must resolve the impasse. Each side has its vital non-negotiable interest (the McMahon Line and the Aksai Chin road) within its own control. For the rest, adjustments are possible. In 1914, McMahon himself recognised that his line “admitted of more detailed and exact definition”. On April 8, 1947, L.A.C. Fry, Deputy Secretary, said “The Government of India must stand by the McMahon Line” but it would be prepared to discuss its “rectification” on “reasonable grounds”.

The Line was not described in words. It was simply drawn on a rather smaller-scale map in red ink with a thick nib. In that terrain, that makes a good difference. Now, a century later, we can draw on aerial cartography. In some parts India has gone beyond it; in others, China. There is room for adjustment provided its basic alignment is not disturbed. The Ladakh sector cries for adjustment.

India must demonstrate that it is willing and able to arrive at a fair compromise by “give-and-take”. It is for China also to demonstrate that. No Indian government can cede Tawang and survive even for a day. China will not repudiate its agreement of 1963 with India. Way back in 1956 India wrote off Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. It cannot regain it except by war.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has aroused serious doubts as to whether his passion for oratory, as it is, can be matched by statesman-like action. As B.R. Ambedkar said, “Boundary-marking is the task of a surveyor; boundary-making is the task of a statesman.”

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