Lessons from the past

Published : Dec 25, 2000 00:00 IST

A review of Sino-Indian relations over the past 50 years.


IN April next year, China and India will celebrate the golden jubilee of the establishment of mutual diplomatic relations. It is an opportune time to have a general review of Sino-Indian relations over the past half century.

China and India, as people in both countries used to say, represent two of the oldest civilisations and share similar experiences in modern times; the two countries, therefore, should have every reason to enjoy a relationship of friendly cooperation. How ever, the actual record of the last 50 years shows that our relations have been rather unsatisfactory. The time during which bilateral relations were warm amounts to only about one third of the whole period, with cool relations covering the remaining two thirds of it. In the decade since the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, both China and India have been subject to mounting pressures from the sole super power left in the world. People in China and India are talking about the need to bring abou t closer relations for the common interest of the two countries. But in view of the poor past record, many hurdles have to be cleared before their common aspirations can be realised. In this sense, it is necessary for both China and India to learn lesson s from their respective past.

I have been following the developments in the Sino-Indian relationship for more than 40 years and have witnessed all the ups and downs. Sino-Indian relations have thus far gone through the following nine different phases:

I. Cooperation and Struggle in the Early Years (1950-1954)

India was the first non-socialist country to establish formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. And new China looked to newly independent India as an important country for the effectuation of its good-neighbourly foreign policy. I t was a period when China and India worked in cooperation on many multilateral issues. China was appreciative of the active and positive role India played in the restoration of peace in the Korean peninsula and later in Indochina.

On the other hand, we had difficulties with India in regard to China's Tibet region right from the beginning. The Government of India (GOI) tried to prevent the liberation of the Tibet region in the early 1950s. Fortunately this problem was finally settl ed through peaceful negotiations. With the signing of the "Agreement between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of India on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India" and an exchange of Notes in April 1954, Sino-Indian re lations were properly regulated. This settlement ushered in the peak period in the Sino-Indian friendship.

II. The First Upsurge in the Sino-Indian Friendship and Cooperation (1954-1958)

The agreement of 1954, especially the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence in the preamble of the agreement, laid down the foundation for the fast development of friendship and cooperation between China and India.

In June 1954, Premier Zhou Enlai paid his first visit to New Delhi at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Premier was very warmly welcomed on a mass scale. During the Premier's four-day stay in the Indian capital, he had very cordial t alks with the Indian Prime Minister. They both expressed the desire to work together for peace and security in Asia and the world as well as for the advancement of economic reconstruction in their respective countries. Prime Minister Nehru suggested to P remier Zhou that the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, which was jointly initiated by China and India in April 1954, should be extended to South-East Asia in order to create a neutral zone of peace. It was conceived that it should be a zone witho ut foreign military bases and free from the fear of war or external interference or aggression. And this, Nehru pointed out, was the best answer to the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO).

In October 1954, Nehru paid a return visit to Beijing. He became the first head of government of a foreign country that the People's Republic of China ever received. He was given an equally warm mass reception, and that set a precedent in giving mass rec eptions to foreign heads of government or state for many years in its wake.

In April 1955, the successful cooperation between China and India reached its peak at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. It also set a high mark in Afro-Asian solidarity for independence from colonial rule. This period in Sino-Indian relations was some times termed by Western writers as the Sino-Indian "honeymoon"; it was also called the "golden era" in Indian diplomacy.

III. Armed Rebellion in Tibet and a Great Setback in the Sino-Indian Relations (1959)

Interference, and anti-interference, has been a great obstacle on the road of the Sino-Indian relations. It turned up in the early 1950s and also in the mid-1950s when the Dalai Lama wanted to stay back in India as a result of instigation. India's attemp t to interfere in Tibet was thoroughly exposed during the rebellion of 1959. Prime Minister Nehru expressed sympathy for the rebellion and even accused China of "armed interference" when China took legitimate measures to stabilise the situation in Tibet. And he said on more than one occasion that China enjoined only suzerainty over Tibet. For the last 40 years, an exile government under the Dalai Lama has been active in India although the Government of India again and again assured China that the Dalai Lama was allowed to stay in India only as a religious leader.

IV. Open Boundary Dispute and Border War (1959-1962)

It is quite normal to have boundary issues between neighbouring countries as long as the boundary line is not legally delineated. Issues of this nature can be settled amicably and fairly through peaceful negotiations in the spirit of mutual understanding and accommodation. Therefore, the existence of boundary questions does not necessarily become a serious problem in bilateral relations between two countries. It was only the policy pursued by the then GOI that made the boundary question an explosive dis pute. The GOI of the time refused to have a negotiated settlement, insisting that there was no boundary question at all, that the "McMahon line" was the legal boundary line at the eastern sector, and so on and so forth. It accused China of aggression in areas where there were territorial disputes. And that was not all. The then GOI further carried out the so-called "forward policy" to get rid of the alleged Chinese aggression by using force. It was the "forward policy" that finally forced China into str iking back in self-defence. This is the true story of India's China war of 1962.

V. Allround Deterioration in Bilateral Relations (1961-1968)

Before the border war broke out, the Indian Ambassador in Beijing was called back in July 1961. One year later, China's Ambassador also left New Delhi. Border trade was stopped from April 1962 when the famous Agreement of 1954 was not renewed on its expi ry. The Sino-Indian trade agreement had expired at the end of 1959 and was not renewed. In December 1962, India withdrew its consulates-general from Lhasa and Shanghai and ours had to leave Calcutta and Bombay (now renamed Mumbai) on India's demand. Arou nd those bad years, the Xinhua News Agency correspondent was ordered to leave India, Chinese publications were banned in India, the properties of the Bank of China's branch offices in Calcutta and Bombay were taken away by the Indian authorities and over seas Chinese were victimised. Sino-Indian bilateral relations thus came down to a frozen nadir.

VI. Long Process of Normalisation (1969-1976)

If an exchange of Ambassadors is taken as the main indicator for normalisation of diplomatic relations between states, then Sino-Indian relations were abnormal for 15 long years (1961 to 1976). The Indian Foreign Secretary put out his first diplomatic fe eler on November 12, 1969, for sending back India's Ambassador to Beijing. The new Ambassador, however, actually arrived in Beijing only in July 1976. Why did the GOI need six years and eight months to put this decision into action? There were three main factors: 1) The GOI was unwilling to face bravely its own responsibility. As late as June 15, 1974, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi insisted that the future of India-China relations depended on how China looked at India. 2) The normalisation process was re peatedly constrained by various developments in South Asia. 3) The functionaries of the Indian bureaucracy were usually overcautious and hesitant in the absence of a decision from the highest authority.

VII. Boundary Issue Became Main Barrier (1976-1988)

In December 1981, China and India started an institution of regular dialogue at the level of Vice-Foreign Minister. Up till November 1987, eight rounds of such dialogue were held. Apart from the boundary question, cooperation in various fields such as tr ade, science and technology, cultural exchanges and exchanges of views on the international situation were carried forward slowly but steadily. Yet the progress in bilateral relations was not up to expectations. The main barrier was the boundary issue. T he Chinese side explained to the Indian side that the boundary issue was too complicated for a quick resolution, and that for the time being India and China might first develop friendly and cooperative relations in other fields, so as to create a better atmosphere for a final settlement of the boundary question. But the Indian side insisted that before the settlement of the boundary dispute, there could not be a breakthrough in other fields. So, exchanges of high-level official visits were blocked all t hose years.

VIII. Visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi Broke the Impasse (December 1988-May 1998)

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid an official visit to Beijing from December 19 to 23, 1988. He was the first Indian head of government to visit China after a gap of 34 years. His visit was even more significant in the sense that it lifted the self-impose d ban on visits by high level Indian officials to China. This visit opened a new chapter in the Sino-Indian friendly and cooperative relationship. For about a decade thereafter, Sino-Indian bilateral relations developed steadily and smoothly.

The main achievements in those ten years were: 1) High-level visits were resumed with major results. The most important of them were Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's visit to China in 1993 and President Jiang Zemin's visit to India in 1996. During the ir visits, two important Confidence Building Measure (CBM) agreements on maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) were signed. 2) Trade and economic cooperation developed rapidly. China resumed dire ct trade with India in 1977. The turnover of the bilateral trade was $246 million in 1988. It increased to more than $2 billion in 1998.

IX. Dramatic Deterioration in Relations in the Wake of India's Nuclear Tests (May 1998- )

On May 11, 1998, India conducted a second round of underground nuclear tests in the desert of Rajasthan. The next day, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee wrote a secret letter to the heads of G-8 nations, accusing China of posing a nuclear threat to India and having committed "armed aggression" against India in 1962. Around the same time, Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes publicly and repeatedly referred to China as "the number one potential threat" to India. No matter what the real intention of the GO I was, such behaviour was bound to have a very negative impact on bilateral relations. In fact, Sino-Indian relations sank to a new low.

Signs of hope came only a year later when External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh came to Beijing (in June 1999) for talks with his Chinese counterpart. Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told Jaswant Singh that his visit was an important step in the present process of improving bilateral relations. Tang pointed out that the prerequisites for the development of Sino-Indian relations should be that neither side should see the other as a threat and that the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence shou ld be taken as the basis. And Jaswant Singh agreed. Talking about the Kosovo issue during his meeting with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, the Indian Minister for External Affairs stressed the special significance of adhering to the Five Principles of Peacef ul Co-existence in the current international situation. He assured the Premier that India was willing to resume and improve bilateral relations with China on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. And now that a new GOI has come into being, with more or less old faces, I am hopeful that this process of normalisation will continue.

HAVING reviewed the entire process of Sino-Indian relations over the past 50 years, one may be able to draw certain conclusions:

1. Friendly and cooperative relations are very important for both China and India, especially in this post-Cold-War world. Its significance cannot possibly be overestimated.

2. The way to forge such a relationship is by no means easy, and sometimes may even be very rough. Psychologically, we have to be fully prepared for it.

3. In dealing with this great neighbour, we should always guard against undue optimism or pessimism. While extravagant optimism may result in great disappointment followed by overreactions, morbid pessimism may obscure the importance of this great potent ial partnership in the struggle for a fair and just new world order.

4. We ought to respect India as a potential great power just as China is. We should try to understand India's legitimate security concerns as it has repeatedly expected us to do. On the other hand, it will be wishful thinking if one expects to win India over by making unprincipled concessions to its unreasonable demands whether they are in relation to bilateral issues or concerning our relations with the subcontinent. If we falter, they can be insatiable. The result may just be the opposite. As a Chines e saying goes, "to tolerate evil is to abet it."

5. I appreciate the suggestion put forward by some Indian counterparts that we should tackle hard issues between our two countries and not remain satisfied with merely improving the atmosphere. However, I would like to remind our friends that "a melon fa lls off its stem only when it is ripe." In the process, free and frank exchanges of views with open minds are extremely important.

Ye Zhengjia is Senior Fellow at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), Beijing.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment