China's gesture

Print edition : June 04, 2004

China acknowledges India's sovereignty over Sikkim by issuing a revised map of the relevant region.

in Singapore

CHINA'S latest gesture of recognising Sikkim as an integral part of India, by issuing a revised map of the relevant region, has certainly helped tone up the quality of the current comfort level in the bilateral relationship.

A photocopy of the map published in the latest edition of the World Affairs Year Book 2003-2004. The official Chinese publication has stopped mentioning Sikkim as a separate country. This is the first time that China has done so, recognising Sikkim's merger with India in 1975.-

World Affairs Year Book

India, therefore, has reason to feel vindicated in its belief that the status of Sikkim would cease to be a contentious issue in Sino-Indian interactions in due course and that the new "development" should be seen as a corollary to the understanding reached during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Beijing in June 2003.

However, China's carefully calibrated moves on the diplomatic front relating to Sikkim, evident for nearly a year now, have fallen dramatically short of a formal declaration or an official pronouncement which Beijing could perhaps have made to signal a categorical acceptance of India's sovereignty over Sikkim. The reasons at stake will be easier to comprehend in the light of the nature and scope of the step-by-step approach that Beijing has chosen to adopt.

China's latest cartographic recognition of India's sovereignty over Sikkim is actually a sequel to the memorandum on Sino-Indian border trade signed in June last and Beijing's move last October to erase Sikkim from the list of independent countries posted on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

China's latest World Affairs Year Book has, for the first time, portrayed Sikkim as a "subsumed part" of the overall Indian landmass in a revised map of the relevant region. No less important is the fact that the annual reference book, brought out by a publishing house affiliated to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, no longer classifies Sikkim under the index of independent states.

The Year Book is considered to be a valuable source material for the maps and basic data that would be widely accessible to the Chinese people. This should help sensitise the Chinese people to Beijing's gradual acceptance of the ground reality concerning India's sovereignty over Sikkim. In this sense, the new gesture to India is more important than China's earlier steps.

While the Chinese Foreign Ministry website has its place in reflecting the country's perceptions of the international scene at any given time, the Sino-Indian border trade protocol set up a new marker for bilateral exchanges. At one level, the memorandum, which identified "Changgu of Sikkim State" as a new "venue for border trade market", was portrayed by Chinese officials as a trade-related aspect of a "win-win solution". Tempering the temptation to read the memorandum as any kind of border agreement insofar as Sikkim was concerned, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan emphasised last June that Sikkim, "an enduring question left over from history, ...cannot be solved overnight". It would require to be "solved in a gradual manner".

With the meaning of "gradual manner" now becoming clearer, it now remains to be seen whether China's next white paper on foreign policy, expected to be issued later this year, will amplify the reality reflected in the new official map. Until now Sikkim had been regarded as an independent entity for the purpose of China's overall world-view.

While critics of New Delhi point out that India declared its recognition of "the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the territory of People's Republic of China" last June without securing a similar statement from China on Sikkim, two relevant aspects still need to be kept in focus.

First, while Sikkim is now shown as part of India in China's official map, the overall Sino-Indian border would still require to be politically defined and strategically outlined through a final settlement of the dispute through negotiations, including those at the level of special representatives.

The second and equally important reality pertains to the reasons why China has chosen a calibrated approach towards the Sikkim issue. Beijing's latest move is in line with the indications given to this correspondent by informed sources in the Chinese establishment last June that a suitable revision of the relevant map would best address Beijing's sensitivities in recognising the ground reality of India's possession of Sikkim. China's perception, it was pointed out, was that India had in the 1970s "annexed" Sikkim, which indeed enjoyed historical links with Tibet until the British "imperialist design" ruptured them.

Quite apart from China's perception of the international law regarding Sikkim, Beijing's hesitation so far to issue a formal statement acknowledging India's sovereignty in this case is an anomaly, although neither country portrays this as a lacuna.

A file photograph of the border between India and China at the Nathu La in Sikkim.-REUTERS

In a sense, the anomaly can be traced to the basic asymmetry that exists in the Sino-Indian equation. To underline the evident asymmetry, or at least an impression of some inequality, is not meant, however, to downplay the incremental dynamism in the Sino-Indian engagement at this point.

For China, which wants to play a global role in the current context of the U.S.' efforts to dominate the international scene, India is still little more than a giant neighbour or a potential competitor in a wider domain. This should explain the asymmetry. However, the Chinese foreign policy mandarins continue to echo what was eloquently stated by Sha Zhukang in the late 1990s: Beijing "always considers itself an equal member of the international community" although "it goes without saying, of course, that China has its own national interests to protect". While India's recognition of China's plenary sovereignty over Tibet is certainly a matter of "national interests", Beijing has calculated that its interests would be served by gradually accepting the ground realities regarding Sikkim.

Speaking from Beijing, Zhou Gang, China's former Ambassador to India, said in a telephonic conversation on May 11 that the "process" of adopting "a more flexible attitude" towards the Sikkim issue, as indicated by the Chinese leadership last June, "is moving in the right direction". A long-time Chinese expert on India, Wang Hongwei, told Frontline that the Sikkim issue in the Sino-Indian context was "now basically solved" through a "step-by-step" process. His "personal view" was that it might "not [look] good" for China to make a formal declaration on India's sovereignty over Sikkim, in view of the perception that India's annexation of that territory in 1974 was "not valid" in international law.

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