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A Powder-keg of a Border

B.S.Raghavan, C3S Paper No. 110 dated February 23, 2008

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How courteous is the Japanese;
He always says, “Excuse it, please.”
He climbs into his neighbor’s garden,
And smiles, and says, “I beg your pardon”;
He bows and grins a friendly grin,
And calls his hungry family in;
He grins, and bows a friendly bow;
“So sorry, this my garden now.”

— Humorous Poem by Ogden Nash

The uncertainty over the 4056 km long border between India and China — one of the longest inter-state borders in the world, and the only one of China’s land borders not defined or demarcated on maps or delineated on the ground — for the past 50 years shows no sign of ending. On the contrary, the embers are being stoked from the Chinese side at shorter and shorter intervals, almost in the manner of playing kabaddi, presumably to test the sharpness of India’s reflexes.

Simply put, the kernel of the dispute is the occupation by China of 43,180 sq km in Ladakh, including 5180 sq km of Shaksgam Valley handed over to China by Pakistan under the Sino-Pakistan Boundary Agreement of 1963 and the possession by India of 90,000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh which China claims to be its territory.

The matter is kept on the boil by a variety of means. A sampler: Making incursions, demanding demolition of India’s bunkers for ostensibly violating the Line of Actual Control (LAC), staking claims at the unofficial, official and diplomatic levels to areas in this or that sector forming an integral part of India’s territory, administering pinpricks such as refusal of visa to IAS probationers from Arunachal Pradesh to visit China and taking exception to the visit of Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, to Arunachal Pradesh, harping on the issue of Dalai Lama and his followers being given refuge in India. In short, if China’s intention was to keep India in a constant state of jitters and never to let it have peace of mind, it could not have chosen a better modus operandi.

Capping it all, in recent months, China has deliberately escalated its claim to Arunachal Pradesh to an acrimonious pitch. Not many know that it has already proclaimed it to be China’s Southern Tibet.

Silver Linings

There are, however, two silver linings in the cloud. First, the status of Sikkim as “a State of the Republic of India” is no longer in question since the Joint Statement of April 11, 2005, of the Chinese Premier, Mr. Wen Jiabao and Indian Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, has explicitly recognised it as such in the context of promoting border trade through the Nathula Pass. Second, pursuant to a number of agreements, declarations and protocols signed between 1993 and 2005, the two countries have bound themselves to maintain peace and tranquility, and implement confidence building measures in the military field along the LAC. Article I of the latest agreement on “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question” signed on the occasion of the visit of Chinese Premier, Mr.Wen Jiabao, to India on April 11, 2005, categorically states: “The differences on the boundary question should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations. The two sides will resolve the boundary question through peaceful and friendly consultations. Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means. The final solution of the boundary question will significantly promote good neighbourly and friendly relations between India and China”.

Notwithstanding these pious asseverations, the confabulations among the Special Representatives, and members of the Joint Working Group and the Expert Group to explore the avenues for settlement have made no headway despite God knows how many meetings. The explanation immediately coming to mind pertains to the complexity, tantamount to insuperability, of the longish string of stipulations attached to the exercise to the following effect: It should be a ‘package settlement’; it must be final, covering all sectors of the boundary; it should pay due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests, and the principle of mutual and equal security; it must take into account, among other relevant factors, historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas; the boundary should be along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features to be mutually agreed upon between the two sides; and in reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas. Contrary to the interpretation put on the last condition by India, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, clearly told the External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, in June 2007 that the “mere presence of populated areas in Arunachal Pradesh would not affect Chinese claims on the boundary.” To give the Devil its due, the language of the clause only calls for safeguarding due interests of settled populations and does not preclude their transfer to either country provided other conditions are met. And meeting the other conditions is going to be a long drawn-out process at the pace at which negotiations have been conducted so far.

Egregious Miscalculation

India has so far proceeded under the assumption that the more the time it takes the more the chance of wearing out the Chinese and the better the prospect of a settlement along the lines it favours. This can turn out to be an egregious miscalculation fraught with the same catastrophic consequences as those of Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “I have asked the Army to throw them (Chinese) out!”

An analysis prepared by Dr. Mohan Malik for the Power and Interest News Report refers to the recommendation of an internal study on India undertaken in mid-2005 (with inputs from China’s South Asia watchers such as Cheng Ruisheng, Ma Jiali, Sun Shihai, Rong Ying, Shen Dingli, among others) at the behest of the Chinese leadership’s “Foreign Affairs Cell”, that Beijing should take all measures to maintain its current strategic leverage (in terms of territory, membership of the exclusive Permanent Five of the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Five clubs); diplomatic advantages (special relationships, membership of regional and international organizations); and economic lead over India. One is inclined to agree with Dr. Malik’s deduction that this internal re-assessment of India lies behind the recent hardening of China’s stance on the territorial dispute.

He quotes Chinese language sources to warn that if negotiations and coercive diplomacy fail to produce the desired outcome, China may opt for the use of force at an appropriate time in the future to recover ‘China’s Southern Tibet’ (Arunachal Pradesh). Many Chinese analysts believe, he says, that the military balance has shifted in their favor with the completion of the 1,118-kilometer (695 miles) Qinghai-Tibet railway and other military infrastructure projects in Tibet and that negates the need for any territorial concession to India in the eastern sector.

Here is his disturbing conclusion: “Although the probability of an all-out conflict is extremely low, the prospect that some of India’s road building projects in disputed areas could lead to tensions, clashes and skirmishes with Chinese border patrols cannot be completely ruled out. Should a conflict break out, the P.L.A.’s contingency plans emphasise a ‘short and swift localized’ conflict (confined to the Tawang region, along the lines of the 1999 Kargil conflict) with the following objectives in mind: capture the Tawang tract; give India’s military a bloody nose; and deliver a knockout punch that punctures India’s ambitions to be China’s equal or peer competitor once and for all. The ultra-modern civilian and military infrastructure in Tibet is expected to enable Beijing to exercise the military option to achieve the above-mentioned objectives should that become necessary at some stage in the future.”

Grave Blunder

India will, therefore, be committing a grave blunder by banking on the anaesthetising phraseology of the various formal agreements with the Chinese and time being the healer. It should clinch the issue by holding brisk and business-like parleys. It is no longer a question of filling ponderous documents with elegant verbiage, but a matter demanding political decisions at the highest level on the kind of give-and-take that will sew up the settlement conclusively and once-and-for-all.

(The writer, Mr.B.S.Raghavan IAS (retd), is a founder-member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies.)

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