While in Durban, South Africa, recently to attend the BRICS summit, new Chinese President Xi Jinping told (Mar.27) The Xinhua news agency that “China and India should improve and make good use of the mechanism of Special Representatives to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible”.
Xi Jinping is the most powerful man in China today. He is head of the Communist Party, the only ruling party in the country. He is also the supreme head of the military as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). One difference he has with his predecessor is that he is the first top Chinese leader who is the son of a leading revolutionary Xi Zhongxun who fought on the side of Mao Zedong during the revolutionary years and also worked with Deng Xiaoping to redirect China’s course from revolution to reform and opening up to the outside world in quest of economic development and rejuvenation. He is known as a “princeling”. Princelings, privileged as they were at the early stages also suffered at certain points of time in the early history of Communist China. Not all princelings have the same ideas, though.
Whatever is known about Xi Jinping is mostly what is given out officially by the Chinese authorities. These details indicate that from an early age he prepared himself to be highly discreet, while at the same time planting his career saplings in rural areas, county and provincial level politics and the military. In fact, he created mentors through his work. As secretary to Defence Minister Geng Biao for a period of time he broke through the Military citadel to make friends without ruffling any feather.
Xi’s marriage to Peng Liyuan, another blue blood, a suave renowned singer who currently holds the rank of Maj. General in the PLA, has turned out to be an asset in international diplomacy. The couples have already made a mark.
People in China expected Xi to break away from the old, rigid economic and political thinking. Abroad, observers are watching him very closely, particularly for glimpes of new thinking and controlling the PLA hawks.
In India, the main question is whether Beijing under Xi Jinping is willing to shift from its rigid position on the border issue and steer a new road where there is real adjustment. To note, Xi is the only person in the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee who has an understanding of foreign-cum-strategic policy. The old foreign policy interlocutors retired in March, and new incumbents with experience but not on India specifically, have replaced them.
On border/territorial issues, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a major say especially on territory and strategic alignment. The Party Central Committee group on foreign relations, however, holds a nationalistic position.
Contrast Xi’s position on the border issue in Durban to his statement on the same issue on March 19 in Beijing, when he addressed journalists from BRICS countries. Xi said “The boundary question is a complex issue left over from history, and solving the issue won’t be easy”.
This was not only a reiteration of the old position, but even worse. The words “won’t be easy” suggested some kind of frustration especially with the 2005 agreement between the two sides at the Prime Ministerial level on modalities for resolution of the border issue. The 2005 agreement said that there would be no exchange of “settled population” territories.
Wen Jiabao was the Chinese Premier then, and signed the agreement in New Delhi. Did he agree to a fair and rational position? Subsequently, Premier Wen had taken strong positions on China’s internal politics, supporting political reforms to the extent warning that without it the country could revert to “cultural revolution”. He appeared to be a man of rational pragmatic thinking. The Chinese authorities or interlocutors dug in their heels later. They wanted Tawang, a settled population territory of India and strategically located to deny the PLA easy pincer strike to cut off India’s North East from the mainland.
No public elaboration has come either from China’s foreign ministry or the official media like Xinhua, People’s Daily, or The China Daily on Xi’s Durban statement for a “fair, rational framework” acceptable to both sides “as soon as possible”. There are two aspects of Xi Jinping’s statement that need to be analysed. One, resolution “as soon as possible” conveys discarding the position that it “won’t be easy” and it will “take a long time”.
Second, there was no mention of the complex issue “left over from history”. A position otherwise heard for decades.
What changed between March 19 and March 27? This is very difficult to assess. At the same time, if there is a substantive change in this very short time, it may mean Xi may be introducing a new character in China’s foreign policy making. Have Xi Jinping’s advisors understood that they cannot get Tawang? The Indian side is aware that they cannot get Aksai Chin.
From the Indian side it may be conceded that the offer from China at the highest level is genuine, and work from there. From the 1950s both sides have wasted opportunities to settle the border issue. Let not Indian political parties take an ultranationalist stand to score domestic political points that not “an inch” of Indian Territory can be bartered. Legislations are overdue in Parliament to correct the earlier wrongs. In any boundary negotiations there will be some give and take of territory, but not against national interests. Each country has its domestic constituency to satisfy.
At the same time, there should not be any hurry. It is obvious that Special Representative level talks are going to be energized soon. A lot of work will have to be done. To begin with exchange of maps if the western and eastern sectors to start with.
Post Script: Nothing is done till done. There will be regional and global strings attached to such a deal. India has to insist, if such issues come up, to reject them. Border resolution has to be a clear deal and cannot be linked with India-US relations, India-Vietnam relations, India-Japan relations or new core interests that Beijing may present. South China must remain an open international shipping lane. India is not interested in containing China in any way, and Beijing must stop meddling in India’s neighbourhood. Tibet is a declared core issue for China, and India respects that. But the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists go far beyond the Marxist concept of religion and humanity. There are many other issues which defy the gun pointed at the head.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail email@example.com)