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Approaching India-China Border Talks – By Bhaskar Roy

C3S Paper No.2091


The announcement of Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval as the Special Representative (SR) of India for the India-China border talks was welcomed by China. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunyin said in Beijing (Xinhua, Nov.25) that with this appointment in New Delhi China expects a new round of border talks with India at the SR level at an appropriate time.

Ms.Hua’s statement was accompanied by the usual platitudes to which no one can have any objection. A solution that is fair, reasonable and acceptable to both sides will result in such an agreement. This will include the much earlier premise of “Mutual Accommodation, Mutual Understanding and Mutual Adjustment” (MUMAMA), reflecting give and take.

Ms. Hua recorded the Chinese position that the undesignated border between the two countries was 2000 kms, and reminded that the two countries “had a border conflict in 1962”.

The Special Representative structure was set up in 2003, and 17 meetings have been held since. Several agreements and protocols have been signed between India and China starting 1993 (Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to Beijing). The SR level talks and the agreements may not have resolved the boundary issue, but they have not been futile.  The agreements and protocols on the boundary ensured establishment of mechanisms to prevent untoward incidents.

The SR level talks are much wider than the border issue and encompass regional and global developments. This has certainly helped both the sides to appreciate each others’ views on a variety of issues.

With India emerging from the South Asian morass of underdevelopment, its relevance is being felt across the globe. India is a member of the G-20, a member of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) initiative, and is also being sought in other fora. India’s economic growth and to an extent its defence modernization (or recognizing the importance of four-dimensional defence modernization) are indices that cannot be ignored by the international community.

This is a game changer especially in the context of India-China relations, and Asia and the Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific strategic corridor concept basically summarises the smooth enjoining of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This conforms to the shrinking of the global balance where a serious disturbance between important or great powers can no longer remain localized.

In this scenario, India and China have emerged as strong trade partners. But unfortunately, there are lacunae which China must resolve, to reach the set target. China has to eliminate or at least reduce the trade imbalance, stop exporting shoddy goods to India, and give Indian products real entry into the Chinese market. Despite liberalization and China’s so-called open markets, it is very well known that important business deals are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government.

Reverting to the border issue, it is time that the Chinese be met in the shirt-front. India has to drop forthwith the old apprehension that China will be upset or provoked if told the truth.

First, China must be told openly that the length of the undemarcated or yet to be demarcated border is not 2000kms. From India’s point of view this border is more than 4000kms long and includes Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Jammu and Kashmir and Sikkim.

China holds that Jammu and Kashmir including POK is disputed territory between India and Pakistan and hence cannot take a position till the issue is resolved. Yet, Pakistan transferred over 5000 sq. km territory to China in an agreement in 1963. China is also involved in certain activities on the ground in POK which has suspected military application, along with civil development. Chinese involvement in POK is part of its land access to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, and a possible military position on India’s shoulder.

On the other hand, China claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh in the east, demanding India agree the entire state is disputed territory and requires negotiation. This, despite a bilateral agreement between the two countries that settled population areas will not be exchanged in a final boundary settlement. Beijing is trying to circumvent this agreement.

These are some of the issues that India will have to bring forcefully on the table in the border talks. In both Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, China has been interfering in India’s internal affairs, which is not acceptable.

The extended time period incursions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Daulat Beg Oldi, and the Chumar Sector this year, demands a much wider assessment than done till now.

A closer look at the Chinese incursion suggests a pattern of aggressive action that China has displayed-for example, its claim on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and the Diayou/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Chinese ships and aircraft resorted to aggressive patrolling in these areas. According to a US navy assessment revealed by US Navy captain James Farrell of the Pacific Fleet, at a point of time China was considering attacking Japan.

Chinese claims in South China Sea like the “nine dashed lines” encompassing Chinese maritime territory are not supported by any evidence. Beijing refuses to abide by the UN Law of Seas though it is a signatory to this UN regime. The use of muscle power is Beijing’s driving force or argument.

International laws and regimes to which it is a signatory are raised by China only when they serve its purpose.

An important point that should be noted by Indian interlocutors is that in spite of China’s territorial clashes with Japan and claimants of the Spratly Islands, economic and trade activities have not been seriously affected. China’s trade and economic relations are politically driven and operate with the idea of maximization of benefits. There is also a veiled strategic and military component which needs to be understood.

The old Chinese saying “when you see a strong man, smile; when you see a weak man, show teeth” is not a light observation. It has deep philosophic and strategic advice. China’s policy towards India has been aimed at choking India, giving it little breathing space, forcing India to remain within South Asia and, as far as possible, create an equivalence between India and Pakistan. Therefore, given India’s conventional military superiority over Pakistan, China helped Pakistan become a nuclear weapons state to create a highly sensitive situation.

China has not ceased to use the encirclement of India strategy, though technical aspects may have been reworked. A constrained India will be a weak India, and China may be able to resolve the boundary issue to its advantage.

For decades since the 1962 border conflict in which India suffered, New Delhi adopted a position of passivity. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunyin mentioned the 1962 conflict in her statement to remind India of China’s superiority then and now. This is part of psychological warfare. Responsible Indian government interlocutors with China must read the Henderson Brooks report on the 1962 war.

It will be found that the Indian soldiers were not inferior to the Chinese forces. It was mean internecine fights that led to the Indian army’s reversal. The rest was done by China’s aggressive propaganda which the Indians swallowed.

Of course, China is a huge neighbour and a power, while India is also a growing power. The two countries will have to live and work together and give leadership to Asia for peace, stability and development. But if China relentlessly pursues an unipolar Asia, the future of half the globe will be unstable.

There are no indications from the Chinese side to suggest an early resolution of the border issue. At the same time it cannot be denied that the border talks have helped to clear some questions on the issue, that is, the differences are deep, political and strategic. We are beginning to remove the top soil and coming down to hard rock. The situation is expected to remain at this level for some time, and the Indian side should not get excited whenever the Chinese say they are charging their officials to resolve the issue quickly – even if such statements come from the highest level in China.

Even the regular incursions by the PLA into Indian perceived territory are not innocent. Such incursions over decades have been used by the Chinese to increase their claims on territory – a practice generally known as “salami-slicing”.

Overall, it must be noted that China is in a great hurry to achieve its preeminent status – President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream. The reasons are many but stated briefly, China is nearing its optimum level. It is approaching negative demography, and the economy is beginning to slow down. Harvard economists Lant Pritchett and Lawrence Summers have concluded that according to some calculations, China’s growth would remain at 3.9% for the next two decades. In the meantime China’s neighbours including India are beginning to join the growth race but with the control that a democracy executes.

China can grow in the area of military modernization. This is revealed by Beijing periodically detailing new weapons and syctems. If China uses military power to enforce its questionable territorial claims countries like India will have to step up their defence capabilities. The 1997 nuclear tests and successful tests of nuclear capable ballistic missiles Agni-4 and Agni-5 have done wonders for India’s international credibility.

India may view the India-China border negotiations with the foregoing scenario. But talks must continue and “friendly” bilateral exchanges should be nurtured.

 (The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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