A briefing to the domestic audience in China about the Sino-Indian border issue has always been a rare event; marking one such occasion is a very recent detailed review of the subject, done by a Chinese analyst who appears to be authoritative and well versed with the ongoing border negotiations between the two sides. The review can certainly be looked upon as a link to understand how China’s border policy towards India is evolving; it would sure be of great interest to experts on the subject in general and for India specifically, its significance would need no emphasis, at a time when the country’s Minister for External affairs has just returned home from Beijing after holding talks with his Chinese counterpart on a host of issues including border.
The examination of Chinese analyst Zhuhua (could be assumed name, Blog “Zhuhua148”, Chinese language, 18 March 2008, Zhonghua Website ‘Discussions’ Page), under the title “The Startling Inside Story of Sino-Indian Border talks”, in the main, observes and concludes as follows:
Sikkim- No Chinese formal statement recognising it as part of India
The analyst states that the Sino-Indian Memorandum on Nathula as a border trade point (2003) has signified China’s “de facto” recognition of India’s sovereignty over Sikkim. Quoting Indian side, Zhuhua mentions that at the time of border talks, Beijing handed over a ‘new’ official map to them showing Sikkim as a State of India. Foreign press reports pointed out that India as a quid pro quo, reiterated its recognition of the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its policy of not permitting any anti- China political activity by the Tibetans in India and also, internal opinions in China justified the changed stance of China on Sikkim on the basis of the need for Beijing to “ struggle side by side with compromise” in order to win “support in other fronts”. The analyst further points out that the Chinese Foreign Ministry website has deleted Sikkim from its list of “Countries and Regions” and its spokesperson has mentioned that Sikkim is no longer a problem in bilateral relations. Thus, overall, Sikkim has ceased to appear as ‘ a historical legacy’ for China. The Blog at the same time notes that the Chinese Government has never issued any formal statement recognising Sikkim as part of India’s territory”, about which New Delhi has expressed dissatisfaction”.
Briefing to the Chinese on the Border Issue
Giving a background to the border issue for the benefit of viewers in China, Zhuhua observes that there are two lines concerning the Sino-Indian border- a traditional customary line and a line of actual control. The former came into being before the modern era and relying on traditional practices and governance, some borders came into being. The line of actual control provides the basis for India’s position. Alleging that in the year 1913, British India’s official McMahon concocted the so called McMahon line, pushing Indian control up north of the customary line by 100 kms, the analyst says that in this way 90,000 Sq kms of territory which were under Chinese jurisdiction, was taken over by India. Adding that the Sino-Indian agreement on taking Political Parameters as basis to settle the border dispute in 2005, takes into account ‘history and current situation’ factors, the Blog points out that the same has facilitated the distinguishing of the two lines mentioned above.
According to the Blog, the total disputed border area between China and India comes to about 125, 000 sq kms of land. In the Western Sector, the disputed territory is about 30,000 sq kms in Aksai Chin, located at the junction of Western parts of Xinjiang and Tibet regions. This territory is basically within the framework of the traditional and customary borderline and is under China’s control now. In the Middle sector, the disputed land is about 2000 kms located in areas, northwest of China-Nepal border. Sikkim is in this region.
Zhuhua further observes that the main and biggest dispute concerns the Eastern Sector- involving 90, 000 sq km territory lying between south of McMahon line and north of the traditional customary line. This territory is “at present” is under the de facto control of India. Noting that the Sino-Indian border war in 1962 was the result of the Indian Government’s ‘forward strategy’, the analyst adds that the area of this disputed region is three times that of Taiwan, six times that of Beijing and ten times that of Malvenas island, disputed by Britain and Argentina. It is flat and rich in water and forest resources. Tawang, home place of Sixth Dalai Lama, is located in this region. On December 1,1962, Chinese troops withdrew to 20 kms from the McMahon line; subsequently however India disregarded Chinese proposals and re-occupied areas held by the PLA before withdrawal. India even pushed its control up north, to areas beyond the pre-war border positions of the Chinese troops. It established North East Frontier Agency and in 1986, made it as one of India’s 24 states. The analyst then points out that the migration of 7 million people into this territory at India’s behest, was meant to make formation of the new state a ‘fait accompli’, compelling China into a ‘passive’ state. This fact of migration will continue to be the basis to ‘fine tune’ the Sino-Indian border negotiations.
Border Issue- Outlook for Future
Quoting former PRC Ambassador to India Zhou Gang, the analyst finds that out of the three steps needed to reach a solution on the border- first an agreement on principles, second discussions and the last settlement on the ground- only the first step has now been completed. Real difficulties are ahead in respect of the other two and in this regard, the high pressure on both nations coming from public sentiments domestically, stands out. Involved in these sentiments are issues such as sovereignty, national dignity, lives of border residents and resources. The question as to how the two nations are going to deal with public sentiments, will determine the future course of border talks. The Blog in this connection then gives weight to what Professor Wang Hungwei of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has said – “India’s Prime Minister Nehru had in the past made mistaken projections about China to the Indian public as a ‘devil’ and it would be hard for the present leaders in India to retreat from Nehru’s views. For the PRC, McMahon line, stands as a symbol of imperialist aggression on the country, which also remains a part of education on history in China.
The Blog feels that India is all along adopting a hard position on the boundary and refers to assessments by Chinese experts that even if leaders of the two countries are prepared to recognise the territories controlled by each other as border, the Indian Parliament may not approve the same. India has vested interests and it tries to convince its people of the government’s stand by hook or crook. On China’s attitude, mentioning again what Zhou Gang has said, the analyst opines that the same has been restrained and rational.
Zhuhua, referring to the views of qualified analysts in China, further says that it would not be possible for China to recover the lost 90000 sq kms of territory in the border, by relying on negotiations. An unidentified researcher of the PRC Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying that a question facing China is whether it can make concessions to India in the Eastern Sector. If China does so, it would amount to Beijing’s recognition of McMahon line and acceptance of the 1962 conflict as a Chinese war of aggression. The researcher further feels that the key to border solution lies in achieving a breakthrough in the matter of deciding on the status of McMahon line. That would pose a test for both the Chinese and Indian governments. There are also scholars in China who caution about the impact of the agreement on political parameters on the PRC. For e.g, they say that the ‘watershed principle’ in reality has McMahon line as basis and should thus be prevented.
What the analyst has said indicate that the theme of pending Chinese ‘de jure’ recognition of Sikkim as part of India, has now reached the level of domestic comments. Without briefings from the Government, the same cannot happen. This gives rise to questions whether or not Beijing is signalling a retreat from its declared position on Sikkim, or is it meant to pressurise India during border negotiations, especially on the issue of Tawang in Eastern Sector. Also, a new dispute on what is now known as ‘finger area’ in the Sikkim border seems to have arisen. What clarifications Beijing gave to the visiting Indian Minister on Sikkim, remain unclear. Secondly, Zhuhua’s blog is noteworthy for its revelation of what the Chinese foreign ministry thinks- it would be difficult for the PRC to make any territorial concessions to India in the Eastern Sector due to historical factors.The overall picture thus points to the likelihood of a prolonged course of border talks. The boundary question may not affect the present comfort level in bilateral ties, as both sides agree to look beyond the border dispute in promoting relations with each other. One cannot be optimistic, however, about the likely scenario in the long run, considering the damage potentials of the unsolved core issues including that of border.
(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is the Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)