Soon after taking over as China’s new president with a tenure of ten years, Xi Jinping invited selected journalists from BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) for an exchange on March 19, in Beijing. President Xi would be attending the upcoming BRICS meeting in Durban, South Africa where he will meet heads of states and governments of the member countries, including Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh.
There is no precedence of former Chinese President Hu Jintao holding press meets with BRICS journalists. Perhaps, it is because this is the first occasion. Equally possible, Mr. Xi was giving out glimpses into his foreign policy thinking. It was well choreographed in advance.
Predictably, the Indian journalist’s question centered on the Sino-Indian border issue and the position taken by China’s new disposition. President Xi’s reply was certainly not predictable. Indeed, it has provoked a lot of questions among Indians.
Mr. Xi replied “The boundary question is a complex issue left from history, and solving the issue won’t be easy. This is a new formulation. Till now the standard formulation was that the boundary question was an issue left over from history and it will take time to resolve it. Has Mr. Xi removed the border talks from the table and consigned it to the next generation of Chinese leadership? The resolution of the Sino-Indian border question was to be a three step procedure. The first step, recognition of the issue, has been achieved. The two countries are in the second step, but are stuck. No movement has taken place including exchange of maps showing the respective positions of the two sides on the Western and the Eastern Sectors. China has also dug its heels in on the 2005 agreement that no settled population territories would be exchanged.Herein lies the problem. China has, in recent years, insisted that Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh is part of Southern Tibet, there are Tibetan sentiments attached to it and the Tawang monastery, and Tawang should go to China in the border settlement. For India, it is near impossible to give up Tawang, a town with settled Indian population. In resolution of all boundary issues, there is a give and take of territory. But settled populations have not been transferred. This is evident from all border agreements China has signed with its other neighbours on land borders.
Imagine a situation where some Indians wake up one morning to find themselves to be Chinese citizens. The partition of India in 1947 witnessed such a situation, and at what cost. That experience cannot be reenacted again in the smallest ways. The Indian people will not allow it and no Indian government can carry such an agreement through.
China’s claim on Tawang has little to do with the sentiments of Tibetans, living in China, or historical claims. It has two aspects (a) military strategic reasons, and (b) the Tibetan independence/autonomy movement and the 14th Dalai Lama.
Possession of Tawang by the Chinese will bring the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), much closer to the Siliguri chicken-neck, the small piece of land that connects North Eastern India to the rest of the country. Enough evidence is available of Chinese military support to the North East Indian insurgents who want to break away from India. Tawang in China’s possession has implications for Bhutan with which Beijing has border and territorial disputes, which in turn impacts India’s security.
China has not clarified its earlier offer that if India makes concession in the Eastern Sector China would “consider” concessions in the Western Sector. China will certainly not concede Aksai Chin in the Western Sector to India. In fact, it has encroached upon more territory in the West through quiet nibbling.
Reported Chinese offers for a border management agreement needs to be examined thoroughly and in depth. What are the elements of such an agreement and how will it impact a number of issues other than just maintaining peace and tranquility on the borders? Such agreements have already been signed and are in place since 1993.
The only way the boundary question can be resolved is to draw the international border along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Whichever government is there in India will be willing to do it instead of frittering away opportunities that may have been available in the 1950s.
Can the Chinese government or the Party do it? Certainly not now. In recent years, especially since 2008 and more specifically from 2010, the Chinese authorities have raised people’s emotions on territorial issues to such a height, that the central leadership has bound itself hand and foot to bring down tension with neighbours with whom they have real or imaginary territorial disputes. Even some Chinese intellectuals admit they have made enemies all around.
On the dispute with Japan on the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) the Chinese heightened the threat to a degree that could lead to a local war with wide ranging and long term consequences. Very recent signals from China, especially the belligerent PLA, suggest they want to get back to normal relations and are seeking a face saving way to do it. For the Chinese “face” is of paramount importance in foreign relations. They fear if they lose face they would have lost the status of “Central Kingdom” with their neighours.
Returning to India, President Xi Jinping’s other comment on India at the press conference needs to be parsed. When he talked about India-China “collaboration” to safeguard the legitimate right and interests of developing countries and tackle global challenges, he was pitching a major proposal. Having predicated this view with describing India and China as the two largest developing countries in the world, which is a fact, he was proposing an united front of developing and less developed countries to counter the American pivot in the Asia Pacific region and safeguarding its foreign energy and raw material sources. Over the last two years or more, writings in the official Chinese media are projecting India as an ally of the US (along with Japan) in encircling and countering China’s development and influence. This accusation was frequent and blatant as China’s propaganda machinery has somehow missed sophistication despite the country’s economic growth and rightly military modernization.
If Mr. Xi is taking a new track he will have to prove it. He also said during the interview that China and India should accommodate each other’s core concerns and properly handle problems and differences between the two. This is a loaded statement and must be studied very carefully.
China has officially listed a number of its “core” interests for the protection of which military action is included. The first and foremost is the stability, security and ruling status of the Communist Party guarded by the army. Return of Taiwan is the next. This is followed by Tibet and Xinjiang. Thereafter the territorial claims. Embedded in this is China’s sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.
India will be tested in the Tibet issue for reasons well known. Indian companies like ONGC involved in oil and gas exploration with Vietnam in Hanoi-held portions of South China Sea is another issue. Not clearly stated yet, would Indian ships be asked by China to take permission before sailing through the South China Sea? China claims the entirety of this sea, based on nine-dotted lines, but even Chinese experts have questioned this claim and Beijing has yet to provide any hard evidence. It uses the UN Commission of the Laws of Seas (UNCLOS) when it suits it and rejects it when the law does not. If China wants India to accommodate it on the above issues the relationship will fail to take off. If India dithers, it will only show its weakness.
Will China accommodate India’s “Core” issues which till now it has not? These include India’s peaceful nuclear programme, India-US nuclear deal, India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) concern over nuclear and missile proliferation to Pakistan the Kashmir issue and manipulating India’s neighbours including in the Indian ocean region. These questions have to be answered clearly by Beijing.
Having said the foregoing briefly, it is a geographical fact that the two countries share a 4000 kms. border, which again China contends as around 2000 kms. The truth, as distilled from facts is, India and China are two large countries in the world, and India is no push over. If China works on these parameters, there could be the much elusive win-win situation. Otherwise………..
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail email@example.com)