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Our PM's Visit to China: Core Concerns Persist

It would be too early to make a meaningful assessment of the concrete outcome of the visit of our Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, to Beijing from January 13 to 15,2008.Due to constraints of time and opportunity for independent interaction with non-governmental interlocutors, the Indian journalists accompanying the Prime Minister on such tours are not in a position for an in-depth assessment of the visit, shorn of the usual superlatives regarding “positive personal chemistry”, “body language, which reflected warmth”, “unique gestures to the honoured guest” etc. There is a certain sameness in their reporting largely based on official briefing. Cosmetics have greater play than substance in their despatches. It takes time for the real results of the visit to become evident.

2. Despite this, one could see even now that there has been no significant forward movement in the political dimensions of the relations between India and China, though the forward movement in the economic dimensions—more beneficial to China than to India—continues. A mutually satisfactory formula to get over the differences between the two countries on the border dispute is not yet in sight. Ms.Pallavi Aiyar, the well-informed and highly-regarded correspondent of “The Hindu” in Beijing, has frankly said (January 15,2008) that there were no indications of a break-through in the boundary dispute.

3. The reported Chinese delay in handing over copies of their maps indicating their perception of the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) without any satisfactory explanation for the delay continues to be a matter of concern and puzzlement. Without the exchange of such maps, there cannot be any substantive discussions. All the Chinese seem to be doing is to keep repeating in all the talks between the specially-designated representatives of the two Prime Ministers their claim to Arunachal Pradesh—-or at least to the Tawang Tract there. This is a claim which no Government of India can accept.

4. At least now, there seems to be a welcome realisation in New Delhi that instead of hoping for an early breakthrough, we should accept the reality of a possible Chinese attempt to tire us out while they strengthen their military capability in Tibet and we should start matching their preparations with our own so that we are not taken by surprise once again as we were in 1962. Shri Pranab Mukherjee, our Foreign Minister, needs to be complimented for confirming in an interview to Shri Karan Thapar of CNBC, which was telecast on the day of the arrival of the Prime Minister in Beijing, the fact that there had been Chinese troop intrusions into our territory, though he did try to play down the gravity of the implications of these intrusions.

5. Before 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister, committed the serious mistake of not admitting to the people of this country for a long time that the Chinese in bad breach of faith had occupied large areas of our territory and clandestinely constructed the Aksai Chin Road in the Ladakh sector. When the truth could no longer be concealed and we faced the disastrous military confrontation with China in 1962, Nehru’s credibility as a leader and a statesman was severely damaged. We should learn from the past and try to avoid our past mistake of concealing from Indian public opinion the true state of affairs in our long border with China. Fears of a possible misunderstanding with China if we spoke frankly should not inhibit our handling of the issue in a forthright manner keeping in view our national interests. In the past, the Chinese had always interpreted our reluctance to be forthright as a sign of our weakness and exploited it.

6. Over the years, diplomats and statesmen all over the world have perfected the art of creating an illusion of a dramatic forward movement in bilateral relations while, in fact, remaining stuck in the same place. A subterfuge used for this purpose is what is called a vision statement. The two Prime Ministers have produced a document titled ” A shared Vision For the 21st Century”. Three formulations in this document have been cited by Indian officials accompanying the Prime Minister as indicators of a significant forward movement in the bilateral relations despite the lack of progress in the border talks. These are:

  1. A reiteration of the official position of both sides to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution of the border dispute on the basis of the political parameters and guiding principles announced in 2005. The Chinese have already reportedly gone back on one of these principles, namely, that any settlement should not involve exchange of populated areas. Of what use then, a reiteration of this formulation?

  2. “The two sides pledge to promote bilateral co-operation in civil nuclear energy, consistent with their respective international commitments, which will contribute to energy security and to dealing with tasks associated with climate change.” Does this formulation mean that China is now willing to support the lifting of the restrictions on nuclear trade with India by the members of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group? Shri Shiv Shankar Menon, the Foreign Secretary, was vague in his response th this question. He told the Indian journalists: ” If NSG members are ready to co-operate with us for nuclear energy, it will have certain implications for their (that is, Chinese) response to the nuclear issue at the NSG.” This is apparently a hope nursed by the Indian side, but there does not seem to be any specific commitment by the Chinese.

  3. “The Chinese side understands and supports India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations, including the Security Council.” The Foreign Secretary described the inclusion of the words ‘including the Security Council” as an incremental, but important development. Even in the past, there were indications of an undeclared convergence of views between the US and China that India deserved to be a permanent member of the Security Council, but without the veto right. Has there been a change in this position? Most probably not.

7. The so-called vision statements have a limited shelf life and rarely contribute to any substantial improvement in bilateral relations. We saw it in the case of the Indo-US Vision Statement signed during the visit of Mr.Bill Clinton, the then US President, to India in 2000. At that time, the Government of Shri A.B.Vajpayee and its spokesmen had projected this as a very significant development in Indo-US relations. What happened to this Vision Statement? Nobody even remembers it. All the hype about the India-China Vision statement is unwarranted.

8. To be fair to the leaderships and officials of the two countries, it has to be conceded that they have tried to see that the continuing differences on the border question do not come in the way of a forward movement in other political issues. They have also been scrupulously avoiding rhetoric, which could prove counter-productive and keeping up the momentum in the non-political aspects of the relations such as bilateral trade.

9. There has been an attempt to give the impression of a greater comfort level in the bilateral relations. However, this increasing comfort level will not be able to remove the continuing core concerns in India in the absence of a forward movement in the border talks. Without the Chinese giving up their claim to populated areas in Arunachal Pradesh. these core concerns will remain a stumbling block in bilateral relations. (15-1-08)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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