The latest round of the unending and fruitless India-China talks on territorial disputes was a fresh reminder of the eroding utility of this process. It is approaching nearly three decades since China and India began these negotiations.
In this period, the world has changed fundamentally. Indeed, with its rapidly accumulating military and economic power, China itself has emerged as a great power in the making, with Washington’s Asia policy now manifestly Sino-centric. Not only has India allowed its military and nuclear asymmetry with China to grow, but also New Delhi’s room for diplomatic maneuver is shrinking. As the just retired Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, has put it plainly, the power ‘gap between the two is just too wide to bridge and getting wider by the day.’
Of course, power asymmetry in inter-State relations does not mean the weaker side must bend to the dictates of the stronger or seek to propitiate it. Wise strategy, coupled with good diplomacy, is the art of offsetting or neutralising military or economic power imbalance with another state. But as Admiral Mehta warned, ‘China is in the process of consolidating its comprehensive national power and creating formidable military capabilities. Once it is done, China is likely to be more assertive on its claims, especially in the immediate neighbourhood.’
It is thus obvious that the longer the process of border-related talks continues without yielding tangible results, the greater the space Beijing will have to mount strategic pressure on India and the greater its leverage in the negotiations.
After all, China already holds the military advantage on the ground. Its forces control the heights along the long 4,057-kilometre Himalayan frontier, with the Indian troops perched largely on the lower levels.
Furthermore, by building new railroads, airports and highways in Tibet, China is now in a position to rapidly move additional forces to the border to potentially strike at India at a time of its choosing.
Diplomatically, China is a contented party, having occupied what it wanted — the Aksai Chin plateau, which is almost the size of Switzerland and provides the only accessible Tibet-Xinjiang route through the Karakoram passes of the Kunlun Mountains. Yet it chooses to press claims on additional Indian territories as part of a grand strategy to gain leverage in bilateral relations and, more importantly, to keep India under military and diplomatic pressure.
At the core of its strategy is an apparent resolve to indefinitely hold off on a border settlement with India through an overt refusal to accept the territorial status quo.
In not hiding its intent to further redraw the Himalayan frontiers, Beijing only helps highlight the futility of the ongoing process of political negotiations. After all, the territorial status quo can be changed not through political talks but by further military conquest.
Yet, paradoxically, the political process remains important for Beijing to provide the façade of engagement behind which to seek India’s containment.
Keeping India engaged in endless talks is a key Chinese objective so that Beijing can continue its work on changing the Himalayan balance decisively in its favour through a greater build-up of military power and logistical capabilities.
That is why China has sought to shield the negotiating process from the perceptible hardening of its stance towards New Delhi and the vituperative attacks against India in its State-run media. Add to the picture the aggressive patrolling of the Himalayan frontier by the People’s Liberation Army and the growing Chinese incursions across the line of control.
Let’s be clear: Chinese negotiating tactics have shifted markedly over the decades. Beijing originally floated the swap idea — giving up its claims in India’s northeast in return for Indian acceptance of the Chinese control over a part of Ladakh — to legalise its occupation of Aksai Chin. It then sang the mantra of putting the territorial disputes on the backburner so that the two countries could concentrate on building close, mutually beneficial relations.
But in more recent years, in keeping with its rising strength, China has escalated border tensions and military incursions while assertively laying claim to Arunachal Pradesh.
According to a recent report in Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper with close ties to the establishment in Beijing, China is seeking ‘just’ 28 per cent of Arunachal. That means an area nearly the size of Taiwan.
In that light, can the Sino-Indian border talks be kept going indefinitely? Consider two important facts:
First, the present border negotiations have been going on continuously since 1981, making them already the longest and the most-barren process between any two countries in modern history. The record includes eight rounds of senior-level talks between 1981 and 1987, 14 Joint Working Group meetings between 1988 and 2002, and 13 rounds of talks between the designated Special Representatives since 2003.
It seems the only progress in this process is that India’s choice of words in public is now the same as China’s. ‘Both countries have agreed to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement of this issue,’ Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna told Parliament on July 31. ‘The matter, of course, is complex and requires time and lots of patience.’
It was as if the Chinese foreign minister was speaking. Isn’t it odd for India — the country at the receiving end of growing Chinese bellicosity — to plead for more time and patience after nearly three decades of negotiations?
Second, the authoritative People’s Daily — the Communist Party mouthpiece that reflects official thinking — made it clear in a June 11, 2009 editorial: ‘China won’t make any compromises in its border disputes with India.’ That reflects the Chinese position in the negotiations. But when Beijing is advertising its uncompromising stance, doesn’t New Delhi get the message?
The recent essay posted on a Chinese quasi-official Web site that called for India to be broken into 20 to 30 sovereign States cannot obscure an important fact: Dismember India is a project China launched in the Mao years when it trained and armed Naga and Mizo guerrillas. In initiating its proxy war against India, Pakistan merely took a leaf out of the Chinese book.
Today, China’s muscle-flexing along the Himalayas cannot be ignored. After all, even when China was poor and backward, it employed brute force to annex Xinjiang (1949) and Tibet (1950), to raid South Korea (1950), to invade India (1962), to initiate a border conflict with the Soviet Union through a military ambush (1969) and to attack Vietnam (1979).
A prosperous, militarily strong China cannot but be a threat to its neighbours, especially if there are no constraints on the exercise of Chinese power.
So, the key question is: What does India gain by staying put in an interminably barren negotiating process with China? By persisting with this process, isn’t India aiding the Chinese engagement-with-containment strategy by providing Beijing the cover it needs?
While Beijing’s strategy and tactics are apparent, India has had difficulty to define a game plan and resolutely pursue clearly laid-out objectives. Still, staying put in a barren process cannot be an end in itself for India.
India indeed has retreated to an increasingly defensive position territorially, with the spotlight now on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh than on Tibet’s status itself.
Now you know why Beijing invested so much political capital over the years in getting India to gradually accept Tibet as part of the territory of the People’s Republic. Its success on that score has helped narrow the dispute to what it claims. That neatly meshes with China’s long-standing negotiating stance.
What it occupies is Chinese territory, and what it claims must be on the table to be settled on the basis of give-and-take — or as it puts it in reasonably sounding terms, on the basis of ‘mutual accommodation and mutual understanding.’
As a result, India has been left in the unenviable position of having to fend off Chinese territorial demands. In fact, history is in danger of repeating itself as India gets sucked into a 1950s-style trap. The issue then was Aksai Chin; the issue now is Arunachal.
But rather than put the focus on the source of China’s claim — Tibet — and Beijing’s attempt to territorially enlarge its Tibet annexation to what it calls ‘southern Tibet,’ India is willing to be taken ad infinitum around the mulberry bush.
Just because New Delhi has accepted Tibet to be part of China should not prevent it from gently shining a spotlight on Tibet as the lingering core issue.
Yet India’s long record of political diffidence only emboldens Beijing. India accepted the Chinese annexation of Tibet and surrendered its own British-inherited extraterritorial rights over Tibet on a silver platter without asking for anything in return. Now, China wants India to display the same ‘amicable spirit’ and hand over to it at least the Tawang valley.
Take the period since the border talks were ‘elevated’ to the level of special representatives in 2003. India first got into an extended exercise with Beijing to define general principles to govern a border settlement, despite China’s egregious record of flouting the Panchsheel principles and committing naked aggression in 1962. But no sooner had the border-related principles been unveiled in 2005 with fanfare than Beijing jettisoned the do-not-disturb-the-settled-populations principle to buttress its claim to Arunachal.
Yet, as the most-recent round of recent talks highlighted, India has agreed to let the negotiations go off at a tangent by broadening them into a diffused strategic dialogue — to the delight of Beijing. The process now has become a means for the two sides to discuss ‘the entire gamut of bilateral relations and regional and international issues of mutual interest.’
This not only opens yet another chapter in an increasingly directionless process, but also lets China condition a border settlement to the achievement of greater Sino-Indian strategic congruence. Worse still, New Delhi is to observe 2010 — the 60th anniversary of China becoming India’s neighbour by gobbling up Tibet — as the ‘Year of Friendship with China’ in India.