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Can the India-China border issue ever be solved?

By Claude Arpi
April 30, 2004 15:56 IST
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Part I: Panchsheel: 50 years after

Fifty years ago, during the Panchsheel negotiations, India shied away from bringing the questions of the borders to the negotiating table with Beijing. Today, India is still unable to sort out her frontier tangle with China.

The question remains: is there a creative but feasible solution to solve the border issue?

In June 2003, Brajesh Mishra, the Indian government's National Security Advisor, was nominated as the special envoy to negotiate with Beijing. The first round of talks between Mishra and his Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo, the vice foreign minister, was held in Delhi on October 23 and 24, 2003.

The envoys met again in Beijing on January 12 and 13. Though the two parties agreed not to publicise the outcome of the talks, Kong Quan, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, declared that the second 'ministerial-level discussions' were 'positive' and the atmosphere was 'constructive.'

'Such complicated issues cannot achieve rapid progress through only one or two rounds of talks,' he added.

Brajesh Mishra does not have an easy task in front of him. Fifty years of Chinese 'possession' of Aksai Chin, the remote region of Ladakh, makes the tangle even trickier to sort out.

Time has not simplified the issue.

Let us take a moment to look back. Soon after the PLA entered Lhasa in 1951, the Chinese made plans to improve communications in Tibet. To 'consolidate the borders' as announced by Mao, Beijing began to construct a large network of roads on a war footing.

Priority was given to the Chamdo-Lhasa and Qinghai-Lhasa sectors linking the Tibetan capital with eastern Tibet as well as the western road known as the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway (or Aksai Chin road).

The construction of the feeder road leading to Nathu-la, the border pass between Sikkim and Tibet, had a weird consequence. India began providing food to the Chinese road workers in Tibet, sending tons of rice through this route. John Lall, a former Dewan of Sikkim, was posted in Gangtok at the time. He witnessed long caravans of mules leaving in the direction of Tibet. He recalled: 'But suddenly all was sweetness and light. The reason became apparent when a request was made for shipment of Chinese rice through India and Sikkim to their troops in Tibet. This could, and indeed should, have been made the occasion for a settlement of the major problems with China.'

It was not to be.

B N Mullick, the then Intelligence Bureau director, claimed that he had been reporting the road building activity of the Chinese in the Aksai Chin area since as early as November 1952. According to him, the Indian trade agent in Gartok also informed Delhi about it in July and September 1955, and August 1957.

Instead of alarming Nehru, these disturbing reports reinforced his determination to bolster the friendship with China.

Finally, in October 1957, a Chinese newspaper reported: 'The Sinkiang-Tibet -- the highest highway in the world -- has been completed… The Sinkiang-Tibet Highway is 1,179 km long, of which 915 km are more than 4,000 meters above sea level; 130 km of it over 5,000 meters above sea level, with the highest point being 5,500 meters."

The circle was closed. The two newly-acquired Western provinces of Communist China (Sinkiang and Tibet) were linked.

The tragedy is that it took nearly two more years for the news to become public in India. Only in August 1959 did Nehru drop the bombshell in the Lok Sabha: the 'Tibet-Sinkiang highway' was cutting through Indian territory.

The prime minister had kept the information secret for more than 5 years!

Today, fifty years later, what can be done about it?

Although during the 1960 negotiations on the border issue Indian officials proved beyond doubt that Aksai Chin was a part of Ladakh, the fact is the Chinese have now occupied the area for half a century.

Will the Chinese ever relinquish this strategic artery?


And for India: is it conceivable that any government (especially during an election year) could 'gift' away such a large chunk of Indian territory?

Besides, what could India receive from Beijing in return for such a 'gift'? The recognition of Arunachal Pradesh as being a part of India has been mentioned as a possible compensation. But this does not make any sense as the Chinese claim on Arunachal is legally and historically empty of any substance.

On the Chinese side, the new leadership in Beijing knows very well that ultimately it is in China's interest to settle this long outstanding issue with India and put the relationship between the two nations on sounder tracks.

At one point in time, an idea was mooted to have an international board of 'neutral' historians who would ascertain both China and India's claims. But one can doubt if Beijing would ever accept such an arbitration: their 'historical' case is too weak.

But with both parties firm on their respective stands, is there a possible solution where no party would lose face?

An innovative solution could be to create a condominium for the Aksai-Chin-Lizingthang area. The region could be jointly administrated by Beijing and New Delhi through two appointed commissioners (or whatever other designation may be agreed upon).

One small grace in this intractable problem is that very little development is possible (apart from a road) in the region due to the lack of water, the high salinity (a part is known as the Soda Plain) as well as the high altitude. In this sense, Nehru was right when he said that not a blade of grass could grow there. This would make the condominium solution far easier to work out. Practical modalities would have to keep in view the fact that China needs the road to connect Tibet to Xinjiang.

The concept of condominium was popularised in the 18th century, when hundreds of small principalities were in existence. Very often, they were not self-sufficient and found it difficult to survive. In a few cases, they appealed to two princes for help and protection. Was it not safer to have two protectors instead of one? Things changed in the 20th century with the birth of the League of Nations and, later the United Nations Organisation. From that time, only one ruler could be recognised for a given territory.

A condominium for Aksai Chin would not face many of the challenges that other condominiums had to confront. First and foremost, nobody lives permanently on the high plateau. Therefore, there is no question of stakeholders other than the two States: India and China. Secondly, no natural resources such oil, minerals have been discovered so far, therefore there is no need for a complicated sharing mechanism.

The trickiest issue to solve would be the right to transit across the region. China would continue to have the same facilities that she is presently enjoying. In the future, it is essential for India to reopen the trade route to Kashgar through the Karakoram Pass. Though technically this route is not cutting through the occupied area, this provision would have to be included in a general settlement.

A few weeks ago, China Daily mentioned that a similar solution was proposed by Deng Xiaoping in the seventies for the disputed Diaoyu Islands between Japan and China, 'to promote friendly relations and pursue a win-win compromise with Japan, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the two countries seek common exploitation of the islands while shelving disputes over the ownership of them.'

With the Aksai Chin issue solved, many other issues could fall into place. The others sectors of the border would be comparatively easier to sort out.

Another advantage for both India and 'Tibet's Region of China' would be that the old trade route between Leh and Gartok could be immediately reopened and subsequently the pilgrimage road to Kailash-Mansarovar. It would be a great boon for Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who would be able to travel by car in two days from Leh to the sacred mountain.

The main question remains: is the time ripe for settlement?

Let us hope that 50 years after agreeing to the Five Principles a great leap forward will be taken the right direction.

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Claude Arpi