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An inside account of Sino-Indian border talks

By D S Rajan
June 16, 2008 16:55 IST
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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 recent detailed review of the subject by a Chinese analyst who appears to be authoritative and well versed with the ongoing border negotiations.

The review can certainly be looked upon as a link to understand how China's border policy towards India is evolving; it should be of great interest to experts and Indian officials, at a time when the country's minister for external affairs has just returned from Beijing after holding talks with his Chinese counterpart on a host of issues including the border.

The examination of Chinese analyst Zhuhua (could be an assumed name, Blog Zhuhua148, Chinese language, March 18, Zhonghua Web site '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 Nathu La as a border trade point (2003) has signified China's de facto recognition of India's sovereignty over Sikkim. Quoting the 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 and its policy of not permitting any anti-China political activity by the Tibetans in India. 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 Web site 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, 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 1913, British India official Henry McMahon concocted the so-called McMahon Line, pushing Indian control up north of the customary line by 100 km, the analyst says that in this way 90,000 sq km of territory which was under Chinese jurisdiction, was taken over by India. Adding that the Sino-Indian agreement on taking political parameters as the 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 km. In the Western Sector, the disputed territory is about 30,000 sq km in Aksai Chin, located at the junction of the 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 2,000 sq km located in areas, northwest of the China-Nepal border 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 the McMahon Line and north of the traditional customary line. This territory is 'at present' 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 the Malvenas islands, disputed by Britain and Argentina. It is flat and rich in water and forest resources. Tawang, home of the sixth Dalai Lama, is located in this region.

On December 1, 1962, Chinese troops withdrew to 20 km from the McMahon Line; subsequently India disregarded Chinese proposals and re-occupied areas held by the People's Liberation Army before withdrawal.

India even pushed its control up north, to areas beyond the pre-war border positions of the Chinese troops. It established the North East Frontier Agency and in 1986, made it one of India's 24 states. The analyst then points out that the migration of seven 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 the future

Quoting former Chinese 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 lie ahead in respect of the other two and high pressure domestic pressure on both nations stands out.

Involved in these sentiments are issues like sovereignty, national dignity, lives of border residents and resources. How the two nations deal with public sentiment will determine the future course of the border talks.

The blog 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 China, the McMahon Line, stands as a symbol of imperialist aggression on the country.

The blog feels that India is adopting a hard position on the boundary and refers to assessments by Chinese experts that even if the leaders of the two countries are prepared to recognise the territories controlled by each other as the border, the Indian Parliament may not approve it. India has vested interests and it tries to convince its people of the government's stand by hook or crook, the blog alleges. On China's attitude, mentioning again what Zhou Gang has said, the analyst argues 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 90,000 sq km of territory by relying on negotiations. An unidentified researcher of the Chinese 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 the McMahon Line and acceptance of the 1962 conflict as a Chinese war of aggression. The researcher further feels that the key to the border solution lies in achieving a breakthrough in the matter of deciding on the status of the 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 China. For example, they say the 'watershed principle' in reality has the McMahon Line as the basis and should thus be prevented.


What the analyst has said indicates 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 the Eastern Sector.

Also, a new dispute on what is now known as the 'finger area' on the Sikkim border seems to have arisen. What clarification Beijing gave External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Sikkim remains unclear. Zhuhua's blog is noteworthy for its revelation of what the Chinese foreign ministry thinks -- it would be difficult for China 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 potential of the unsolved core issues including that of the border.

D S Rajan, is director, Chennai Centre for China Studies.

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