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Sino-Indian ties: Troubled times ahead

By Harsh V Pant
November 24, 2008 16:19 IST
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It is a remarkable spectacle. Both the India and Chinese foreign ministries argue that they are willing to find a solution to the Sino-Indian boundary dispute that is 'fair, reasonable and acceptable' to both sides by conducting bilateral negotiations 'in a spirit of mutual understanding and adjustment'. Yet, if recent events are anything to go by it is clear that trouble is brewing and all those years of effort at resolving the border issue has come under a cloud.

Last year, India strongly protested against a reference to Arunachal Pradesh by former Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing at an international forum. Now, the Chinese foreign ministry has challenged the statement of the Indian External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. While Mukherjee argued that China was fully aware that the state of Arunachal Pradesh had long been an integral part of India, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman made it clear that the present and past governments in China have never recognised the 'illegal' McMahon Line.

Despite occasional rhetorical flourishes about India and China being partners, the reality of Sino-Indian relations is getting more complicated by the day as the two Asian giants continue their ascent in the global inter-state hierarchy. The tensions over the boundary dispute between the two sides are escalating with China opening another front recently by raising objections over an area that was previously thought to have been settled.

A few months back China contested Indian control of 2.1 sq km area, known as the Finger Area, in the in the northernmost tip of the Indian state of Sikkim. This came as a surprise to Indians as the issue of Sikkim was widely considered to have been settled some years ago.

In 2003, when then Indian Prime Minister A B Vajpayee had visited Beijing a bilateral agreement was signed in which India recognised Tibet as part of the territory of China and pledged not to allow "anti-China" political activities in India while China acknowledged India's 1975 annexation of the former monarchy of Sikkim by agreeing to open a trading post along the border with the former kingdom and later by rectifying its official maps to include Sikkim as part of India. This was hailed as a major breakthrough in Sino-Indian bilateral ties though the Chinese government did not issue any formal statement recognising Sikkim as part of India.

Five years down the line, things are getting murkier with each passing day. Last year, the Chinese forces destroyed some Indian army bunkers at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction and more recently it has threatened to undertake cross-border forays to destroy stone demarcations in the Finger Area.

The Indian government has informed the Parliament that Chinese forces have stepped up regular cross-border activities over the past year. In a latest case, the Chinese soldiers entered 15 kilometres into India at the Burste post in the Ladakh sector along the Sino-Indian Boundary and burned the Indian patrolling base. According to some estimates, the intrusions by the Chinese forces into the Indian territory have escalated to 213 incidents, up from 170 reported last year. China persists in refusing to recognise the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of India, laying claim to 90,000 sq. kms of its land. Even as China has solved most of its border disputes with other countries, it seems reluctant to move ahead with India on border issues. The entire 4057-km Sino-Indian frontier is in dispute, with India and China the only known neighbours not to be separated even by a mutually defined Line of Control.

Despite the need for an expeditious demarcation of the Line of Actual Control, the Sino-Indian boundary talks seem to be continuing endlessly and the momentum of the talks itself seems to have flagged. China continues to refuse to exchange maps of its existing position in Aksai Chin, despite Indian readiness to go ahead with its own, thereby keeping the settlement of the boundary dispute in abeyance for a more 'opportune' moment. China apparently wants major territorial concessions on Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh which India seems to be in no position to offer. As a consequence, a breakthrough on this issue seems to be the key to the larger boundary settlement. China has adopted shifting positions on the border issue, time and again enunciating new principles but not explaining them. This deliberate opacity and springing surprises are typical of Chinese negotiating tactics to keep the interlocutor in a perpetual state of uncertainty, even as the façade of negotiations continues.

The real problem, however, is that India has no real bargaining leverage vis-à-vis China and negotiations rarely succeed in the absence of leverage. India, moreover, is not making any serious effort to get any economic, diplomatic or military leverage vis-à-vis its neighbourhood dragon.

India has few incentives to offer or pressures to apply that its neighbourhood dragon will find either too tempting or frightening to ignore. India seems to have lost the battle over Tibet to China, despite the fact that Tibet constitutes China's only truly fundamental vulnerability vis-à-vis India. India has failed to limit China's military use of Tibet despite its great implications for Indian security, even as Tibet has become a platform for the projection of Chinese military power.

Not only has China pumped in infrastructural investments in developing roads, railways, airfields, hydroelectric and geothermal stations, leading to a huge influx of Han Chinese in Tibet, it is also rapidly expanding the logistical capabilities of its armed forces in Tibet. India's tacit support to Dalai Lama's government-in-exile has failed to have much of an impact either on China or on the international community. Even Dalai Lama has given up his dream of an independent Tibet and is ready to talk to the Chinese as he realises that in a few years Tibet might get overwhelmed with the Han population and Tibetans themselves might become a minority.

Encouraged by the growing isolation of Tibetans, the Chinese government now seems to have little interest in a genuine dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama now concedes that his drive to secure autonomy for Tibet through negotiations with the Chinese government had failed, thereby strengthening the hand of younger Tibetans who have long agitated for a more radical approach and who have demanded independence.

It is a possibility that recent turmoil among the Tibetans in China may be hardening Chinese perceptions vis-à-vis India. During the last visit of the Indian foreign minister to China, the Chinese government reportedly raised objections to the media prominence being given to the Dalai Lama and his supporters in India. Though Indian government can do little about how India media treats the Tibetan cause, it will inevitably impact upon Sino-Indian ties. This despite the fact that the Indian government has not been able to summon enough self-confidence to even allow peaceful protests by the Tibetans and forcefully condemn Chinese physical assaults on its Tibetan minority and verbal assaults on the Dalai Lama.

China also seems to be concerned about Indian foreign policy becoming proactive in recent years and being able to play the same balance of power game which the Chinese are masters of. India's growing closeness to the US and the idea that democratic states in the Asia-Pacific such as India, Japan, Australia and the US should work together to counter common threats is generating a strong negative reaction in Beijing.

Whatever the cause, the recent hardening of positions on both sides does not augur well for regional stability in Asia. Sino-Indian ties will, in all likelihood, determine the course of global politics in the coming years. The consequences of this development, however, remain far from clear. Pranab Mukherjee was right when he suggested in Beijing sometime back that India-China relations will be one of the more significant factors that will determine the course of human history in the 21st century. If the present indications are anything to go by, human history is in for some tough times ahead.

The writer teaches at King's College London.

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Harsh V Pant