India-China relations: Special Representative Talks and Beyond

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Beijing: National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval being welcomed by China's State Councillor, Yang Jiechi at the 19th India-China Boundary talks in Beijing on Wednesday. PTI Photo (PTI4_20_2016_000122B)

Early this year, China published the first volume of Soviet era declassified documents pertaining to Mao Zedong’s writings (Sulian jiemi dangan xuan: Mao Zedong zhuzuo). Though India has appeared at a number of places in Mao’s discussion with Soviet leaders, however, two documents titled “Debate on Taiwan Issue and Sino-Indian Relations – Record of Talks between Mao Zedong and Khrushchov” on 2nd October 1959, “On Complete Disarmament, Taiwan Issue and Sino-Indian Relations – A Minute of Conversation between Mao Zedong and Antonov” on 14th October 1959 could be of particular interest to the Indian readers albeit these are already in public domain for quite some time. In one of the top secret dispatches sent by Antonov, the Soviet Charge d’Affaires in Beijing he talks about Mao Zedong’s views about the India-China border dispute. According to the dispatch Mao said (p.509), “Under no circumstances, we will go over the Himalayas, we are clear about it, this is a dispute over a territory that does not make sense.”

Another dispatch graphically narrates a heated debate between Chinese that included Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Lin Biao, Chen Yi etc. people and Khrushchov on China handling the Tibet and border issue with India, visibly Khrushchov blamed China for both. Khrushchov was of the view that it was China’s blunder who let the Dalai Lama escape, and also the Longju incident was of China’s making. Chinese side emphasized that India crossed the McMahon Line and opened fire that continued for 12 hours; it was under such circumstances that Chinese forces retaliated. Khrushchov’s reply was, if such is the case why only the Indian side suffered casualties not the Chinese? As regards the situation in Tibet and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India, Mao Zedong reply was (p.510), “The Tibetan people regard the Dalai Lama as a god, not a human being. His flight to India is better than his stay in Tibet, for Tibetan farmers will not be devoted to the democratic reforms. Mao Zedong continued: had we arrested the Dalai Lama, we would have aroused resistance from the Tibetan people.”As regards the McMahon Line, Mao Zedong though defended China’s rebuttal to India crossing the Line, however, reiterated that (p.500) “You will stand witness that the McMahon Line with India will continue to exist, but the border conflict will be eliminated.” Mao further added, you have given us two labels – one that the conflict with India is our fault; and two that the escape of the Dalai Lama is also our fault; let me also give you one label – the ‘compromising element.’

Going by Mao Zedong’s accounts that “under no circumstances, China will go over the Himalayas’ and that “the McMahon Line with India will continue to exist” demonstrates that the issue could have been resolved, had both the sides dealt it with strategic foresight. The rest as they say is history. Nonetheless, when both sides are meeting for the 20th round of the Special Representative talks, it is pertinent to take a stock of the path we have traversed so far.

The “Agreement Between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Trade and Intercourse Between Tibet Region of China and India”, also known as the Panchsheel Agreement signed on 29th April 1954 could be regarded as the first confidence building mechanism (CBM) between India and China, however, it didn’t go beyond the cacophony of Hindi-Cheeni Bhai-Bhai. The Joint Working Group (JWG) on border in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s December 1988 China visit could be regarded as the second CBM after the Panchsheel. The JWG also institutionalized flag meetings between military commanders from both sides at the Bumla and Dichu in the Eastern Sector, Lipulekh in Uttrakhand in the middle sector, and Spanggur near Chushul in the Western Sector, and also set a stage for the CBMs of 1993, 1996 and 2005 as well the Border Defense Cooperation Mechanism (BDCM). 15 rounds of talks on border issue were concluded under the aegis of JWG mechanism.

The “Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (AMPTAC), in the India-China border area signed on September 7, 1993; the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control (ACBMMF) in the India-China border areas signed on November 29, 1996; and the Protocol on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles (PPPGP) for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question signed on April 11 2005 are unique in a way that these are not the byproduct of bipolarity of the world, neither the cold war, and nor the asymmetrical force structure between India and China; rather the evolution of these CBMs could be seen as lessons learnt by India and China from the hostilities and Cold War, and the result of the rapprochement and engagement after the establishment of diplomatic ties between India and China.

The 2005 protocol on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question took the bilateral relations to higher level, and attempted to view the relation in a larger and global context. There was an indication that the constructive and cooperative partnership between India and China transcends bilateral and regional configurations but has global implications, and that “both sides are seeking a political settlement of the boundary question in the context of their overall and long-term interests”, therefore, “differences on the boundary question should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations.” The importance of the mechanism of Special Representatives (SR) on the boundary question was underscored, and stated that the SRs “shall continue their consultations in an earnest manner with the objective of arriving at an agreed framework for a boundary settlement, which will provide the basis for the delineation and demarcation of the India-China boundary.”

These mechanisms, however, did not stop face-offs such as Daulat Beg Oldi (2013) during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s India visit, Chumar (2014) during president Xi Jinping’s India visit, and more dangerous at Doklam (2017) that lasted record 73 days and almost triggered an armed conflict between the two. This is demonstrative of the fact that the unresolved boundary issue is the fundamental cause for mistrust at every level. Both have concluded 42 rounds of border talks starting from 1981 – 7 before Rajiv Gandhi’s China visit (1988), 15 under the JWG mechanism, and the 20 under the Special Representative framework. Undoubtedly, we have managed the border well and have incrementally expanded our cooperation in various other fields, however, we need to resolve it and pave the way for comprehensive development of the bilateral ties. Therefore, what could be done?

First and foremost, constructive realism needs to be employed as far as dealing with China is concerned. Given the fact that the border issue has gathered complexities and may not be easy to resolve for a long time to come, we need to maintain the momentum of high level visits and diversify our relationship in trade and investment, especially the infrastructure sector where we can build capacities and prepare the ground for our economic flight. Two, to expect an assertive China who has emerged as a challenger to the established hegemon not to infringe on our strategic space in the neighborhood and the Indian Ocean region would be a wishful thinking. The same logic could be applied to India seeking China’s cooperating on counter terrorism, its entry to the NSG, and reigning in its proxies in the region. It is hoped that increasing incidents of terror and violence in China’s restive region of Xinjiang will change this perception of China, for many of the terror outfits are reported to be in hand and glove with terror networks in Pakistan. India rather needs to have its own strategic choices as far as cooperation and competition with China is concerned. Three, military exchanges at various levels need to be maintained and deepened. Four, the present confidence building measures need to be strengthened, consolidated and a series of new CBMs need to be initiated at various levels. In this regard India and China agreeing to undertake joint operations against pirates and sharing technological knowhow on seabed research, and the Mechanism on Coordination and Consultation on Border Affairs, are welcome steps. Five, economic relations need to be deepened and strengthened. Some of the irritants in trade such as huge trade deficit and market access denials by China to some of India’s leading sectors such as pharmaceuticals and information technology could be addressed. Vibrant trade between the two may prove as a catalyst to create a better security environment and reduce the security deficit greatly, if not, at minimum stronger economic drivers will translate into stronger defense capabilities. Finally, track II mechanisms between academic institutions, think tanks, publishing industry etc. need to be initiated at a massive scale. India must invest heavily in China studies and language in a big way, which will enable us to understand China in a better way. Meanwhile, in order to create a congenial atmosphere, the media on both the sides need to play a constructive role rather than flaring up the issue and deteriorating the environment. If the answer to these questions is in affirmative, I believe, both India and China have enough room to cooperate while reserving their difference on major issues of discord.