So close, yet so far

Ananth Krishnan | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

Talking point: India’s first national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra (left), had made an impression on the long-time Chinese negotiator Dai Bingguo   -  V SUDERSHAN/FILE IMAGE

Negotiating the India-China border dispute has been a saga of missed opportunities and half-chances

The Case for Settling

An unresolved history — of both the boundary and the war — presents a daunting obstacle to any eventual resolution of the India–China boundary dispute. It is an obstacle that is difficult, but not impossible, to overcome. One only need look to 1980, when Deng Xiaoping, twenty years after Zhou Enlai’s fateful visit, hinted at a solution along lines proposed by the former premier. In a 21 June 1980 interview, Deng noted, ‘In the eastern sector we can reconsider the existing status quo — I mean the so-called McMahon Line — but in the western sector the Indian government should also recognize the existing status quo. I think you can pass this message to Mrs Gandhi.’

India’s China Challenge: A Journey Through China’s Rise and What it Means for India / Ananth Krishnan / HarperCollins / Non-fiction / ₹599


Could such a solution still be on the table? Evidence suggests that as far as China is concerned, the ship may have sailed. In 1985, the country specified that the concession it was seeking in the east was Tawang, and that the McMahon Line was no longer acceptable. For any government in India, that is an impossible proposition. Not only is this a settled area that had ‘sent representatives to every Indian parliament since 1950’, the Supreme Court in the Berubari case of 1956 declared that no government can cede territory without a constitutional amendment, although it could make adjustments and rectifications in the boundaries of India.

Missed Opportunities

Long-time negotiator Dai Bingguo, who served as the Chinese SR [Special Representative] for over fifteen rounds of talks from 2003 until his retirement in 2013, suggested in a 2016 book that India and China had moved tantalizingly close to resolving the dispute when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, only for the BJP’s unexpected 2004 electoral defeat to thwart a final resolution.

Dai, who was appointed SR by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2003, credits Vajpayee for breathing life into talks that had meandered for years with little purpose. At a dinner with Wen during his 2003 China visit, Vajpayee suggested the setting up of the SRs mechanism, where the representatives would be empowered ‘to detach themselves from the current boundary negotiations’, ‘directly report to their prime ministers’, and find a solution ‘from a political level’.

Vajpayee’s 2003 visit, no doubt, helped make serious headway in the stalled talks. China finally recognized Sikkim as an Indian state, while India, in the ‘Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation’ signed by both sides during the visit, said it ‘recognizes that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China’. In a major confidence-building measure, both sides signed a memorandum on expanding border trade, agreeing to use Nathu La pass ‘for entry and exit’ and designating ‘Changgu of Sikkim state’ and ‘Renqinggang of the Tibet Autonomous Region’ as venues for border markets.

As the Chinese saw it, Vajpayee was ‘the first Indian prime minister who publicly showed that some adjustments need to be made’ by both sides, which, Dai says, ‘led to a new hope emerging in the dull boundary talks’. India’s first national security adviser and SR, Brajesh Mishra, who passed away in 2012, left an impression on the Chinese SR. When Dai suggested at the first SR meeting that both sides could aim to make headway ‘in three to five years’, Mishra, seventy-five years old at the time, retorted, ‘If it takes so many years as you say, I won’t be around to see it!’

After the second round of talks ended, Mishra quietly took Dai aside and told him to convey a message to the Chinese leadership. Dai recalls, ‘He said, Prime Minister Vajpayee is 79 years old, and very concerned about the boundary question. Mishra was himself 75 years old, and said he hopes to settle it as early as possible.’ As the BJP headed into elections in mid-2004, which Vajpayee expected to win, Mishra told Dai that the plan was ‘to speed up the progress of the SRs meetings’ after what they expected to be a successful re-election, and to push for an early settlement. For his part, Dai believed that these were not mere words and that an early settlement was indeed possible. ‘I had hopes [at the time] that the SRs meeting would achieve results as early as possible,’ he writes.

But it was not to be. The 2004 elections were a turning point, says Dai. The Chinese felt that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was ‘a weak government with coalition partners’; it was ‘restrained by many factors and had a limited capability to make decisions’. Mishra stepped down as SR, and the focus shifted away from finding a solution. The Indian government, the Chinese felt, was concentrating on domestic issues and ‘trying to maintain stability at the Centre’. ‘It lacked the sense of urgency in solving the boundary question,’ Dai says, leaving undone the process pushed by Mishra.

Hopes were briefly revived when the UPA was re-elected in 2009 in a stronger position, by which time M.K. Narayanan succeeded J.N. Dixit as SR. Dai says Narayanan ‘conveyed a message to me from the Indian government saying that India hopes to solve all problems between India and China in three to four years’. Dai told Narayanan, with whom he had eight meetings, that he ‘hoped we would not continue negotiating till the 99th meeting’.

(Excerpted with permission from India’s China Challenge: A Journey Through China’s Rise and What it Means for India, to be launched by HarperCollins on September 30).

Ananth Krishnan is the China correspondent of The Hindu

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Published on September 25, 2020
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