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The deep freeze

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It’s almost 50 years since India and China fought a short war over their contesting boundary claims. The war of 1962 made the possibility of a boundary settlement all the more remote. India’s ignominious defeat made a deep psychological dent on its political class, security establishment, and public opinion alike. The Chinese, for their part, worked to undermine India’s security environment by supporting Pakistan and assorted insurgent groups in North-East India. Nearly a decade and a half passed before the two countries resumed the exchange of ambassadors. But a real thaw came only in 1988 with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing and his exchanges with Deng Xiaoping.

The next 15 years saw significant agreements on maintaining peace along the disputed borders and on confidence building measures. Yet progress on resolving the dispute had to await Atal Behari Vajpayee’s trip to China in 2003. The negotiations between special representatives began subsequently and continue to date. In 2005, the two sides managed to come up with an important framework agreement that spelt out the principles that would guide the negotiators and underpin the final settlement. Since then, there has been little progress. Indeed, when Premier visited New Delhi in December 2010, he publicly stated that reaching agreement on the borders would take “a fairly long period of time”.

Since the late 1980s, India-China relations have expanded well beyond the boundary issue. The growth in bilateral trade has consistently exceeded expectations. It stood at $74 billion in 2011 and is expected to touch the $100 billion mark by 2015. The two countries have also worked together in a range of new groupings and institutions, and on several global issues. Yet, so long as the boundary dispute remains unresolved India-China relations cannot really be normalised.

is a timely and useful examination of why this dispute remains intractable. has written extensively on various aspects of Sino-Indian relations. This short monograph is lucid and refreshingly free of the polemics that mar scholarly as well as popular treatments of this subject.

The book begins with a brisk summary of the British legacy inherited by independent India. In the western sector (or the Ladakh sector), the British made many attempts to reach an “agreed frontier” with China, but to no avail. The key points are that there was no delimited boundary and that neither India nor China was on very strong grounds in advancing their claims in the 1950s. By contrast, in the eastern sector, India and Tibet agreed on a boundary (the McMahon Line) in the tripartite Simla Conference of 1913-14 — though the Chinese repudiated this agreement.

The subsequent policies adopted by Jawaharlal Nehru right up to the war of 1962 are dealt with deftly. The conventional wisdom is either that Nehru was naïve or that he missed an opportunities for a settlement when Premier Zhou Enlai came to parley in April 1960. The author shows that neither of these arguments hold up. A number of factors ranging from domestic politics to Tibet to the Sino-Soviet dispute influenced and complicated the boundary issue.

The most interesting parts of the monograph are those dealing with the negotiations in the late 1970s and 1980s. Drawing on interviews with a key Indian negotiator, the author shows that Deng Xiaoping himself advanced the idea of swapping territorial claims — a “package” deal — to the visiting Indian foreign minister, Vajpayee, in 1979. He also traces the alternatives put forward by the Indian negotiators in the subsequent meetings. However, the treatment of these talks is sketchy and at times unclear. Besides, there is the problem of relying so heavily on a single source, however authoritative.

Looking at more recent developments, the author argues that the hardening of China’s position since 2005 is linked to tightening relationship between India and the United States. This is a plausible argument, but there are alternative explanations to be considered: China’s growing concerns about unrest in Tibet; the widening power differential between China and India; domestic politics, especially the absence of a leadership that feels secure enough to go for a settlement broadly along the status quo.

It’ll be a while before it becomes clear how the new Chinese leadership coming into office later this year will deal with the boundary issue. Meantime, this short and serviceable book will help us ponder the next steps.


HIMALAYAN STALEMATE:

Author: Zorawar Daulet Singh
Publisher: Straight Forward
Price: Rs 45

The reviewer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

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