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Shyam Saran: India-China border dispute - Coping with asymmetry

Sustaining the status quo depends on our ability to make attempts to change it risky for the other side

Shyam Saran 

Shyam Saran

In 1983, when I was serving in our embassy in Beijing, there were a series of informal and confidential exchanges on the possibility of resolving the border issue. The Chinese leadership was keen on a visit to Beijing by then India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had also taken over the same year as chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement. It was pointed out to our Chinese interlocutors that such a visit would hardly be possible without the border issue being resolved in a satisfactory manner. The answer was to point to Deng's package proposal, i.e. to formalise the status quo. Our counter was that something more than the status quo would be necessary given the grievous blow to Indian psyche that the 1962 war had delivered. There was some indication that if Gandhi would be ready to visit, then some additional territory in the western sector, occupied as a result of the 1962 operations, may be conceded. Unfortunately, the Indian side did not follow up on this and the opportunity was lost.

FIRST PART OF THIS COLUMN - 1962: The view from Beijing

In 1985, the Chinese side formally reinterpreted the package proposal saying that we had misunderstood Deng's words. The fresh Chinese position was that since the area of largest dispute was in the eastern sector, India had to make meaningful concessions in that sector and the Chinese side would then make appropriate and corresponding concessions in the western sector. Additionally, an explicit demand was now advanced for ceding Tawang, which the Indian side was accused of occupying at a much later date after its independence. It was pointed out to us that since the fifth Dalai Lama had been born in Tawang, the place was of special significance for the Chinese people, in particular for China's Tibetan nationality. This remains the current Chinese position on the border dispute and the Indian side, of course, rejects it.

In 1992, an informal suggestion was made to the Chinese side that India gives free access to Chinese pilgrims to Tawang, while China reciprocally gives similar access to Indian pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar. The Chinese never responded. One reason for the insistence on Tawang being conceded may be the fear that if the next Dalai Lama were to be "discovered" in Tawang , a Chinese rival may not enjoy the same legitimacy. As will be apparent, the issue of Tibet continues to be embedded in any consideration of the border.

In 2005, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit, India and China announced a set of Guiding Principles and Political Parameters for resolving the border issue. From India's standpoint, these principles and parameters are welcome as they include those that are extremely relevant, such as the need to consider the interests of "settled populations". This would have a direct bearing on the status of Tawang. However, in typical Chinese fashion, there is a continuous attempt to reinterpret these principles to suit Chinese positions. In the series of talks between the Special Representatives of the two prime ministers, now in their 11th year, little progress has been recorded on settling the border issue, though the talks have been useful in managing the border and in advancing confidence-building measures.

Given this chequered history, what are the prospects of an India-China border settlement and what are its likely contours? One cannot see a solution that diverges significantly from the existing alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the longer the status quo continues the more likely is the LAC to eventually morph into a settled boundary. At a recent track-II interaction, a senior Chinese army official remarked that India was unlikely to go to war to recover Aksai Chin just as China was unlikely to go to war to recover southern Tibet, or what India refers to as Arunachal Pradesh. In the meantime, he went on to add, the LAC needed to be clarified so that incidents such as the recent one at Depsang could be avoided.

Given the experience of 1962, however, one should never base one's actions on the basis of perceptions of the other side's intentions. It was the entrenched belief that China would never attack that caught Indian forces totally unprepared and virtually defenceless. Our border defences including logistics, must take into account the rapidly growing capabilities on the Chinese side. Although the size of our forces deployed at the border and its vicinity is substantial, our transport infrastructure and logistical capabilities have fallen steadily behind that of China. These shortcomings are being addressed but we need to consider ways in which we can cope with the growing asymmetry. The use of air capabilities may be one answer. There is also an urgent need to improve and extend our reconnaissance capabilities, so that there is sufficient warning time in case of an attack. Intelligence failure was one of the major causes of our failure to anticipate and respond to the 1962 crisis. The point one is making is that any prospect of sustaining the status quo at the border is dependent upon our ability to make any attempt to change it costly and risky to the other side.

It is also clear that the evolution of the Tibet issue will have a significant influence on both the prospects of an eventual border settlement with China and, in the meantime, maintaining peace and tranquility along the LAC. A successful reconciliation process between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese side would be to India's advantage. There were some signs earlier last year that the new Chinese leadership was reaching out to the Dalai Lama but these seem to have lost momentum. If there are ways in which India could encourage this, it would help in managing India-China relations. A worsening of the situation inside Tibet or greater militancy among Tibetan youth in India could make the job of keeping India-China relations on an even keel more difficult.

China is likely to show restraint in dealing with India, including on the border issue, the more diversified and stronger India's relations are with other countries. China was more amenable and sensitive to India's interests in 2005 because of India's growing relationship with the US, Japan and the countries of South East Asia. The fewer options India is seen to have in its external relations, the more likely Chinese pressures on it will increase. This will be particularly relevant if the capability gap between the two countries continues to widen. Alternatively, if the forthcoming elections throw up a political leadership that enables India to resume accelerated economic growth and pursue a more coherent foreign policy, the prospects for India-China relations will improve. One should watch carefully the changing dynamics among major powers as a result of the Ukraine crisis and the worsening of relations between Russia and the West. On balance, China appears to be a net gainer with both Russia and the West seeking its neutrality, if not support. For India, the choices are more difficult.

Much will be determined by what the Indian electorate delivers in terms of a new political dispensation later this year. In 2005, India was riding high. New Delhi was the indispensable destination for leaders from across the world and the Indian growth story was putting India in the same league as China. Permanent membership of the UN Security Council seemed to be within reach. One could feel that one had more cards to play with in dealing with the world. That is no longer the case. The impending political renewal nevertheless gives one hope that India will get another chance to get back into reckoning.

FIRST PART OF THIS COLUMN - 1962: The view from Beijing

The writer, a former foreign secretary, is chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and of RIS as well as a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The first part of this article appeared on April 8

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First Published: Sun, April 13 2014. 22:46 IST