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Panchsheel was noble, but did China embrace it ever?

Rajeesh Kumar is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 18, 2017

    Amidst the standoff on Doklam, China has invoked Panchsheel by saying that India has trampled upon the five principles of peaceful co-existence. In contrast to previous confrontations along the Himalayan border, this time around Beijing appears to have become frustrated with New Delhi's proactive approach. With minimal words in Delhi and maximum deeds at the tri-junction, the elephant has provoked the dragon. The annoyance is evident in Beijing's invocation of the antiquated Panchsheel principles as the basic mode of engagement between the two countries. In a press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said, “it is known to all that in the 1950s, China, India, and Myanmar jointly initiated the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence… But the Indian side has violated the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and trampled on norms governing international relations, championed by India.”1

    The Panchsheel agreement or the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence was signed in April 1954 between India and China. The Five Principles are: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. Though the original agreement was on trans-border trade and cultural engagement between India and the Tibet region of China, it later expanded to cover the whole gamut of the bilateral relationship.2 As two republics born after the Second World War, Panchsheel was a sensible idea for India and China to disengage from each other's internal affairs and show the rest of the world their belief in unfettered national sovereignty. While India viewed the signing of the five principles and ceding of its extra-territorial rights over Tibet inherited from the British Raj as an opportunity to promulgate its anti-colonial posture, China saw in this expression of Asian solidarity a means to check the growing anti-communist sentiments in the West. By placing these strategic and geopolitical calculations above the principle of 'peaceful co-existence', soon both countries proved that, beyond diplomatic rhetoric, the five principles were immaterial. Beijing was in fact at the forefront of making Panchsheel inapplicable.

    Within a few months of agreeing to the five principles, China made its first attempt to infringe upon it. The first notable incident in this regard was its territorial claim over Bara Hoti, which has traditionally been Indian Territory.3 The traditional boundary between India and China in Barahoti (Wu-Je in Chinese) is Tunjun La Pass; the territory situated to the north of the Pass is Chinese and that to the south of it is Indian. It is significant to note that whenever India expressed readiness to recognize the disputed character of the boundary and suggested a resolution through bilateral talks, China blocked such efforts. For instance, during the discussions on Barahoti at Delhi in April 1958, India proposed that “the civil authorities of either country should not attempt to exercise jurisdiction over the Barahoti area until the dispute is finally settled.”4 This was, however, rejected by China, which sent its officials to Barahoti on 29 June 1958. Moreover, in the course of the talks, India also proposed that neither side should send troops to the region in dispute. This time around, China accepted the Indian proposal in principle but violated it in practice by sending troops to the region after a mere two months.

    Throughout the latter half of the 1950s, Chinese intrusions, claims over territory and construction of roads were continued and supported by the forward movement of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some of the instances in this regard were: incursions in the Indian section of Aksai Chin and construction of a road to connect Sinkiang with Tibet, followed by intrusions in Damzan, Nilang, Shipki, Khurnak, Migyitun, Spanggur, and Khinzemane.5 It is a known fact that the entire border between the two Asian giants has not been demarcated formally. So one can support the Chinese claim by denying Indian rights over these territories. However, there are two things which support the Indian case. First, the traditional practice regarding India-China boundary where delimitation has not been done or has proved impossible due to the physical nature of the terrain was to follow either the treaties they had inherited or the customs. Second, China never protested India’s exercise of jurisdiction up to the customary boundary in the early years of Independence.6 Moreover, when Premier Chou Enlai raised the issue of the eastern border in his talk with Nehru in 1956, he did not mention the dispute over the Western boundary with India.

    From 1958 onwards, Chinese territorial claims become more assertive. The military attacks in Longju and Kangla Pass in 1959 and the killing of Indian frontier guards were some of the instances in this regard. These calculated and aggressive moves also exposed the element of hypocrisy in Beijing's interaction with New Delhi. The initiation of the 1962 War was indeed a violation of the principles of peaceful co-existence. Since, however, discussing principles and norms in the context of war may not be inappropriate, probing the peace efforts after the war, in particular the Colombo Peace Proposals, would prove more convincing to explain Chinese deception.

    The Colombo Proposals were the result of the Colombo Conference of six non-aligned countries held on 10-12 December 1962 to discuss the India-China border dispute. The plan put forward a few directions which could consolidate the ceasefire and facilitate further negotiation between the two countries. While India agreed to the principles in toto, China showed an inconsistent and contradictory attitude by agreeing to them in principle but with many reservations. Thus, on January 6, 1963, China gave a memorandum to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Bandaranaike accepting the Colombo proposals. However, two days later, it sent a letter with many reservations, which in effect amounted to a rejection of the proposals. The crux of China’s reservations centred on 'arbitration and adjudication', which were not at all a concern for the Colombo countries and not a part of their proposals.7 The conference only talked about consolidating the ceasefire and proceeding with negotiations. China’s dismissal of the proposals of the Afro-Asian countries exposed its deceitful approach towards peaceful resolution of conflicts, the central pillar of Panchsheel.

    These developments in the first decade of Panchsheel determined its future as well. Since then, India-China relations have been driven purely by strategic and geopolitical calculations rather than by faith in peaceful co-existence. It is true that for the last five decades the two countries have not fought any war. This absence of war is primarily an outcome of the evaluation of the high price of war, not their love for peace. Recurring border standoffs and sabre-rattling show the incapacitated status of the principle of peaceful co-existence. This failure of Panchsheel in practice was primarily because of China's hypocrisy towards it.

    Here it is significant to note that India's approach towards Panchsheel was not deceitful in any way in the initial years, with Prime Minister Nehru attempting to translate the five principles into reality. This was evident both in Nehru's words and deeds. When proceedings in Parliament became stormy in the latter half of the 1950s because of the perception of Nehru's negligence of developments along the China border, he emphasized that peace is the only way to engage with China. Letters and notes exchanged between the two governments in 1959 regarding the border disputes reveals Nehru’s preference for peaceful co-existence. For instance, on 10 September 1959, India proposed the immediate withdrawal of Indian and Chinese forces 40 km from the so-called McMahon Line in the east, and from the line up to which each country exercised actual control in the west.8

    Given all this, before selectively invoking historical contexts and postulates, Chinese officials should ask themselves “do we have the right to say this.” In the context of the Doklam standoff, peace is undoubtedly the best way to resolve the conflict. However, its application should not be selective and devious.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang's Regular Press Conference on July 5, 2017,
    • 2. “Panchsheel”,
    • 3. Ministry of External Affairs note given to the Chinese Charge d’Affaires in India on 3 October 1956 clarifies the geographical location and traits of Hoti plain thus: 30°-53' latitude north 79°- 59' longitude east. See “Notes, Memoranda and letters between the governments of India and China 1954-1959”, National Archives of India, MEA File No. 5/11/R&I/59.
    • 4. Ministry of External Affairs’ note handed to the Chinese Counsellor in India on 10 December 1958, National Archives of India, MEA File No. 5/11/R&I/59.
    • 5. See “Notes, Memoranda and letters between the governments of India and China 1954-1959”, National Archives of India, MEA File No. 5/11/R&I/59. Also see Nehru’s letter to Chou on 26 September 1959.
    • 6. India refers to the 1842 Tibetan-Kashmir Treaty and Simla Conference of 1913-14, which delimited the boundary in the Eastern and Western Sectors. In contrast, China claims the customary line up to Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern sector and along the Karakoram Mountains in the Western sector. See M. Taylor Fravel, Strong borders Secure Nations: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes, Princeton, and Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 326.
    • 7. Nehru’s letter to Chou En-lai on 1 May 1963, National Archives of India, MEA Files HI/107/5/75.
    • 8. Government of India’s note to Chinese government on 10 September 1959, Note 3. Also see, Chou En-lai’s letter to Nehru on 7 November 1959, which also mentions the Indian proposal of withdrawal of forces, National Archives of India, MEA Files HI/107/5/75 & HI/108/66.