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XI’s visit and the boundary issues

Mukul Sanwal is Ex civil servant and diplomat.
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  • September 24, 2014

    Whenever a high level visit takes place between India and China expectations are raised that with a Midas like touch the two leaders would resolve the boundary question and that the two billion plus people of India and China would together shape a new Asia. Such hyperbole remains constant, since few are aware of what Chinese policies actually are. President Xi Jinping reportedly issued a five point directive at the conclusion of a high level Work Forum in October 2013 on China’s policies towards peripheral countries; that while enhancing political ‘goodwill’ and deepening economic integration with them, the peripheral countries would have to respect China’s ‘core’ interests and ‘validate’ China’s efforts to enforce sovereignty and territorial claims.1 If this is indeed the theoretical line that President Xi is pursuing, then there is little chance of any forward movement in settling Sino-Indian boundary issues.

    The Chinese, generally speaking, are aware of the Indian fascination for concluding high sounding declarations, statements, principles etc. and therefore have little hesitation in indulging them; knowing full well that if the situation so demands these can easily be flouted. The 1954 Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence [Panchsheel] Agreement and the 2005 Political Parameters and Guiding Principles Agreement, particularly Article VII, are prime such examples. The first was easily overturned in the conflict in 1962 and the second in May 2007 when the Chinese Foreign Minister [Yang Jiechi] told the Indian Foreign Minister [Mukerjee] in Hamburg that their understanding of Article VII [‘in reaching a border settlement the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in border areas’] did not mean that Chinese claims [Southern Tibet] were affected!

    There is no other state in the world that has longer contiguous land frontiers than China; a total of about 22,000 kilometers of which about nearly 19,000 kilometers traverse China’s minority areas.2 At present China has a land border with 14 states. Of the 14 states, 12 have conclusively settled their border disputes with the People’s Republic. 3 India and Bhutan remain the only states that have continuing land border disputes with China [emphasis added]. As regards Bhutan, China alleges that it is still under India’s ‘firm control’ and that India will not allow it to ‘…solve the border issue.’4

    It is indeed an anomaly as to why there is no settlement with India when all other similar boundary disputes with other states have been settled. While assessing the prevailing reality along the Sino-Indian border three factors need to be kept in mind. First, in the western sector the Chinese are in possession of the ‘disputed’ territory. Second, India is in no position to evict them physically. Third, although India is in possession of territory in the middle and eastern sectors, yet the Chinese have never given up their claims. Maybe these are negotiating tactics, but the Chinese even prevaricate on the demarcation of a mutually determined ‘line of actual control’ all along the Sino-Indian border, primarily to keep India off-balance.

    In the Chinese mind the settlement of the border issue with India cannot be divorced from regional, political and larger strategic issues. In fact if the regional, political and strategic issues with India were amicably resolved; a boundary settlement would inevitably follow. The position taken by India on the boundary issue has steadily come closer to the stated Chinese position. In the early fifties, Nehru took the position that there was no boundary dispute and all that was needed were small rectifications of the line. This position was overturned by the 1962 conflict and thereafter India took the line that till the boundary issue is settled; no further normalization of relations could take place. This line too was abandoned when PM Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988 and the new position was that while negotiations on the boundary issue continued, normalization in all other areas could take place. Finally PM Vajpayee further agreed to conduct boundary negotiations based on ‘political parameters’ and conceded to the Chinese position to settle the boundary in a ‘package.’

    The question therefore is why do the Chinese not settle on the basis of a ‘package’ as they had insisted all along? The answer lies in the fact that ever since the boundary issue came to the fore and even at present; this dispute is utilized by China for trying to coerce foreign policy changes by India that often have nothing to do with the dispute itself [emphasis added]. China has used the threat of intrusions across the LAC, as a part of its coercive diplomacy. It is too valuable a coercive diplomatic asset to give up.

    From the Chinese point of view the issue of Tibet remains the most significant factor. Although India has officially accepted that Tibet is an autonomous region of China, yet doubts about India’s intentions linger. Even the Chinese military action in 1962 was attributed not to the legality or otherwise of the McMahon Line, but as Mao Zedung told a Nepalese delegation in 1964 that ‘in the opinion of the Indian government, Tibet is theirs.’ The decision by the Indian Army to raise a new strike corps has done nothing to lessen Chinese apprehensions.

    Despite enormous efforts, China has still not been able to subdue Tibetan aspirations. China has tried everything from brutal crackdowns to economic sops. Yet the Tibetan yearning for independence just does not die down to China’s utter exasperation. China faces a crisis of credibility in Tibet even after a half century of so-called ‘democratic reforms.’5 Sometimes even Chinese officials, in candid moments, admit that although their economic strategies have been a success, yet their political strategy for ensuring stability has been a dismal failure.6

    China has played a central role in helping Pakistan become a nuclear weapons state. China is helping Pakistan to fuel the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world.7 China is also the main military weapons supplier to the Pakistan Army. According to SIPRI nearly 55 per cent of China’s arms exports go to Pakistan. China’s arms exports world- wide rose by an unprecedented 162 per cent for the period 2008-2012.8 The aim is to ensure that India remains occupied in South Asia.

    Strategic analysts sitting in Beijing realize that in any Sino-Indian stand-off, the role of the US would be crucial. China watched with some anxiety the US urge India to play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific region. As US Deputy Secretary of State, Burns put it ‘India’s strong presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans is a source of comfort and affirms its potential as a net security provider in the maritime domain.’9 Therefore, the way Indo-US relations develop is of great strategic significance for China.

    The Chinese are aware that PM Modi is visiting Washington shortly. In the Modi-Obama talks, like Banquo’s ghost, the shadow of China will be ever present. The central message therefore is that should India gravitate too closely towards the US inspired ‘rebalance’ to Asia, or move closer to Japan, Australia and Vietnam; it would have to contend with renewed pressure on the boundary. The Chumar standoff is the physical demonstration of the Chinese message.

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

    • 1. Timothy Heath. “Diplomacy Work Forum: Xi Steps Up Efforts to Shape a China-Centered Regional Order” China Brief Vol. 13, No22, 7November 2013.
    • 2. Judge Xue Hanqin [International Court of Justice]. “China and International Law: 60 Years in Review,” Chatham House, 8 March 2013.
    • 3. Ibid.
    • 4. Liu Zhongyi. The Global Times, 4 August 2013.
    • 5. Dr. Dibyesh Anand. Interview to Zee Television (Delhi:, 19 November 2011.
    • 6. Andrew M Fischer. “The Geopolitics of Politico-Religious Protest in Eastern Tibet,” Field-Spots, Cultural Anthropology-on-Line, 8 April 2012.
    • 7. Bruce Riedel. “JFK Overshadowed,” National See also Bruce Riedel. “Divided They Stand,” Indian Express, 28 October 2013, p. 10.
    • 8. SIPRI estimates quoted in the Hindustan Times, 19 March 2013.
    • 9. William Burns, US Deputy Secretary of State address to students of Pune University on 19 December 2011.(