As India’s new foreign minister settles into office, a major issue demanding his attention will be the boundary negotiations with China. Despite 13 rounds of discussions since 2003, an agreement seems as elusive as ever. The key point of contention is China’s claim to the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh. The parameters agreed upon in 2005 state that the final settlement “shall safeguard due interest of...settled populations in the border areas”. This suggests that populated areas such as Tawang would not be up for bargaining, and yet, Beijing persists. To understand China’s stance, it would be useful to view the dispute from a historical perspective.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
During their talks in April 1960, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai indicated to Jawaharlal Nehru that if India accepted China’s claims in the western sector (Ladakh and Aksai Chin), it would adopt a reasonable stance on the McMahon Line boundary in the eastern sector (now Arunachal Pradesh). Beijing, he clarified, could not accept the McMahon Line, but could agree to a slightly different boundary.
China’s position in this sector stemmed mainly from the fact that the McMahon Line was the product of the Simla Convention of 1914, where Tibetan delegates had participated alongside British, Indian and Chinese representatives. Accepting the McMahon Line would be tantamount to acknowledging that Tibet had then enjoyed some sort of independent status—a point that would buttress the Dalai Lama’s case for an independent Tibet.
Nehru, in turn, called for a sector-by-sector examination of claims. In the western sector, Beijing not only claimed Aksai Chin, but also areas south and south-west of the region. Although the Chinese had occupied some of these parts in 1959, they were not in control of the entire area they had claimed. China occupied all of this area only after 1962.
When talks on the dispute were revived in the 1980s, New Delhi stuck to the position of sector-wise negotiations. The assumption was that once China acceded to India’s position in the east, it would politically be easier for the Indian government to make concessions in the west. Domestic politics also mandated that India should secure China’s withdrawal from the 3,000 sq. miles (around 7,770 sq. km) annexed in Ladakh in 1962, as the government could not afford to be seen as acquiescing to the gains of war.
China agreed to this approach, but began emphasizing its claims over Arunachal Pradesh—particularly the Tawang area. Beijing’s calculations were straightforward. If concessions in one sector would not be linked to gains in another, it made sense to adopt a maximalist negotiating position on each sector. Besides, the earlier considerations persisted as the Dalai Lama’s campaign for independence gathered momentum; the Tibetan leader was increasingly active internationally.
The negotiations that began in 2003 departed from the previous attempts in important respects. India assented to the idea of a comprehensive settlement, encompassing all the sectors. The parameters of the 2005 talks took into account the positions of both parties and sought to reconcile them. New Delhi needed a Chinese withdrawal by at least 3,000 sq. miles in the west; Beijing sought some concessions in the east. India has repeatedly stated that uprooting settled populations would be unacceptable.
Territorial considerations apart, the Chinese evidently want India to provide tangible reassurance vis-à-vis Tibet. Indeed, China’s hardening stance on Tawang has mirrored its increasing concern about Tibet.
The protests in the run-up to the Olympics heightened these concerns. China’s defence white paper released last year notes that Tibetan separatism is a major challenge. In tackling this problem, the Chinese believe that time is their best ally. Once the Dalai Lama passes away, Beijing will be in a position to appoint his successor, and so neutralize the Tibetan problem. But their success in this attempt also hinges on their ability to cut to size the Tibetan émigré movement, with the most important target in this regard being the Tibetan government-in-exile operating out of India.
Established in the early 1960s, the government-in-exile has ramified into a sizeable organization. India has not recognized the government-in-exile and has declared that it does not permit the organization to undertake political activities. But Beijing is not convinced of New Delhi’s sincerity. As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated last year, Tibet remains a “sensitive” issue in China’s relationship with India.
In fact, China’s suspicion of India’s support to Tibetan dissidents goes back to the late 1950s. The evidence now emerging from Chinese archives shows that this misperception was crucial in China’s decision to go to war in 1962. Thus, as part of a settlement, China appears to seek some move by India to curb the Tibetan émigrés—possibly by dissolving the parliament-in-exile.
But the dispute can be resolved if both sides are willing to make compromises. India has space to make concessions in the unpopulated areas in the east; China can relinquish some territory in the west. Similarly, New Delhi can provide robust reassurances on Tibet without having to entirely fulfil Beijing’s desires.
Striking an accord on these lines will take time. Furthermore, selling the agreement in India’s domestic political market is unlikely to be simple. A boundary agreement will require a constitutional amendment, which will have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament and by at least half the state legislatures.
The present government has the requisite political clout to settle this decades-old dispute. The question remains: Does it have the will?
Srinath Raghavan is associate fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org