India-China border dispute is here to stay
China’s insistence on Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh reduces the prospect of a resolution but India should be in no hurry either
In a recent interview to a Beijing-based magazine—as India Today reported last week—Dai Bingguo, the former Chinese special representative on boundary negotiations with India, has suggested that India holds the key to a final settlement of the border dispute. If India were to concede Tawang on the eastern front, Dai believes, China will make some concessions in Aksai Chin on the western front.
This statement has reignited interest in the India-China border dispute at a time when bilateral relations are consumed by issues relating to proscription of the Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar, India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
But Dai has just reiterated what has been Beijing’s stance for decades now. His statement does not generate any hope for a resolution of the boundary dispute in the near term. One, the offer of conceding Tawang is simply untenable for India. India exercises full sovereignty over Tawang and the region elects representatives to Indian legislatures both in the state of Arunachal Pradesh and in the national Parliament. Two, this offer by Beijing is not the best it has made. It has made more conciliatory offers in the past which too India had spurned.
Historically, Beijing has made three kinds of offers on settling the border dispute. The simplest of them was the “package” deal which involved both the countries recognizing the status quo—Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin and Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh—on both fronts. This offer was first made by former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1960. An excellent paper by Mahesh Shankar of Skidmore College titled Showing Character: Nehru, Reputation, And The Sino-Indian Dispute, 1957-1962, goes into details of why this offer—arguably the best formula for settlement in Shankar’s view—was rejected by former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Shankar has argued that Nehru was concerned that any concession, even in the west which was neither strategically important to India nor a territory over which New Delhi was sure of its claims, “would betray weakness and only invite further aggression from Beijing all across the frontier”.
While Shankar’s argument is indeed compelling, it must also be noted that the historian Sarvepalli Gopal had by February 1960—after diligently studying the British archives—presented a robust case before Nehru for India’s claim over Aksai Chin. Since New Delhi was growing increasingly sure of its claims in the west and it had anyway always recognized the McMahon line in the west which awarded Arunachal Pradesh (then the North-East Frontier Agency) to India, a straight swap seemed unreasonable. As lawyer A.G. Noorani is quoted in John W. Garver’s Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry In The Twentieth Century: “If a thief breaks into your house and steals your coat and your wallet, you don’t say to him that he can have the coat if he returns the wallet. You expect him to return all that he has stolen from you.”
This “package” swap offer was revived by Deng Xiaoping in 1980 in an interview to Krishna Kumar of the Indian defence journal Vikrant. Deng repeated this offer in 1982 in a conversation with G. Parthasarathi, who had served as India’s ambassador to China in the tumultuous years of 1958-61.
The second offer, and still better for New Delhi than the “package” deal, was what Shyam Saran has called the “LAC plus solution” (LAC is the Line of Actual Control which serves as the de facto boundary between India and China). According to Saran, a former foreign secretary of India, the contours of an LAC-plus solution was arrived during the “backchannel talks between A.P. Venkateswaran, the then ambassador of India and a senior adviser to the then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang”. The LAC-plus solution involved recognition of the status quo in the east and some concessions by China in the west. This offer, however, Saran adds, “was not followed through on the Indian side.”
But very soon, in the year 1985, China would harden its stand and it has roughly remained the same since. While Beijing has specifically eyed Tawang, it has, at different times, asked India to put forward its offer on the eastern front, following which it would reveal what it could offer on the western front.
Any solution which requires India trading away any part of Arunachal Pradesh will not pass muster in New Delhi. An LAC-plus solution has the best chance but the same will be difficult for the Chinese administration to sell to their public. A package solution remains the middle ground but it too has its critics on both sides. Indians tend to identify with Noorani’s thief argument mentioned earlier. And many Chinese see a direct swap as a loss to their nation as it involves them trading away their claim on Arunachal Pradesh, which is geographically more than twice the size of Aksai Chin, the territory over which India would waive its claim.
A resolution of the border dispute seems far away and New Delhi should be in no hurry either. Arun Shourie summarizes it aptly: “…we really should, one, not be in a hurry to ‘solve’ the dispute—especially not when the distance between China and India is as vast as it has become; two, always remember that an agreement is worth something only if you can make it expensive for the other side to violate it.”
Kunal Singh is a staff writer at Mint.
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