It is almost three decades since China and India initiated their border talks. While the levels of dialogue were raised, an agreement is still not in sight. So, when the Special Representatives (SRs) of the two countries meet for the 13th round of border talks in New Delhi, expectations will probably be mellow and like a dozen times before, this meeting may also end up only with incremental outcomes. However, instead of blaming our interlocutors for protracted talks, we need to study the issues that prevent them from achieving successful negotiations with their Chinese counterparts. Three issues come to the forefront: India’s inability to decode the Chinese grand strategy; failure to develop an alternative future in case the border talks fail; and lack of intellectual-political consensus.
Cultural problems apart, Indians have been unable to decode the Chinese grand strategy and mind games in the border talks. China is a satisfied party in the border talks, its claims notwithstanding. It got what it wanted (the Aksai Chin corridor linking Xinjiang with Tibet), partially through discreet encroachment in the late 1950s and the rest through open capture in the 1962 War. For a long time, China floated the ‘swap proposal’ based on so-called ‘mutual understanding and mutual accommodation’ to legalise its occupation. When that did not cut any ice, it suggested New Delhi put the contentious border issue on the back-burner and focus on other aspects of bilateral relations. Decades later, while the two countries do have a healthy bilateral relationship, China continues to limit the border talks to procedural roadmaps.
The 2005 declaration on ‘political guidelines and parameters’ had provided hopes about the possible contours of a mutually-agreed border. However, these developments were muddled by China’s aggressive claims on the Tawang tract of Arunachal Pradesh, supplemented by frequent incidents of border intrusions across the LAC. The construction of roads, railways and airports in Tibet have further added to Chinese ambivalence and consolidated its future strategy in the region. True, China has resolved its boundary disputes with many other countries, the latest being the China-Vietnam treaty over land demarcation and joint exploration and development of disputed areas in the South China Sea. However, China’s impasse over the Diayaoutai Island with Japan and the South China Sea disputes with other ASEAN countries continue without any substantial progress.
While Chinese tactics remain a challenge for our negotiators, Sinologists and war experts in India are yet to develop an ‘alternative future’ in case the border talks fail. This is regrettable since India is one of the six countries against whom China has used force in the past. Will China use force on the border issue again? Can India defend itself without losing any more territory? The border aside, what are the other issues that could induce a conflict between them? Perhaps a lot would depend on China’s perception of India as a military power. Unfortunately, most Indian studies on China’s military modernization tend to follow the universal thinking that China’s military modernisation is aimed at Taiwan. Similarly, the PLA plays an important role in the Chinese decision-making process but this fact is yet to get proportionate attention in India.
The challenge for Indian negotiators is further complicated by lack of domestic consensus, both intellectual and political. While eminent Sinologists like Roderick McFarquhar hold the Chinese leadership guilty for the 1962 War, many intellectuals in India still judge that war as well as the border problem from a Maxwellian prism and do not take the pains to read the original papers. While China boasts successful border agreements with many neighbours, India is yet to compare the Chinese objectives and tactics in these negotiations and highlight the common threads as ‘policy feedback.’ Instead, we have casual propositions such as ‘swap of territories’ or ‘status quo,’ suggested in some recent works, which tend to validate Chinese claims and violate the spirit of the Indian Parliament’s 1963 resolution.
Also, while all the mainstream political parties agree about building a better relationship with China, they hesitate in taking a public posture on an agreeable border with China. During the recent general elections, the foreign policy debate was largely centred around the US, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan. China remained marginalised in the election manifestoes, with the sole exception being the left parties. But then, the stand of the Indian Left on Sino-Indian relations or the border problem has been of little help. With both intellectuals and politicians shying away from actively shaping public opinion, the challenges for India’s negotiators rise manifold.
Negotiating with China has been a challenge for many countries. India is no exception. While we have the advantage of long engagement and healthy bilateral relations, successful negotiations warrant more investments in Chinese history, culture, negotiating strategies and analyses of changing Chinese perception of India. Domestically, India has the benefit of stable government and visionary leadership. Our negotiating strategy is in seasoned hands. All we need is an innovative strategy that is able to negotiate a border package acceptable to Indian popular aspirations. This is bound to take time. For the moment, we need to support our negotiators and be patient.
Note: The author is on deputation to the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.