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Home > News > Columnists > Claude Arpi

China: What's ripe for settlement

November 20, 2006

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Today, we are told that India and China are finally true friends, and special commemorations are being held to remind the public of this new sentiment towards the Middle Kingdom.

South Block's new motto is 'let us engage Beijing, let us do business'.

Nobody can deny that this is good. But it might be interesting to look at what things are 'not ripe for settlement', to use Zhou Enlai's words at the time of the Panchsheel Agreement in April 1954.

First let us take Tibet, the century-old buffer zone between India and China. During his November 1956 visit, Zhou had advocated autonomy for the region. Where are we at today?

Five rounds of 'dialogue' between the Dalai Lama's representatives and Beijing's officials have led nowhere except perhaps to an acknowledgement of a larger than expected gap between the two sides. For Beijing today, there is no question of giving any autonomy to the people of Tibet, though it was promised 50 years ago.

Recently TV channels all over the world announced the shooting by Chinese border guards of two Tibetan pilgrims trying to cross the Sino-Nepalese frontier. Beijing immediately declared that the guards had been attacked by the pilgrims. Unfortunately for them, a few days later a video clip was shown by a Bulgarian channel ProTV. One clearly sees the pilgrims progressing in a single line towards the pass; suddenly a person collapses and then another one. The next frame shows Chinese soldiers on the nearby crest shooting at the unarmed Tibetans who had no other option but to continue their climb towards the pass. Zhou's words are long forgotten.

For India, it is a tragedy to have lost the buffer which could have assured a true friendship. But there is worse. When Tibetans in exile in India are too militant in demanding 'genuine autonomy', they get into serious trouble with the Government of India (probably under pressure from Beijing). For example, in anticipation of President Hu's visit to India, the Indian police served a notice to the Tibetan activist and poet, Tenzin Tsundue, forbidding him to leave the 'territorial jurisdiction of Dharamsala Town [Himachal Pradesh] until November 25'. The official letter, issued by the Office of the Superintendent of Police, threatens Tsundue with prosecution under the Foreigners Act of 1946 if he fails to obey the order. The sweet words of Zhou Enlai have gone into oblivion.

Today there is still a gap between the words and the facts. President Hu Jintao likes to speak of his search for a 'harmonious society'. But what happened in 1989, just three months before the Tiananmen Square events? When Hu was posted in Tibet as the party chief, the People's Armed Police in Lhasa was given the right to kill. On March 6, China's paramilitary force marched into the centre of Lhasa and began a massacre that continued for days.

More than 450 people are believed to have been killed in the next few hours. Many in the Chinese bureaucracy were shocked by the police violence and considered that they had 'planted a time bomb'. Martial law was declared in Lhasa on March 8.

A few days later, the police reported the numbers of casualties to the Party: 'Prior to March 10, 387 Lhasa citizens have been killed, the majority by bullets, 721 were injured, 2,100 have been arrested or detained... 354 have disappeared.'

Of course, one cannot expect the Indian leaders who will receive President Hu to know about such historical 'details'.

Now take the border issue. In 1956 we mentioned that Zhou Enlai did not seem to bother much with NEFA (today Arunachal Pradesh) and the McMahon Line. Now, in an interview to CNN-IBN, the Chinese Ambassador Sun Yuxi claimed that the Arunachal state is part of China. Though he explained that the border dispute with India was complicated and would take time to resolve, he reiterated: 'In our position the whole of what you call the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory and Tawang (district) is only one place in it and we are claiming all of that -- that's our position.'

Mr Sun has probably never gone through the minutes of the five talks between his then Premier and Jawaharlal Nehru. It is a great pity!

In any case, even if the Government of India was willing to 'settle' the border issue, they would find themselves in a fix. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly declared: 'no redrawing of borders' with Pakistan. How could the government agree to change the border in Aksai Chin or in Arunachal? Further, it would certainly require an amendment to the Constitution in order to give away some portions of Indian territory to Beijing.

What about the Chinese plans to divert water from the Brahmaputra River to the Yellow river in northwest China?

Of course it was denied by Beijing's foreign ministry spokesperson: 'China has no plans to build a dam and divert water from Yarlung Zangbo to the Yellow river.' He said he had no information. Will Delhi be satisfied with such a denial? In February 2006, when the Dalai Lama's Representative were in Beijing 'dialoguing' with Chinese officials, the same spokesperson denied that there was any Dalai Lama's representatives in Beijing, though photos of the meeting appeared here.

It is unfortunate that there is no water sharing treaty with China. But why should China care if the matter is not even brought up by the Indian side?

Another example: South Block has never pursued Beijing to know the cause of the floods in Arunachal Pradesh in June 2000. The waters originating from Tibet killed many and property was destroyed on a large scale, this for no apparent reason as there was no rainfall. A month later, similar floods occurred in Himachal Pradesh on the Sutlej. I remember witnessing myself the damage while visiting Spiti district. Then last year the Pareechu river was blocked, the waters when released saw destructive floods in Kinnaur district!

During Premier Wen Jiabao's visit in 2005, India and China decided to share hydrological information on the flow of the river Sutlej, but this does not help to remove the mistrust as Indian experts are not allowed to visit the upper reaches of the Sutlej.

It is unfortunately for India that the UN convention on non-navigable use of waters (1997) has never been ratified by China and therefore there is no legal resort for Delhi.

Himanchu Thakkar, a water expert who runs the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, wrote recently in the Financial Express that 'past experience has shown that China's denial of the project cannot be taken too seriously. Only time will tell if we are able to act effectively to address our concerns.'

The only solution would be to sign a treaty similar to  the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan which has remained in force since 1960 and this despite several conflicts between the two countries.

There's also the distressing fact that while China took five years to complete the 1,142 km Tibet Railway, India is still struggling since several years to complete the 292 km Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail link. These demographic and strategic changes in Tibet do not seem to alarm Delhi; friends are friends!

One of the root causes of the problem is the Panchsheel Agreement signed between India and China in 1954. It emphasised on (1) mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, (2) mutual non-aggression, (3) mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs. This prevents Delhi from discussing so-called 'internal affairs' of China with Beijing, which are in fact of concern to both neighbours.

Can we hope that the new Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, a China-Tibet expert who has been thrice posted in Beijing and whose father was one of the last Indian Consul Generals in Lhasa in the mid-50s, will seriously look into these matters which seem to be ripe for settlement?

Will India repeat the mistakes of 1962?

Hu Jintao in India: complete coverage | More reports from China


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Sub: Very informative

The article is extremely informative. I hope & wish the people dealing with Beijing read it too.


Posted by Bala




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