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Aksai Chin for Arunachal?

July 25, 2003

An Indian weekly recently ran an interesting cover story on corruption. The editor began by quoting his encounter with a former prime minister who was asked 'Why couldn't you do anything to curb corruption in the bureaucracy?' The former PM replied: 'Unfortunately, these babus have created such a steel frame around them that even the might of the State can't dismantle it.'

In some ways, the image of a 'steel frame' can also apply to the ministry of external affairs. Here it is not corruption, but their old way of conducting India's foreign policy which no might can dismantle. Even with the best intentions, an all-powerful PMO is totally helpless against the MEA's 'steel frame.'

Take the example of the present prime minister: In April 1989 in the Rajya Sabha, he thus commented on Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China: 'When the Prime Minister went to China and the leaders of China raised the question of Tibet, they had given us the opportunity to say something about Tibet. I am an admirer of Nehru but in accepting that Tibet is a part of China, he made a Himalayan blunder. I don't want to go into detail in the reason why he made that mistake. Tibet has also the right to be free. But the mistake was done. China had recognised Tibet as an 'autonomous region'. Today where is the autonomy? There is violation of human rights, martial law has been proclaimed, there is repression on a big scale, there is terror. Now the leaders of China raising the question of Tibet themselves had given us an opportunity to raise the issue of human rights, to draw the attention of the Chinese leaders on this, and to talk in an atmosphere of friendship. We did not seize this opportunity.'

'There has been a change in the point of view of the Dalai Lama. Peking should have welcomed this change. The Tibetans fight for their recognition, for their honour. There is an effort to rectify the mistakes that were committed during the days of the Cultural Revolution -- the mistakes that were done in the internal affairs. China should also rectify the mistakes that were committed in the foreign affairs. We should encourage them on this. But if we remain silent about Tibet, we will neither do justice to Tibet nor to ourselves.'

Mr Vajpayee had many valid points, particularly on the importance for India of an autonomous Tibet. But look at what has happened during his recent visit to China as prime minister!

The joint declaration reiterated the old Nehruvian concept that India has no say in Tibetan affairs and that the Tibetans should keep quiet. The wrongs pointed out by Vajpayee 14 years ago have today been repeated by his own government. His own foreign minister stated in an interview to the BBC: 'If you look at the language which India has used consistently over a period of time, I should say over the last fifty years, you will find that we have consistently taken a position and I would like to say and believe that there is no change.' But we could ask: 'Does the NDA have to follow Congress policies forever? And what is more important, consistency or the interests of the country?'

Those who have studied India's recent history, know that this 'consistency' led India to the most painful event after her independence: the debacle of 1962.

It appears that once again, despite the prime minister's will, the babudom machinery reigns supreme on Indian foreign affairs and nobody in India has (and will ever have?) the power to change it. This lead us to the core issue: the border row between India and China.

What is the crux of the matter? The status of Tibet is central to the border dispute for the simple reason that for two millennia, there never was a border between India and China. It is only in October 1950, when Mao's troops entered Tibet to 'liberate' the Roof of the Word that suddenly India acquired a new neighbour.  

In Simla in 1914, an agreement had been signed (and maps exchanged) between the Dalai Lama's Representative and Sir Henry McMahon to define the border between Tibet and India.

Thus was born the McMahon Line (at that time, nobody even thought of defining the 'customary' frontier in Ladakh, it had been the same for centuries!). The border agreement was arrived at bilaterally during the tripartite Convention between British India, China and Tibet. Though the Chinese refused later to ratify the Convention, they did not object to the signature of this bilateral accord between Delhi and Lhasa as they were not concerned by this frontier; they were only bothered by the demarcation of their border with Eastern Tibet.

At a time when the rest of Asia was still under the yoke of the European empires, Tibet was de facto an independent country with not a single Chinese residing in Tibet (they had been expelled in 1912).

The difficulty occurred when Zhou Enlai convinced Nehru that the British were 'imperialists' and therefore all treaties or agreements signed by them were 'imperialist treaties.' The conclusion of the clever Chinese premier was that the McMahon line was an imperialist creation and therefore not acceptable by New China: 'I presumed that India had no intention of claiming special rights arising from the unequal treaties of the past,' Zhou told India's ambassador to China K N Panikkar. Nehru fully agreed that the British were imperialists but could not follow Zhou's conclusion on the McMahon Line. However, he did not want to raise the topic first.

For more than three years, the MEA waited for Zhou to bring up the issue of confirmation of the frontier. As nothing was forthcoming from Beijing, Nehru deducted that the McMahon line was an accepted fact. His logic was that if China had a problem with the McMahon line, Beijing would have taken it up to the negotiating table.

Finally, the infamous Panchsheel agreement (known as Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India) was signed between the two countries in 1954 and again no word about the border was mentioned. In its foolishness, the MEA thought that to designate a few passes for trade was sufficient to demarcate a border (is it not the same today with the opening of Nathu-la?).

The Machiavellian Zhou did not broach the topic of the border till the end of the fifties; but by that time it was too late for India as the Aksai Chin was fully in possession of the Liberation Army. Beijing could then safely raise its claims: 'We have never accepted the imperialist McMahon line and NEFA belongs to us.'

In the following years, hundreds of letters, memoranda and notes were exchanged on the subject, each party sticking to its position. From day one, the Chinese objectives were clear: by claiming both sectors, they were sure to eventually keep one. It cost them nothing to exchange their claim on NEFA against the 'legalisation' of their occupation of Aksai Chin.  

Zhou's visit to India in 1960 was followed by five rounds of detailed discussions which were held between June and December. While India presented detailed maps and documents proving its claims, the Chinese hardly gave any evidence of their 'possessions.' This was irrelevant for them as they were already occupying the ground. Who was to dislodge them?

Today, 43 years later, no progress towards a settlement has been made despite numerous rounds of talks and the creation of a Joint Working Group on the border. Obviously, the Aksai Chin road is strategically too important for Beijing as it is the only link between its two western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. There is no question for China to relinquish occupation of this 'soda plain' where Nehru rightly believed that not a blade a grass could grow. Unfortunately, this was beside the point.

The famous exchange of maps started after P V Narasimha Rao's visit in 1993 has just been for public consumption. This 'exchange of maps' came back to my mind recently when traveling in a taxi in Paris, I saw the driver typing my destination onto his GPS (global positioning system) which immediately indicated the exact itinerary to follow. I thought to myself: 'How can it take 14 years to know where the Line of Actual Control is when a taxi driver in Paris can know within a second where he is.'

One can understand why Prime Minister Vajpayee surprised everybody (including the Chinese) by appointing Mr Brajesh Mishra as his Special Representative for the border talks. It was the only way to remove this thorny question from the clutches of the mandarins of the MEA which could keep the same 'consistency' for 50 more years.

If a solution has to be found, creativity and flexibility will have to be used and the 'steel frame' of the ministry is not geared for this purpose. Indeed, the question in front of Mishra is a tough one. Basically, it boils down to: 'Does India wants to give away Aksai Chin in exchange of something it already possesses, Arunachal Pradesh.' And is there a more creative solution?

Probably the most reasonable first step for India would be to follow the lines of Vajpayee's speech of 1989 and officially endorse the Five-Point Peace Plan of the Dalai Lama which was asking for the creation of a zone of peace in the Himalayan region, the respect of Tibet's environment (we should not forget that the high plateau is the water reservoir for the whole Asia) and a genuine autonomy for the people of Tibet. It makes sense to have a peaceful, stable and demilitarised Tibet; it would certainly greatly help to relax the tensions in the region.

The present status quo does not help India, though the Chinese side would not be unhappy about it as time is on their side.

Although a relative peace has been established along the LAC after Narasimha Rao's visit, some incidents of trespassing near Niti-la in the central sector and of Chinese speed boats on the Panggong Lake in Ladakh have been reported during the last two years. Even if there is no danger of large Chinese intrusions during the next couple of years, two other factors are extremely worrying and should attract the intention of the prime minister's representative.

One is the railroad which will reach Lhasa in three or four years. It will bring tremendous change in the strategic and military balance of the region. Beijing will be able to bring troops to the Tibetan capital, located less than two days by road from both sectors of the Indian border (Arunachal or Ladakh). Further, the Chinese planners will no doubt include in their 11th Five Year plan, a railway track from Lhasa to Kashgar, cutting across Ladakh, thus closing the rail loop of western China and threatening India's security.

The other great danger is the dams being built by the Chinese on the Brahmaputra and other rivers flowing to India. While Prime Minister Vajpayee has been pushing for the grandiose Rs 560,000 crore project of linking all Indian rivers, the most important factor seems to have been overlooked: Who controls the flow of the Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej in their Tibetan segments?

Obviously, South Block has not taken up the matter with their Chinese counterparts, but a new treaty on water sharing is the sine qua non condition for continuing the 'normalization' process with Beijing.

Mr Mishra does not have an easy task in front of him.


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The Great India-China Game

Chung Tash: The Last Frontier

Life at 14,000 Feet



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