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Beijing's Arunachal card

July 28, 2003

PART I: Aksai Chin for Arunachal?

Indians are basically good people. That is the main problem!

Recently, during Prime Minister Vajpayee's trip to China, I happened to be in France. Far away from India, I tried to analyze the reasons why India is not doing better in international circles. Though some bureaucrats in South Block may believe India is doing exceptionally well and will soon become a superpower, this view is not shared in Europe. India is still too often associated with poverty, communal tensions and at best with an exotic culture. I will not go into the reasons for this poor image. However, during the prime minister's visit to Beijingm something struck me anew: Why are Indians so obsessed with being 'good' and giving so much importance to 'friendship' at any cost?

Discussing the subject with an Indian friend living in Paris, he admitted: "It is true; we are too good-hearted, it is one of the reasons why we are such poor negotiators."

If one looks at the issues India has been facing since Independence, one sees a long tale of failed negotiations even when India had a stronger moral (and often military) position than the opposite camp. The main reason behind all these failures seems to be this genetic craving for friendship.

Take December 1947. The Kashmir issue could have been solved within a couple of weeks had Nehru not decided, for the sake of his friendship with the Mountbattens, to take the matter to the UN. In the fifties, for Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai, 'friendship' became 'brotherhood.' After Nehru had been received like a god in Beijing in 1954 (with more than a million people waving Indian flags in the streets from the airport to the Great Hall of People), he melted and chose to close his eyes to what was happening in Tibet. The Chinese could continue to build roads towards the Indian border and cut off a big chunk of Indian territory in Kashmir. It is not that Nehru did not know about this. The Indian military attaché in Beijing had informed the defence ministry of the construction of the Aksai Chin road as early as 1955 (this appears clearly in the Official Report of the 1962 war), but for the sake of 'friendship' with Zhou Enlai, Nehru decided to keep it secret for three more years.

I could give so many more examples: Indira Gandhi in Simla, Shastri in Tashkent, or more recently Vajpayee's bus to Lahore, when Musharraf was quietly planning the Kargil war; the list is long indeed.

There is another common factor to all these negotiations, on their return to India, Indian leaders have always claimed a great victory for the country, for sake of mutual friendship and for world peace.

Now, can we look at the Indian prime minister's visit to China through this optic?

While most senior analysts and editors were full of praises for the rebirth of the eternal friendship with China, on his return the prime minister was more sober and did not use superlatives to describe his trip. He just said: 'My discussions with President Hu Jintao, Chairman Jiang Zemin, Premier Wen Jiabao and other senior representatives of the new Chinese leadership were most cordial and fruitful. We got the distinct message from these meetings that China fully reciprocates our desire for mutual goodwill and for a comprehensive expansion of cooperation in all areas.' He then just listed the subjects discussed with the Chinese leadership.

But his foreign minister Yashwant Sinha was more upbeat: 'This was an outstanding visit. The Chinese side said the first visit by Prime Minister Vajpayee as foreign minister in 1979 had succeeded in breaking the ice. And this time, they said, it has been the beginning of a new era. You could not have asked for better atmospherics.'

With his past experience and his faster-than-expected return from China in 1979, Vajpayee is certainly wiser than his minister and the commentators who equate the success of the visit to the number of top leaders he met or agreements signed. Vajpayee still remembers history. After Rajiv Gandhi's visit to the Middle Kingdom in 1988, he had intervened in the Rajya Sabha in April 1989 to say: 'The Prime Minister [just] went to China. I went to China in 1979, the talks were good, but during that time they attacked Vietnam and that spoiled the whole trip. This time [Rajiv's visit] there was nothing of the sort, I am happy about it. But how many minutes this leader's hand remained in that leader's hand, this cannot be the touchstone of the success of a foreign tour. Whether the prime ministers, the Presidents of two countries address each other by their first names cannot be a criteria of the fruitfulness of the relations.'

Let us consider some practical results of the recent visit. The topic mentioned most often has been the opening of the trade route between India and Tibet through Nathu-la in Sikkim. A great deal has been written and said on the 'win-win situation' as Yashwant Sinha defined it in an interview to the BBC's Asia Today programme.

When the interviewer asked him if this meant an admission by China over India's claims on Sikkim, Sinha retorted: 'You can read the language for yourself.'

But the issue of Sikkim is a false issue. Why in the first place should India be bothered by China not recognizing Sikkim as part of India?

Several decades ago, the great historian Dr R C Majumdar shed light on the traditional Chinese way of thinking and acting: 'There is, however, one aspect of Chinese culture that is little known outside the circle of professional historians. It is the aggressive imperialism that characterized the politics of China throughout the course of her history, at least during the part of which is well known to us. Thanks to the systematic recording of historical facts by Chinese themselves --  we are in position to follow the imperial and aggressive policy of China from the third century BC to the present day, a period of more than 2200 years -- It is characteristic of China that if a region once acknowledged her nominal suzerainty even for a short period, she should regard it as a part of her empire for ever and would automatically revive her claim over it even after a thousand years whenever there was a chance of enforcing it.'

After the military take-over of Tibet in 1950, all the areas once ethnically connected with Tibet became for Beijing part of the Chinese empire. Mao used the image of the palm of the hand [Tibet] and the five fingers [Bhutan, Sikkim, NEFA, Ladakh and Nepal]. One has to understand that it has never cost China anything [apart from a communiqué from the Xinhua news agency] to claim these areas as theirs. Further, the Chinese rightly thought that these claims could be extremely useful in the future. This explains why even today they claim Arunachal Pradesh as theirs.

An amusing incident occurred a few years ago when Gegong Apang was chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh. He had been invited to a conference in China. When he requested a visa from the Chinese embassy in Delhi to attend the function, he was told he did not need a visa as he was a Chinese national!

Similarly, the Chinese have kept pending for years the issue of Sikkim so that one day they could negotiate the opening of the trade route through Nathu-la and the Chumbi Valley.

Way back in 1967 they had understood there was no question for them to take Sikkim by force. That year they received what in Indian military jargon is called a 'bloody nose.' After having threatened to occupy Sikkim during the 1965 war with Pakistan, they acted two years later and occupied Nathu-la to cross over to India. After a few days of heavy fighting (36 Chinese were left dead on the first day), the Chinese intruders were repelled by Indian jawans. Beijing had no alternative but to call for a cease-fire 'to preserve Sino-Indian friendship.'

In 1975, when Indira Gandhi took over the administration of Sikkim, the Chinese immediately refused to accept the merger. They did not miss the chance to have a bargaining tool for future negotiations and it worked perfectly.

Today everyone is delighted about the two nations' spirit of compromise. The 'vexed issue' has been solved: India is happy because China has presumably given up its claim over Sikkim (the Chinese denied having done it, but read Premier Wen Jiabao's lips, says Sinha) and China is delighted to have opened a new trade route.

Indeed, the opening of the pass is a boon for Tibet (and therefore for China) which depended for centuries on this pass to survive.

In 1952, Zhou Enlai had told K N Panikkar, then Indian ambassador to China: 'for many years Tibet would have to depend on India for several daily necessities and desired facilities for transportation of food supplies to Tibet via Calcutta.'

The shortest way between China and Lhasa was via Calcutta and Nathu-la.

Soon after this meeting, Beijing requested Delhi for rice for its troops posted in Tibet. The result was that for years the PLA soldiers building the strategic road in Aksai Chin were fed by India through Nathu-la. This is real friendship!

John Lall, a former dewan of Sikkim posted in Gangtok, could witness the long caravan of mules leaving in the direction of Nathu-la. 'Suddenly all was sweetness and light [with the Chinese], the reason became apparent when a request was made for shipment of Chinese rice through India and Sikkim to their troops in Tibet. This could, and indeed should, have been made the occasion for a settlement of the major problems with China. It simply did not occur to anyone in Delhi.' Lall's advice was brushed aside and the supply of rice continued for years

Nehru was aware of the political and strategic implications of the trade through Nathu-la. He had written as far back as 1952 that India wanted to keep the opening of Nathu-la as 'a bargaining counter for negotiations for an overall settlement between China and us. It is not advantageous to us to accept such proposals piecemeal and yet have no general settlement [on the border issue].' Unfortunately, he later forgot about the bargaining.

Today 50 years later, though Beijing still badly needs Nathu-la for trading (at least till the railroad reaches Lhasa), no larger agreement has been reached while giving away the Indian bargaining card.

Have the current bureaucrats of South Block pondered over Nehru's words before signing the agreement to open the pass?

In an interview last year, Thupstan Chhewang, the Chairman of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Council, told us how much his region would gain by opening the road between Leh and the Kailash-Mansarovar. Every year, tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims could have a relatively comfortable journey to the sacred mountain. It would also be in the economic interests of the Chinese to cater for these pilgrims. But Beijing preferred Nathu-la for its own reasons and Delhi was not able to push its own interests forward.

Nearly a decade ago, I remember having a similar discussion with Gegong Apang. Arunachal had been lobbying hard to open Bum-la, the main pass between Tawang district and Tibet. It would have given a remarkable economic boost to the state. But Arunachal's case was ignored: the Chinese preferring to keep the NEFA card up their sleeve for the core issue: The border.

At the end of the day, while one can certainly be happy that issues such as trade have been taken up on a grand scale by the prime minister, one can only deeply regret that for the sake of friendship, Delhi responded first to Beijing's interests and got very little back in the bargain.


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