The Web


Home > News > Columnists > Srikanth Kondapalli

India-China: Neither friends nor enemies

June 19, 2003

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's June 22 to 27 visit to China comes nearly ten years after then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao signed the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility treaty along the Line of Actual Control on the India-China border on September 7, 1993 in Beijing. The Peace and Tranquility agreement was a kind of no war pact between India and China.

Vajpayee is scheduled to visit three cities -- the capital Beijing, the country's financial capital Shanghai and the religiously important Luoyang in the Henan province in central China. This centre is sacred for Buddhists and has been very well selected by the prime minister's office.

The context of the prime minister's visit is very important.

  • First: China has taken note of India's economic growth, its strength in information technology, foreign reserves and its economic projections. Pointers that are similar to that of China, which is looking ahead and has huge economic ambitions.
  • Second: The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has projected an image of stability. The Chinese would be wary of dealing with a weaker government in India. The hype created about the visit is also due to political stability.
  • Third: Improving Indo-US relations. India's standing in the international arena cannot be ignored by China. Another factor is India's 'Look East' policy in South East Asia. Of course, Pakistan is a perennial problem because of its antipathy to India, but India's relations with Japan and Myanmar are improving. There has been movement in improving relations with the Central Asian Republics, many of who share borders with China.

Also, as compared to its weaknesses in conventional weapons, China has an edge over India in nuclear weapons and in the strategic weapons programme. They have an edge in numbers. After the May 1998 nuclear tests and the development of the Agni series (intermediate range ballistic missiles), India has achieved strategic parity. That would be one more reason for China to talk to India with a fresh approach.

In 1979, Vajpayee visited China as foreign minister in the Janata Party government. But it was marred by the Chinese 'teaching of a lesson' in Vietnam [when China invaded Vietnam], compelling Vajpayee to cut short his visit.

Defence Minister George Fernandes' recent journey to China paved the way for Vajpayee's visit. There are many issues before the two nations that are vital and need to be debated.

Multipolarity is one of the issues that can only be discussed at a high level. In the bylanes of the United Nations a few experts have debated India, China and Russia's strategic triangle. In 1995, China was not keen, but Russian Premier Yevgeny Primakov emphasised such cooperation. Things have changed after the Kosovo bombings in 1999 and the Iraq war in 2003 -- there is now a ground to discuss multipolarity.

Many think, protecting the sovereignty of countries in the Third World is necessary in view of this unipolar moment [in history] started by America. The Chinese role in South Asia is another issue that is being keenly watched by India. China-Bangladesh defence cooperation, China's relations with the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka are the major developments of the last 10 years.

India and China have had 14 joint working groups meetings so far. Three major issues have been discussed at such meetings :

  • The China-India border
  • Sino-Pak nuclear and missile cooperation
  • China's military agreements with South Asian countries

From 1991 onwards -- except in 1998 -- we have continuously been discussing these bilateral issues with China. Actually, we have discussed the border issue with China for the last 21 years.

India wants to resolve the border dispute soon. Several Indian leaders have been saying this since 1981. Initially, the Chinese were also ready to solve the border issue quickly but changed track later. Now they say the normalisation of relations in other fields should be taken up first. Economic, political, diplomatic, cultural and educational relations should precede talks on the border issue.

The Chinese once said the border dispute should be solved by the next generation. In the middle sector, which spans 524 kilometres in Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal and shares a border with Tibet, maps have been exchanged during the meetings of the Joint Working Groups.

In the western sector, the border issue has come to a standstill because the Chinese are reluctant to exchange maps of the border areas of Ladakh, Tibet and Aksai Chin. India has also asked for a route through Demchok in Ladakh to Mansarovar.

From Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, India predominantly shares a border with Tibet. Aksai Chin shares a border with the Xinjiang region in China. In 1963, Pakistan transferred about 6,000 square kilometres called the Sakshgam valley to China. Since then the Chinese have occupied that area. Probably that is one reason for not exchanging a map of the western sector.

Over the years, there seems to be a positive shift in the Chinese attitude towards respecting the Line of Control which we share with Pakistan. If that were so, it would mean that China wants to stabilise the area of the Sakshgam valley.

A statement by a spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry said there would not be any renegotiations with any future Kashmir government over the Sakshgam valley. It means that progress on the western sector will be slow. If the Chinese respect (without explicitly announcing so) the LoC between India and Pakistan as sacrosanct that would mean they might legitimise the actual ground position in the long run.

We have not even exchanged maps of Arunachal Pradesh known as the eastern sector.

In 1959, then Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai unofficially offered a swap deal. Later, in 1980 Deng Xiao Ping spoke about it. The swap deal offered the exchange of territories under the principle of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation. It would mean that a portion of Aksai Chin would be exchanged for a portion of Arunachal Pradesh.

China claims 90,000 square kilometres -- which means that almost the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh has been claimed by China. They protested when Arunachal Pradesh was granted statehood and have not recognised it as a part of India yet. Ditto with Sikkim.

In the late 1990s the Chinese ambassador said China would recognise Sikkim provided India opens up some trade post on the border. This issue is expected to be taken up during the prime minister's visit.

China has also not recognised India's nuclear status. India and China do not have a 'de-targeting' agreement because of China's refusal to recognise India as a nuclear state.

Non-military issues like energy and environment are also important topics between India and China. China has reservations about a proposed oil pipeline passing through Ladakh from the Central Asian Republics to India. The Chinese navy would like to shift its attention to the Indian Ocean though they don't have Blue Water capabilities right now. Former Chinese naval commandant Liu Huaqing once mentioned China did not have such ambitions, but one director general of China's logistics department in the early 1990s said the Indian Ocean was not India's ocean.

This is the backgrounder of the talks between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. In spite of these limitations, Vajpayee's Shanghai visit is important because China is keen to expand trade with India, the volume of which is quite low at the present moment. The Shanghai Chambers of Commerce has given a real push in that direction. India and China are trying to improve bilateral trade and political relations without solving the border issue.

In 2003, the flavour of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai of the 1950s may not remerge because of too many unresolved issues. One can't ignore the fact that 1962 and 2003 are completely different because the younger generation in both countries is ready to face any challenge. Military modernisation and projected growth rates of both countries are the indicators.

On a bigger span we are stabilising India-China relations. Explicit war challenges and threats won't happen between us now. We are in a transitional period. As of today, we are neither friends nor enemies. We are neither allies nor rivals.

Dr Srikanth Kondapalli is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. He was a post-doctoral visiting fellow at People's University, Beijing from 1996 to 1998 and has written two books on Chinese defence capability. He spoke to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt.


Article Tools

Email this Article

Printer-Friendly Format

Letter to the Editor

Related Stories

India-China: A cautious handshake

Great Leap Forward?

PM's China visit

Guest Column

Copyright © 2003 India Limited. All Rights Reserved.