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The Rediff Interview/China expert Srikant Kondapalli

August 11, 2004

Srikant Kondapalli, one of India's foremost experts on China, honed his Chinese language skills at Beijing's Language and Cultural University and Research at the People's University from 1996 to 1998.

His book, China's Military: The PLA in Transition, was published in May 1999. He has written a book on the Chinese navy and is working on a book on the Chinese air force.

Last year he was invited by the Shanghai Institute of International Studies to present a paper on India-China border disputes and Confidence Building Measures along the Line of Actual Control, which divides India and China.

In an exclusive interview to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt, Kondapalli puts the recent talks between the two special representatives on the border dispute -- National Security Adviser J N Dixit and China's Executive Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo -- in perspective.

In the final analysis, he says, "the border disputes have a genuine problem because whatever the Chinese are claiming and whatever they are ready to give both belong to India."

What is your assessment of the situation?

The third round of talks were held in a different political context from the Indian side because of the change of government. When the Vajpayee government and China appointed special representatives to carry forward the talks on the border disputes, already eight border talks had been held from 1981 to 1987, and 14 Joint Working Groups meetings were concluded between 1988 and 2003.

It was then decided that a political touch is needed to solve the border problem. The first two round of talks of special representatives were held between then national security advisor Brajesh Mishra and China's special representative Dai Bingguo. Dai is a seasoned politician. He has negotiated before with America and many other major countries. Dixit is perceptive and quite knowledgeable on the border disputes. He may be hawkish for a certain audience, but he can be pragmatic when required.

However, India-China talks are not personality based, but structured talks. The two representatives perform only as briefed by their governments. The Cabinet Committee on Security briefed Dixit.

What is Beijing's position?

China is busy handling the nuclear issue with North Korea and counter-terrorism in Xingiang province. As a precautionary measures China has conducted counter-terrorism action in Tibet. Soon it will have joint counter-terrorism measures with Pakistan. There were many reasons for China's interest in solving the border dispute with India. China is heavily engaged into its Western development campaign.

China is now concentrating on the development of its interior regions. After developing its coastal regions China is moving to 13 provinces which are backward including Tibet and Xingiang. They are focusing on infrastructure projects first.

The railway line from Golmud to the Tibetan capital Lhasa is 1,080 km long. They have set up a 3,000 km energy pipeline from Urumqi to Shanghai. They want to transport oil and gas of Xingiang area to the coastal regions. They have almost committed 130 billion yuan (One yuan= roughly Rs 5.50) for the project. The energy pipeline will be completed soon. The railway line will be ready by 2007. They are laying almost one km of line each day. It is in this context that Beijing wants to settle border disputes with India.

We share 4,000 km of border with China, compared to roughly 4,050 km which China shares with Russia and Central Asian countries.

Are there any other reasons?

The unresolved border disputes influences the stability factor and political perceptions on both sides. After 1998 the region has become nuclear. More than ever, it requires better stability on the borders. The Chinese are also watching the improving ties between India and America. Indo-US relations improved greatly after 1998. To the Chinese, the earlier BJP-led government appeared closer to the US. That perception contributed in raising China's interest in solving the border dispute.

Since the border talks are handled at a higher level no more Joint Working Groups are held on it. But economic, security and strategic matters are discussed in other JWGs.

Aksai Chin for China?

How do these affect the border dispute?

India and China are talking about Free Trade Zones. Tariff structures and border posts will have to be created. We have six border posts on the China border. Most are in Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. To establish FTZs we need to solve border disputes. In 2002, then minister of external affairs Jaswant Singh said there is a road map to solve the border dispute within a year. Obviously that has not happened. But a political approach has been adopted.

After talking for 23 years we have not been able to solve the technical aspects of the borders. We are unable to agree on alignments of respective areas in mountain tops, rivers and lakes. The Chinese have tackled the China-Vietnam border dispute with the help of a political agreement.

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What is the Chinese position?

Mutual Understanding and Mutual Accommodation. That is the Chinese approach to border disputes with India. They are asking for a political, trust-based agreement. The mutual accommodation doctrine is about give and take. The Chinese are proposing to India that on the ground, along the border, you accommodate us in a certain area, we will accommodate you in some other area.

Since 1959, the Chinese have told India many times that they want a portion of Arunachal Pradesh and they would accommodate us in Aksai Chin. India has a firm claim over Aksai Chin. Arunachal Pradesh is part of a thriving Indian democracy.

The border disputes have a genuine problem because whatever the Chinese are claiming and whatever they are ready to give both belongs to India.

Interestingly, there is a lot of confusion over the Line of Actual Control. The Chinese have begun development along the LAC. If India too start doing it both countries would know the actual position.

India-China: Who will give in? And how much?

What are the other alternatives being proposed?

The first known suggestion was to swap the areas of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. Another suggestion was to give away access to the Karakoram highway to China. Territory 20 km away from the road should remain with India. If India agrees to the offer then a part of Arunachal Pradesh should also go to China. The Chinese are also talking about swapping of Mansarovar and Aksai Chin.

Since the 1990s, the Chinese have been eyeing the Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh because they find it economically viable for the development of Tibet. It is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. The Chinese argue that since the Dalai Lama belongs to Tibet, India should give back the religious place of Tawang tract to Tibet, meaning China.

Have any aspects of the dispute been resolved yet?

The last Joint Working Group meeting was stuck on the Western sector when they were discussing Kashmir. India holds 46 percent of Jammu and Kashmir. Fiftyfour percent is with Pakistan and China. 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin and 5,000 sq km of the Shaksgam valley in Kashmir is controlled by China. After the third rounds of talks the press release said there was talk about give and take.

Rajiv Gandhi adopted this accommodative approach in 1988. He was supported by a resolution passed by the AICC (All India Congress Committee).

But there can be a problem in 'give and take' policy due to the 1963 parliamentary resolution which talks about India's resolve to recover every inch of land the Chinese have occupied that includes Aksai Chin and the Chumbi valley (the area between Bhutan and Sikkim).

Parliament has to ratify the agreement if and when reached by officials or leaders. I must add here that there was no euphoria about the India-China talks in the Chinese press. They hardly took a note of it. Not even a statement from Tibet, which is actually the area under discussion. In the Indian press we saw a lot of coverage because of the 1962 syndrome.

Remembering a war: the 1962 Indo-China conflict

Where do we go from here?

Because of these facts it appears that a solution is not in sight in the India-China border dispute. It will be a torturously long drawn out process, more so now because of the change in government. The obvious difference between the National Democratic Alliance and United Progressive Alliance governments has made an impact on the ground realities between India and China.

The talks will slow down because we have so many differences on the border issue. The Chinese first want normal relations, trade agreements and more open markets. India wants resolution of the border dispute first. India is ready to wait for normalisation. The Chinese want exactly the opposite.

Great Leap Forward?

What is New Delhi's position?

In New Delhi, there are two views. One group says let us solve the problem immediately using political wisdom. It will help us to get on with our development agenda and we will be able to handle the Pakistan factor better.

Another group thinks let us sort out the issues technically, consider international law, customary lines, historical features and geographical advantages and then go into the final settlement.

In the first approach we will have to give China some border posts manned by us for many decades. To begin with, four posts manned by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police will have to be sacrificed. We will have to hand over those posts physically. How are you going to do this?

Because of the 1962 syndrome if any territories are given to China and if the exchanges are seen as a compromise on the Indian government's part there will be a severe backlash in India.

In history, whenever countries have traded or swapped inhabited areas problems have arisen. Lingual and ethnic problems arise because the ethnic group get divided. North Korea and South Korea type disputes are expected too.

What would you recommend?

I believe the international border that existed in September 1959 should be India and China's final border. That would be ideal for India. Before independence when the Simla conference was held, the Chinese didn't object to British arrangement on any border. They only objected to the division of outer and inner Tibet. These facts are published in a White paper issued after the 1962 war.

Personally, I think all these talks, formulas and suggestions are farcical in India's context. The Chinese are raising claims over India's territories first and then asking India to give up these territories! I believe the talks we are having now is losing the memory of the 1963 resolution in Parliament.

Image: Uday Kuckian

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