India and China lost a few opportunities to resolve the border – first during Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s India visit in 1960, second during 1979 during Vajpayee’s China visit, and third during 1980s when rather than a package deal India insisted on sectoral approach.
Dai Bingguo, China’s Special Representative (SR) who negotiated border issue with four Indian SRs between 2003 and 2013 points to yet another opportunity lost in his memoir Strategic Dialogue: Reminiscences of Dai Bingguo published by People’s Publishing House in tandem with World knowledge Press in late March 2016. Dai has vividly and candidly penned down his reminiscences about these talks in Chapter 7 titled Dragon and Elephant Tango running into 29 pages and six sections – Taking on the thorny issue; An excellent beginning; Origin of the first political parameters and guiding principles; Arduous exploration for a framework for border resolution; Worth an effort; and Friendly neighbours facing each other.
At the outset Dai acknowledges India’s support and sympathy towards China during latter’s war with Japan. He particularly mentions of Dr. Kotnis, China-India- Burma Theatre of War when Chinese expeditionary forces were trained inside the Indian territory during the World War II, and China-India and Burma jointly advocating the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. However, owing to the boundary issue, China and India even fought a war; it was only after China initiated the policy of reforms and open door that relations normalised, posits Dai.
Talking about the boundary, he says that India-China border consists of Eastern, Middle, Western and Sikkim sectors, except for Sikkim sector which is defined by the 1890 Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet, but has never been officially surveyed and demarcated, others are disputed. Delving into a little bit history, Dai says “beginning from the second half of the 19th century, the British colonial authorities unilaterally concocted the so-called ‘Johnson Line’ in the Western Sector. In 1914 by way of coercing and luring, they again concocted the infamous ‘McMahon Line’ with the plenipotentiary of provincial government of Tibet, the line which has never been recognised by the respective Chinese governments. After 1947, India inherited the legacies of the colonial invasions, and between 1951 and 1952 India gradually occupied large swathes of territories south of the ‘McMahon Line.’ In 1954 India unilaterally changed the map and showed the middle and western sector undefined borders as defined. Henceforth, the Sino-Indian border formed huge chunks of disputed areas, involving 125000 square kilometres of land. Of this 33000 square kilometres is in the Western Sector, primarily in the Aksai Chin region; 2000 square kilometres in the Middle Sector; and 90000 square kilometres in Eastern Sector including large swathes of territory between ‘McMahon Line and the traditional customary line.”
He considers Vajpayee’s June 2003 China visit as a milestone, which resulted in the signing of the Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and Republic of India. The Declaration emphasized that ‘The Indian side recognizes that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India.’ According to him, the visit had put the Sino-Indian relations on a fast track. The Declaration also stipulated that the two sides will create the SR mechanism to ‘explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement.’ Dai reveals that it was Vajpayee who during his 1979 China visit had proposed to establish a mechanism of the SRs for border negotiations. “Vajpayee reiterated it again on 23 June 2003 and immediately appointed his Principle Secretary Brijesh Mishra as India’s SR, Wen Jiabao in turn appointed me as China’s SR.”
‘Difficult!’ This was Dai’s initial impression about his new job. He says as a matter of fact there was never a commonly agreed and legally defined border between India and China. He says that “China from the very beginning adopted the attitude of non-partisan and mutual understanding and mutual accommodation. However, the then Indian government declined to negotiate, adhered to its unilateral approach on border, and continued to nibble the Chinese territory. In the Western Sector, by 20 December 1962, India constructed 43 strongholds inside the Chinese territory; in the Eastern Sector, by the first half of the 1962, India constructed 24 sentry posts along the so called ‘McMahan Line’ and continued to provoke China. When China was at the end of its forbearance, when push came to shove, China was forced to resort to counter attack in self defence, and evicted India from all the 43 strongholds it has constructed in the Western Sector, and restored the Line of Actual Control. In the Eastern Sector, China’s assault after reaching the adjoining areas of traditional customary line retreated to the Line of Actual Control.”
After the war the relations touched the nadir. Indian side though knew about the reasons and facts about the conflict but shied from squarely facing the reality, and adhered to the view that as long as the border remained unresolved, there can be no improvement in relations. It was only in the late 1970s that India starting from its self interests started to restore contacts with China and agreed to resolve the border issue through negotiations, asserts Dai.
He says, “China has consistently sought peaceful resolution of the issue; it has advocated taking into account the historical background, ground realities and the sentiments of the people on both sides. Long ago in 1960, Premier Zhou Enlai visited India for talks with Nehru, and pushed forward three rounds of official level talks. After the improvement in relations both had 8 rounds of talks between 1981 and 1987, the focus of these talks was to discuss guiding principles for the resolution of the border issue, but could not reach any agreement. After Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s China visit in 1988, the Joint Working Group on boundary held 15 rounds of talks, however, since India was adamant on its initial position, there wasn’t any positive movement.”
The mechanism of SR according to Dai was a logical conclusion of such a complex process, for “India at last realised that it was difficult to impose its unilateral stand on territory by force on China, and that it was also impossible to ask China for unilateral accommodation and resolve the issue, therefore, India accepted to resolve the issue through peaceful negotiations. Secondly, with the rapid globalisation, India seriously started to study China’s developmental experience, and concentrated on its economic development. It realised that in order to guarantee development, it needs to create good external environment, especially the environment in its surrounding. It realised that it must get rid of all the roadblocks that may deviate it from this path. Thirdly, with the BJP government led by Vajpayee, desire to develop relations with China went up, and with this the urgency to settle the border issue. Moreover, Vajpayee’s prestige was very high, he had great political capital and charisma, he aspired to settle the border dispute during his tenure and enter his name in the annals of history.”
In section two – An excellent beginning, Dai Bingguo says that the mechanism of SR was proposed by the Indian side to China. “Though diplomatic channels India explained to us that through this we would explore the guiding principles for resolving the issue, it will not involve specific negotiations for border demarcation and work on the maps. Second, the goal would be to accomplish the task of the SRs within 4-5 rounds through frequent contacts and talks. Third, India’s would adopt a constructive approach when negotiating with China.” He says China basically agreed to India’s proposition, proposed that SR consultations must be dealt with political and strategic height, and also from the overall situation of the bilateral relations， must not confine merely to facts as they are. The proposed Indian mechanism also pointed out that the mechanism must transcend the conventional bureaucratic system, and seek a new thinking for settling the issue. Mishra’s appointment demonstrated Vajpayee’s desire and determination to resolve the issue. During the first SR talks Vajpayee told us, “SRs responsibility is big, I think you must go all out and do it.”
In China we felt that the resolution of border issue was conducive for overall development of Sino-Indian relations, it would stabilise neighbouring environment, and enhance our international standing, promote the stability and prosperity along our south-west border. During the first round on 23-24 October, 2003 Dai told Mishra that we must not leave this historical baggage forever to our younger generations. Mishra appreciated what Dai said and in turn proposed six guiding principles. On 12-13 January, 2004, I invited Mishra for the second round in Beijing. During this round, though India’s stride could not be considered as big, however, it was a pragmatic and flexible approach. As regards guiding principles, Mishra for the first time proposed ‘give and take’ principle, and expressed that India was open and willing to keep them aside and would welcome a better proposal from China, writes Dai.
During the first and second round when Dai proposed a time frame of 3 to 5 years for the settlement, Mishra at once chipped in and clarified, if it takes so many years as you have said, perhaps I would not be around to see it. “At the close of the second round, Mishra took me aside and told me to convey a message to the Chinese leadership. He told me, Vajpayee is already 79 years; he is concerned about India-China border issue. Mishra told me he himself was 75 years, and wished to resolve the problem as soon as possible. I was hopeful that with Mishra’s negotiating style, the SRs talks would lead to an early outcome. However, in May 2004 India went to elections and the BJP suffered an unexpected defeat. Afterwards when I met Mishra, he told me, I would have never wished to pass the baton to the other, what is a pity!”
In section three – Origin of the first political parameters and guiding principles, Dai says that in comparison to the BJP, the historical baggage the Congress Party carries is heavier. Moreover, it was a weak coalition government, which was restrained by many factors and had limited decision making ability. It strived for political stability, and its foreign policy priority was India’s relations with South Asian countries, and had no urgency for resolving the Sino-Indian boundary question. The SR talks that should be pushed forward, on the contrary faced new challenges, posits Dai.
In June 2004, the Indian government appointed Dixit as a new NSA and SR. when I apprised Dixit that former SR had a timeframe of 4-6 months for reaching an agreement on guiding principles, Dixit hoped the agreement could be reached during the fourth round. Both side aspired that these should be worked out prior to Wen Jiabao’s April 2005 India visit. In the process of negotiations, the Indian side was apprehensive whether the guiding principles should be discussed first or the framework for resolution of the border. During the fourth round on 18-19 November, 2004, Dai proposed the three-step formula for the resolution of the border, which was appreciated by Dixit and finally agreed upon by both sides. After Dixit’ sudden demise, India appointed K.R Narayanan as the next NSA and SR. I met him 9 times for 5th to 13th round of SR talks. During the fifth round in Delhi on 10-11 April 2005 both the SR were successful in reaching an agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles, the agreement was signed during 2005 Wen Jiabao’s India visit.
In the fourth section – Arduous exploration as regards framework for border resolution, Dai says he conducted next 8 rounds with Narayanan. The sixth round which was held between 24 and 28 September 2005 in Beijing was the first meeting for exploring the framework for resolving the issue. During the 7th round between 11 and 14 March 2006 in New Delhi, Dai proposed that there exists a dispute on the Eastern, Middle and Western sectors of China-India border. Both sides need to make a very significant adjustment, which is acceptable to both the sides through a package deal. The 8th round was held in Xi’an and Beijing between June 24 and 28, 2006. “During the 9th round in Delhi on 17-18 January 2007, I told Narayanan frankly that this is our 9th round, I do not wish to discuss it to the 99th round, and I do not wish to keep it for our future generations. China is fully prepared for a political resolution of the Sino-Indian border issue. I sincerely hope we endeavour for finding a framework for resolving the issue at the earliest. Having said this, I expounded China’s views on political resolution. I pointed out, the disputed area is large, and it involves historical background, actual situation, peoples sentiments on both sides, the actual difficulties etc factors…given these factors if we hold on to just one and ignore others, we would be negotiating endlessly and I am afraid we wound not be able to find a solution in 100 years or even 1000 years. The framework should be more specific than the guiding principles and simpler and clearer than the border demarcation plan.”
The 10th round from April 20-22, 2007, didn’t conform to the convention of alternatively holding talks in respective countries. At the request of the Indian side I came to Delhi and pointed out that while discussing border, we cannot sever history, cannot ignore history, we must factually understand history, justly and reasonably consider the historical factors, we must fully consider Chinese people’s historical and national sentiments towards the Eastern Sector. During these five rounds, I fully expounded the Chinese stands from different angles, however, the talks made no progress whatsoever in these two years. Next two rounds (September 2007 and September 2008) were held in Beijing. Our main focus was to keep the channels of talks open, and safeguard the atmospherics, says Dai. He pinned his hope on the UPA II as the Congress had emerged stronger in May 2009 general elections. “Narayanan told me that Indian side hopes to resolve one and all issues between India and China within 3-5 years.’ 13th round of the SR talks was held in New Delhi on 7-8 August 2009. During this round, I met Narayanan 9 times and we engaged in talks for 12 hours. He told me that the sheer number of time I have met you is more than Hillary Clinton had met you, India-China SR talks can be termed as strategic dialogue. I told Narayanan that China has no intention whatsoever to scramble for any ‘sphere of influence’ in South Asia. Though we did not achieve any real progress on border issue, but it was indeed a bit of strategic dialogue as we talked about bilateral, international and regional hotspot issues.”
In the last two sections Dai says that he was dealing with the 4th SR from India as Narayanan had been given some other appointment and was replaced by an old China hand Shiv Shankar Menon. The 14th and 15th round was separately held on 29-30 November 2010 and 16-17 January 2012 in Beijing and New Delhi respectively.
Dai posits that Menon’s outlook on Sino-Indian boundary was no different from India’s previous interlocutors. Looking back at the SR talks on border he says it was a worthwhile effort. We were able to formulate a ‘three step’ blueprint for the resolution of border issue; the first step of which was completed in just two years. After 2005 we entered the second step, after 9 rounds of talks we did achieve some progress, but it is a pity that we have not been able to reach a consensus on resolution framework all along. Nonetheless, in the last 30 years, we have been able to put the most sensitive and complex issue of Sino-Indian border on the track of peaceful negotiations, which has promoted strategic trust between the two, and have created conducive conditions for the restoration, improvement and development of bilateral relations.
He suggests that mechanism of the SRs should be continued and strengthened. In order to complete the three steps, both must grab opportunities thrown by history and make bold strategic decisions. Dai considers India as an important partner for China’s open door policy. He is of the view that there can never be a colossal turmoil in India; 15% of its people can speak English, and is capable of becoming a major power in the 21st century. China must treat India not only as a major country in Asia but also as a major world power. China-India relations must be accorded priority and transcend the significance of general neighbourhood diplomacy. According to him, pragmatic cooperation between China and India is very low, which is asymmetrical given the potentialities of both the countries. Moreover the mechanism of SR has become a platform for strategic engagement, and should be optimally used. As far as border issue is concerned, he says that owing to differing stands, the issue is relatively difficult to resolve in a short time, but both have to manage it well and avoid conflict.