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Talks with China head nowhere

By Kanwal Sibal
August 12, 2009 17:15 IST
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In 2003 India and China appointed Special Representatives to find a political solution to the unresolved boundary issue. A new political will on both sides to break the existing stalemate was implied. The initiative presupposed abandoning entrenched positions and approaching the issue with a new spirit of compromise. Six years have elapsed, but the breakthrough is still awaited.

In 2005, during Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's India visit, the political parameters and guidelines for settling the boundary issue were agreed. Four years of labour since then has produced no visible result. Both sides had agreed that these sensitive negotiations would be conducted without media scrutiny. So, although the periodic meetings are announced and media is stirred up, the negotiators have adhered to the discipline of silence about the outcome of these parleys.

Unlike in the case of Pakistan where the backchannel has operated in total discretion, without any information surfacing about the location and periodicity of meetings, the talks with China are exposed to public attention, but progress is subject to "omerta".

A "political" solution to the boundary issue has to ride on decisive improvement in the political ties between India and China. If in the last six years no such amelioration has occurred, then to expect the boundary resolution track to move faster or even independently of such progress would be wishful thinking.

In actual fact, despite high levels visits on both sides, some military contacts, burgeoning trade and convergence of thinking on global issues like Climate Change and WTO negotiations, the underlying mutual distrust has increased, rather than decreased, in recent years. China's opposition to India's Security Council permanent membership, its objection to the Indo-US nuclear deal and attempts to scuttle the NSG waiver, apart from the increased militarisation of Tibet and Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean area, account for this.

Much is being made about India-China cooperation in international forums on global warming and world trade issues, as if such pragmatic, self-interested cooperation in multilateral forums, where India and China as developing countries are pitted against the industrialized countries, can influence China's attitude to purely bilateral matters of contention such as the boundary question.

Such cooperation has its downside too, as China is in weaker position than us on global warming issues, and on this and WTO matters letting India take the front seat to counter western demands suits it.

To place things in perspective, India and China have diplomatic ties, engage each other in many areas, adhere broadly to the rhetoric of friendship and have a shared interest in not allowing tensions to overwhelm the relationship as a whole. They are cooperating to mutual advantage in multilateral forums such as the G-8, the G-20, BRIC and the trilateral dialogue with Russia. But this is far from enough to create the requisite degree of mutuality of interest and trust to resolve the boundary issue, especially as China does not need to make any concession on that issue to benefit from multilateral engagement with us.

Since China can eat its cake and have it too, why should it not keep India under pressure on the border issue, maintain leverage over us so that we are always kept off balance and cannot stand up as equals, besides having the freedom to pursue policies that severely damage us strategically in our neighbourhood?

India has no answer to this dual strategy as we have neglected our border defences, the economic and military gap between us and China is expanding, China's global financial clout has increased with the recession affecting the West, and we cannot afford to have tensions both with China and Pakistan at the same time, as that would only reinforce this tandem hostile to our rise as a power.

We are also reluctant to be seen as allowing ourselves to be drawn into any US arrangement that could be construed as anti-Chinese in intent.

A harder look at reality is needed. Rather than work to create a favourable political atmosphere for resolving boundary differences, China has deliberately poisoned it by asserting its claim over the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as a matter of principle and on Tawang in particular. The airing of this claim on the eve of President Hu Jintao's visit to India in 2006 showed China's scant regard for ground realities as well as Indian political sensitivities.

China has lately upped the ante by broadening its bilateral differences over Arunachal Pradesh by raising them in a multilateral forum like the Asian Development Bank, disregarding that this detracts from the process of finding a bilateral solution to them.

To escape responsibility for wrecking progress towards a settlement, China engages in the artful propaganda that India's coalition governments do not have the mandate and the will to make the necessary concessions for it.

The political atmosphere surrounding the boundary negotiations was further vitiated by the Tibetan uprising in March last year, the verbal violence unleashed by the Chinese leadership against the Dalai Lama and the breakdown of China's dialogue with his representatives.

China's pretense that it raises the Tawang issue in deference to Tibetan sentiments flies in the face of Dalai Lama's public position that Tawang belongs to India and the 2008 Tibetan revolt against China's rule.

India's belated decision in the face of provocative Chinese claims to improve the infrastructure in the border regions, activate air fields, position advanced aircraft as well as augment ground forces, have aroused reactions from Chinese analysts and newspapers. The unnecessary publicity given to our missile and naval programmes, with the media playing up their anti-China thrust, has not helped.

Some condescending commentaries have appeared in the Chinese press analyzing India's complexes towards China and warning that it should not expect any concessions on the disputed border. Such writings have not appeared in the China's state controlled press for years and some serious observers do not rule out China fomenting some border trouble, if only to deflect attention from mounting internal problems caused by the impact of the global recession on China's export markets.

The just concluded 13th round of the Special Representative's dialogue has ended on an odd note. The mechanism set up to discuss only the boundary issue has ended up discussing a broader agenda covering bilateral, regional and global issues.

Does this mean that the boundary talks as structured presently have run into an impasse and this is being disguised through altogether unrelated announcements about setting up a hotline between the two Prime Ministers, celebrating the Year of China in India to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, highlighting our cooperation in multilateral forums and describing trade and economic relations as the centrepiece of bilateral ties?

Allowing the boundary negotiations to be mixed up with a so-called strategic dialogue appears to be a shortsighted move as it could allow the Chinese to impose limits on India's strategic options by linking progress on the boundary question to India's pliability on strategic issues.

It is disturbing why we have felt the need to artificially project Dai Bangguo's visit as successful even as on its central purpose- the boundary question- no progress is claimed.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary.

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