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Settling the China border

July 03, 2003

An agreement on the boundary with China could set the tone for a final settlement of the Kashmir question with Pakistan.
GOOD FENCES make good neighbours. The absence of a settled boundary with China, let alone fences, has been at the heart of New Delhi's troubled relationship with Beijing for more than four decades. The biggest political outcome from the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to China has been the decision by the two sides to explore a final settlement of the boundary dispute. Amidst the needless confusion over what New Delhi said and meant about Tibet and what it got from China on the recognition of Indian sovereignty over Sikkim, the far-reaching development over the boundary dispute has not received enough popular attention.

At the end of his visit, Mr. Vajpayee went on record to state that India had discussed the boundary dispute "as never before" and that "a road map" was now ready for its resolution. The Joint Declaration in Beijing had stated that the "two sides agreed to each appoint a Special Representative to explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement".

This rather infelicitous sentence has masked the substantive nature of the agreement hammered out between Mr. Vajpayee and his Chinese interlocutors.

Three things stand out. First, the appointment of Special Representatives, the National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, on the Indian side, and the Senior Vice-Minister, Dai Bingguo, on the Chinese side. The appointment of the two negotiators, who will explore the "framework of a settlement", marks an important shift.

On the Indian side, the Prime Minister's Office has now taken direct charge of a political exploration of the boundary settlement. The annual exercise of the Joint Working Group set up in 1988 during the visit of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister has ended up as a bureaucratic exercise in the Foreign Office with no real political mandate to negotiate. Messrs Mishra and Dai are expected to meet shortly and start off the talks. The Sino-Indian boundary dispute was never going to resolved through a debate between the legal and historical claims the two sides had presented until now. It can only be addressed on the basis of a political judgment about what is feasible.

Second is the new political will in New Delhi to negotiate a final settlement of the boundary dispute. Although India has always taken the position that it seeks an early settlement of the boundary dispute, Mr. Vajpayee has decided to face up to the full implications of that position. Until now the Indian political leadership has been content to leave the border issue alone, fully aware of the dangers of stirring up the hornet's nest of a settlement that would necessarily involve "give and take".

Moving away from positions that New Delhi has held for many decades was never going to be easy. India was happy to go along with, if not endorse, the Chinese position that the border issue could be left to future generations. All that has changed now with the decision to explore a resolution of the boundary dispute.

For all practical purposes, any final settlement would have to be along the broad lines proposed by Premier Zhou Enlai in 1960 and Deng Xiaoping's package proposal of 1980. Both essentially involved India ceding claims to Aksai Chin in the west and China giving up its claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

This has been the only pragmatic basis on which a solution could be found. This also involves a basic assumption that the Himalayas are a natural boundary between the two countries. In yielding on Aksai Chin, India would concede Chinese primacy north of the mountain range. In giving up claims for Arunachal, China will accept India's control of the southern slopes of the Himalayas. This realistic settlement has been there for the taking for a long time. But a peculiar mindset about China had gripped India since the late 1950s and led to unsustainable public posturing on the boundary dispute and an unwillingness to come to terms with the reality.

Third, the significance of Mr. Vajpayee's visit to China lies in the fact that the Government is finally ready to break out of that mindset. Ironically, Mr. Vajpayee was among the many on the right of the political spectrum in the 1950s, including a large section of the Congress, who made it impossible for Jawaharlal Nehru to resolve the boundary dispute with China on a reasonable basis. It was also this mindset that had made the 1962 confrontation with China an inevitable one.

If Mr. Vajpayee can overcome the certain opposition from sections of his own party to a pragmatic settlement of the boundary dispute, the overall political context might be propitious for a final settlement. The Left parties will certainly back a deal on the boundary with China.

The Congress has not criticised the outcome of Mr. Vajpayee's trip and it is unlikely to object to a reasonable settlement. More fundamentally, India as a whole has largely overcome the trauma of 1962 and is looking outward with much greater self-confidence. With the business community now tantalised by the prospects in the China market, Mr. Vajpayee is now in a position to successfully sell a boundary settlement to the Indian people.

The new political mood in the country makes the 1962 Parliament resolution on regaining every square inch of the "lost" territory from China a historic rather than a living one. The argument that the Parliamentary resolution is an insurmountable obstacle to a settlement of the boundary dispute does not stand close scrutiny.

Parliaments are sovereign bodies and reflect the political sense of the times, rather than a mere commitment to past resolutions. Any final settlement of the boundary dispute with China will have to based on a broad agreement within the Indian political class.

Building that national consensus will be a major political task for the Government as it prepares to negotiate seriously on the boundary dispute. The effort must be aimed not just at the political parties, but also the chattering classes who shape public perceptions on key issues. As negotiations move forward, the cries of "sell-out" will be heard with greater vehemence than ever before. Balancing the political imperatives of transparency about the broad direction of the negotiations with the importance of diplomatic confidentiality will be a major challenge for the Government. Persuading the Indian public to accept a recasting of the Indian territorial map that many generations have grown up with is not going to be easy. It would require a significant public effort at education.

Although the broad outlines of a boundary settlement with China are visible, the devil is in the detail. And negotiations with the Chinese establishment, as always, must be expected to be tough. While the new Chinese leadership appears amenable to a productive political dialogue, India should be fully prepared for the unexpected. A whole range of internal and external circumstances could easily create complications for the Sino-Indian boundary talks.

Negotiations on the boundary dispute will at once be diplomatically challenging and politically rewarding for India.

For one, a settled frontier with China would liberate India from the two-front problem that has stared it in the face since the late 1950s. India's strategic energies will be released to deal with other security challenges as well play a larger role in Asia and beyond.

Second, an agreement on the boundary with China could also set the tone for a final settlement of the Kashmir question with Pakistan. If reason and realism are the bases for resolving the boundary dispute with China, the political pressures on Pakistan from within the region and beyond to accept the same principles in its relationship with India are likely to increase.

Third, settled frontiers with China would open the door for immense possibilities for trade and economic cooperation between neighbouring provinces of the two countries. While the door has been cracked open between Sikkim and Tibet, the prospects are even more alluring elsewhere between India's northeast and China's southwest.

These two land-locked regions along with Myanmar and Bangladesh could witness explosive economic growth if New Delhi and Beijing agree for regional economic integration. Mr. Vajpayee is all set to negotiate a final settlement of the long-standing boundary dispute with China. Let the tough bargaining begin.

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