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Better Understanding




Eric Gonsalves


The 21st century has been advertised as the Asian century. Asia has made enormous progress in the last fifty years in every dimension - economic, social and political. Yet the promise can only be fulfilled if Asian governments demonstrate sufficient will and capacity. On the one hand, in the new world of globalisation and interdependence this would require independence of judgement and resilience to maintain it under pressure. On the other hand, it also means abandoning the luxury of unabashedly pursuing national interest. Competition must continue but within certain limitations of transparency and teamwork imposed by common Asian objectives. Ultimately Asia and the rest of the world would benefit as this is not a zerosum game.

The key players would have to include Japan, the world’s No. 2 economy and China a potential great power. It should also include India once she is able to complete internal reforms and achieve her potential to be another great power. Without a degree of harmonisation of attitudes between these key players and the regional groupings the Asian dream is not attainable. India and China have improved relations in the last two decades but much more can be done.

After 1949 India-China relations after experiencing a high went down to a nadir in 1962 and remained frozen thereafter. The facts are well known. In-depth analysis may still have to wait till the motivations of the Chinese leadership are uncovered by historians. A new phase of gradual improvement started with the exchange of Ambassadors in 1976, and the first high level Chinese visit in 1976. This trend was concretised by Foreign Minister Vajpayee’s visit in February 1979 and has continued till today despite some temporary setbacks. It is no coincidence that Deng Xiaoping had then just emerged as the unchallenged leader in China. The measure of improvement can be appreciated if one takes the negative areas in the relationship that have been eliminated or reduced to manageable proportions. Even by the time Foreign Minister Huang Hua paid a return visit in 1981 official level discussions had put many issues in perspective notwithstanding public disagreement over Afghanistan and Cambodia. These have crystallised into firm agreement in succeeding years. The challenge for the future is moving the dialogue into positive areas.

The humiliation suffered in the 1962 conflict and occupation of Indian territory earlier resulted in an understandable emotional Indian reaction. For a long time any attempt to find a compromise solution for the boundary dispute was regarded as surrender and anti-national. Yet even Indian scholars are now beginning to accept that neither the Indian nor Chinese boundary lines were as sanctified by history and tradition etc. as the two sides so confidently stated. Hence a negotiated settlement remains the only way out. But this was unacceptable to both leaderships in the 1960s and later. Prime Minister Zhou Enlai during his visit

in 1960 suggested some adjustments which the Indian side rejected. No progress could be made at official level talks in 1961. Then came the border war and relatively frozen relations, although courtesy was gradually restored. Deng Xiaoping in his meeting with Vajpayee hinted at a compromise based on existing ground realities which again could not be accepted by India. The proposal was placed on record a little later by Deng in an interview with an Indian journalist. The public Chinese position was that problems left over by history could be kept aside while the climate was improved. During Huang Hua’s visit, the gap between the two positions was partly bridged by the Chinese accepting the need to give public priority to resolving the boundary question and India accepting the need to simultaneously improve other relations.

Since then the boundary has been discussed at the official level in a series of meetings and very gentle progress has been recorded. It is however important to note that both governments have implemented their stated intentions to maintain peace and tranquillity along the line of actual control. Minor transgressions by either side a few limes in the last 35 years have never been allowed to escalate out of control even after the Sumdurongcho incident. During the conflicts with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, despite diplomatic rhetoric China did not seek to influence Indian strategy by moving forces. The withdrawals of Indian forces from the border for use in difficult times in Punjab, Kashmir and Sri Lanka have not been taken advantage of. India too has never really taken advantage at times of Chinese weakness in Tibet. In 1993 and 1996 formal agreements were signed which provided for consultations, and to reduce military forces along the line of control and above all, renouncing the use of force.

Emotion in India would now accept a compromise once it demonstrated that honour is uneffected in the Western Sector. Chinese security concerns about Tibet have also been largely satisfied. The time now appears ripe to move towards working out a final agreement on the boundary taking into account the present ground position including the accession of Sikkim to India and the real security requirements of the two parties.

Another major area of concern on both sides was interference in domestic affairs and support to anti-national groups. In the early years, the export of revolution was seen as the bounden duty of all Communist States. Even with the loud cheers of “Hindi Cheeni Bhai Bhai” in the air, material and moral support was being given to dissident groups in India. This caused India grave problems in dealing with the tribal groups in the North East. India too was an active or passive participant in Western efforts to destabilise China through Tibet. By 1980 both governments had realised that the national interest did not benefit from these manoeuvres. In official level discussions held during that year it was confirmed that official support to each other’s insurgency was at an end. This position has remained unchanged till now. By the mid-1990s both governments have separately discovered the need to publicly castigate cross-border activities by fundamentalists, militants etc. Common action is now necessary in this area and also to control the menace posed by drug-trafficking and arms smuggling. An agreement on drug traffic was signed during Jiang Zemin’s visit to India in’ 1996.

Tibet remains a very sensitive issue for China. India accepted Chinese sovereignity in the 1954 Treaty. China’s more forceful exercise of control and the consequent departure of the Dalai Lama for exile in India in 1959 put India in a delicate position just as the boundary dispute was escalating from clashes towards conflict. The post-1962 clandestine operations and their end are mentioned above. Following Vajpayee’s visit India’s pilgrims were allowed access once more to Kailash and Mansarovar. China also began to search fitfully for a modus vivendi with the Dalai Lama. This effort has so far proved unsuccessful. Suspicions about India’s intentions on Tibet are still voiced from time to time and protests lodged about the sincerity with which the Dalai Lama is made to refrain from political activity. Yet it would seem that China does not feel it is seriously threatened in Tibet by India. Extending the doctrine of “one country two systems” used for Hong Kong and Taiwan to Tibet might work better than the present policy of forcing Tibet into the existing Chinese political system. The Dalai Lama and most Tibetans would be quite satisfied with such a half-way house. China’s present attitude causes a dilemma for India between two cherished principles of maintaining pluralism while resisting self determination. The earlier this difficulty is removed the better.

Third country relationship have bedevilled India-China relations. South Asia has provided the longest lasting friction. For Pakistan and China to make common cause over the former’s problems with India was normal real political, but to India which has espoused China’s case in world form against strong western pressure this seemed gross ingratitude. Sir-to-Pak military-collaboration was seen as the major security threat and also became one of India’s most serious diplomatic preoccupations, Pakistan did benefit enormously from the supports of weapons and the transfer of technology especially nuclear technology. Support to

Pakistan over Kashmir, to Bangladesh, to the Nepalese call for a zone of peace and independence and over almost every other contentious issue to subcontinental neighbours against India further embittered relations. China’s diplomatic support emboldened India’s neighbours to take a tough line vis-a-vis India. It must be accepted that India too was unreasonable in certain matters and made it easy for China to join in the chorus against India’s “hegemony”.

By the 1960s the refrain began to change. In line with Deng’s thesis that developing countries needed peace to concentrate on development, the tenor of Chinese statement was to urge South Asian countries to resolve their problems among themselves while reassuring them that the bilateral relationship with China would not be affected by the improvement of Sino-Indian relations. This attitude was taken a little further during the recent visit of President Jiang Zemin to South Asia in 1996 during which developing a relationship with South Asia as a single entity was given pride of place. By this time China had also acquiesced to U.S. pressure by stopping the transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan. lndia must find ways quickly to give greater substance to a China-South Asian relationship. There are still important elite groups in China and India who have to realise the inevitability of regional cooperation in the context of globalisation. India and the smaller South Asian states have already understood the value of regional cooperation. The China card is no longer in play. To make China and other neighbouring regional groups economic partners of SAARC is the next logical step. Energy, environment, water resources, transport and infrastructure are among the areas that can provide for fruitful cooperation. It would also reinforce the inevitability of South Asian regional cooperation to Pakistan.

India’s earlier interaction with China was mainly in the Asian arena. India helped bring about and implement the Korean Armistice and Indo-Chinese Peace Accords, China entered the world stage at the Afro-Asian conference at Bandung in 1954 on a fraternal note. But Asian developments soon established the divergence of policies. China supported revolution in Malaysia, Sukarno’s fight against neo-imperialism and hoped to shape the ideology and attitudes of newly emergent Afro-Asian countries according to Mao’s ideas. By 1965, this effort had largely failed as the army displaced Sukarno and South East Asia began to stabilise; the 1965 Afro-Asian Conference never materialised; and the Cultural Revolution isolated China. Meanwhile the Non-Aligned Movement with India as a leader was becoming the standard bearer of the Third World.

Today’s situation is very different awhich portends against taking anything for granted. China has reversed herself on almost all policies, and is accepted as a important power and major partner in the Asia-Pacific Region. India has become an outsider mainly because its economy has stagnated and its indifference in taking more than minimal interest in Asia. India will have to work hard and emerge as a credible partner for South East and East Asia if it is to become a player in the Asian system.

The evolution of the cold war had its fallout on India-China relations. In its early days when everything was black and white India’s efforts to play peacemaker and to push China’s claims in the UN. etc. got her dubbed as a fellow-traveller in McCarthy’s America. The inevitable improvement of relations with the Soviet Union after Pakistan joined American-sponsored alliances raised doubts in China at a time when the Soviet Union’s revolutionary credentials were being questioned by Mao. The Soviet Union after some hesitations leaned towards India after 1962. Ironically China’s objections to detente were speedily set aside when the opportunity came in 1971 to establish relations with the USA. Pakistan was the conduit. When India was about to face a major confrontation with Pakistan over Bangladesh coupling with Pakistan’s getting closer to China and the U.S.A. it was necessary to formalise India’s linkage with the Soviet Union in the Indo-Soviet Treaty.

Bangladesh was liberated and recognised. India’s threat perceptions diminished and the lndo-Soviet Treaty’s utility also diminished. There was a brief flurry of concern when the Soviet action in Afghanistan seemed to revive earlier concerns. But they faded away soon enough. Despite the efforts of a section of the Indian leadership it became clear that Soviet and Indian interests over China did not necessarily coincide.

Indo-china and Vietnam also posed a source of friction. China did not support North Vietnam as whole heartedly as they did North Korea. China and Vietnam are historical rivals. Further, the Chinese establishment -- and Deng in particular-developed a strong antipathy to the Vietnamese leadership. The leading Soviet role in supporting Hanoi could have played its part. For India on the other hand, supporting Vietnam was a cardinal principle of her non-aligned policy. China’s police action against Vietnam in 1979 during Vajpayee’s visit, and India’s recognition of the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin Government in Cambodia caused temporary polemics. However they did not really impede the process of normalisation between India and China after 1979. One obvious conclusion is that China is callous and India over-sensitive to third country interests.

Most contentious issues have been eliminated by chance or effort from the India-China agenda by now. The major remaining question, i.e. the boundary, can new be settled if the two governments so desire and show the will. Tibet is not really an issue for India and she would be relieved if China and the Tibetans are able to find an accommodation. On South Asia the common ground is growing. There still remains the removal of overall suspicions caused by the hangover of threat perceptions and security concerns over the last 35 years. A limited dialogue between senior military officials has begun and there has been exchanges between think-tanks. However, there is no sign of any attempt to begin a substantive dialogue on military postures and threat perceptions including nuclear threats. Both sides appear to be unwilling to take this up for reasons which are unclear but can be surmised, i.e. existing vested interests. However, they should seriously consider that their basic premise of ensuring peace for development requires transparency and confidence building on security. The more so as it is clear from the 1996 Border Agreement that there is nothing to gain from conflict. This would require that the shadow-boxing whether India is or is not a nuclear power should cease. There could be the further bonus that this would give a fillip to confidence building between India and Pakistan.

There has been a procession of significant high level visits which have helped to improve relation culminating in the visit of Jiang Zemin in 1996. It is important to note that they have covered the broad spectrum of the leadership in the two countries. There is an effective dialogue on economic, cultural and intellectual exchanges. However the level of such exchanges is not commensurate with the existing potential. Trade had quadrupled in this decade and can certainly be expanded many times further if the will is there and the effort is made to study and penetrate markets. Opening up border trade has promise and could ease

conditions inside Tibet.

Greater understanding of the other country has to be pursued. China does undertake fairly systematic studies into the Indian polity, economy and society in specialised institutions. Indian scholarship on China which had been commendable has suffered in recent years from a lack of resources and support. It needs to be strengthened. There must also be much larger process of exchanges than at present between experts in social sciences, physical sciences, technology etc.

Both countries are grappling with an immense task of developing an economy and a society with a very large population which makes them unique. Chinese economic reform would have many lessons for India as it started at least 10 years earlier. The evolution of the Indian political system may similarly provide some guidelines as the Chinese seek to modernise their society. Perhaps in the past both have been affected by the “middle kingdom” complex of believing that they know best. Mao’s China and Nehru’s India were probably the last manifestation of this superiority complex. But today we know only too well that everyone commits mistakes which can be very costly in terms of progress. A greater willingness to undertake comparative studies could be of mutual benefit. The external environment is of increasing relevance in the era of globalisation. As developing countries dealing with the industrialised world the two countries share a common agenda. The U.S. and its allies will try to retain the existing unipolar system. India and China need an international system with multipolarity, i.e. more democratic decision-making. Should they not share views and concert action to greater effect? No one wants to confront the U.S. rather to convert it from unilateralism to partnership.

In the current post-cold war world, China, Russia and India do have parallel interests in stability in Central Asia. The sooner they start taking concrete action the better, Chinese actions in Myanmar have roused some suspicions about her intended role in the Indian Ocean. However, at present her attitude is unlikely to diverge materially from that of India and the rest of the Indian Ocean Region in wishing to preserve stability there. A direct dialogue is obviously called for to ensure this.

The need is for a positive attitude towards a positive dialogue. It should be substantive and would in time expand itself. No time should be lost in getting it off the ground. What a better India-China understanding requires is positive agenda for positive action.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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