A season to repair relations

It’s time for a comprehensive, open dialogue between India and China to promote communication and connectivity in diverse spheres and preserve the peace on our shared borders

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:46 pm IST

Published - February 03, 2017 01:15 am IST

The Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, recently put forward some suggestions for improvement of bilateral ties between China and India. The suggestions are timely since relations between the two Asian giants have looked tired and worn in recent months. The voices from the gallery have been worrisome. China’s obduracy on India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) bid, its incomprehensible stand on the listing of known terrorist-progenitor Masood Azhar under the U.N. Security Council’s 1267 Committee, the deployment of Chinese military and engineering assets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are all pointers to a complex and tension-riddled relationship.

Absence of trust

On the CPEC, the Prime Minister himself, speaking at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, implicitly criticised the Chinese actions saying, “Connectivity in itself cannot override or undermine the sovereignty of other nations.” While the border areas between the two countries have remained conflict-free, the Line of Actual Control continues to be subject to conflicting interpretations by both India and China and the scene of intermittent transgression. Commentators have suggested that India’s Tibet policy is also being recalibrated, drawing conclusions from the Dalai Lama’s projected visit to Arunachal Pradesh and his being “seen at Rashtrapati Bhavan, sitting beside President Pranab Mukherjee”. As expected, the nationalist Chinese media condemned it.

What did Mr. Luo say? The remarks were obviously prepared as the Chinese do not speak off-the-cuff in public spaces. He suggested a ‘friendship and cooperation treaty’ and a free trade agreement (FTA) to boost bilateral relations and joining of hands on China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, and added that the time is ripe for both countries to reap some ‘early harvest’ outcomes (based on negotiations held so far) on the unresolved boundary question.

That the Ambassador chose to make these remarks at the newly-established Ji Xianlin Centre for India-China Studies at the University of Mumbai campus lent some symbolism to the occasion. Ji Xianlin was one of China’s foremost modern Indologists and a protagonist of friendship and civilisational understanding between India and China.

Could the Ambassador's statement be part of an effort within the Chinese establishment to review relations with neighbours like India, given the strategic uncertainties generated by the advent of Donald Trump’s administration in the U.S. and his unabashed negativity towards China? Mr. Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen, before he took office; his proclaimed intention to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese goods; and the new U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s thinly disguised threats against China’s building of artificial islands in the disputed areas in the South China Sea have all generated concern in Beijing.

A true indicator of Chinese positivity would be approval for India to open a Trade Office in Lhasa in place of the old Consulate General that operated there till ’62

It is not known whether these ideas articulated in Mumbai by the Chinese envoy have been discussed at the government-to-government level previously. It is possible that some of them, particularly the ‘early harvest’ concept relating to the boundary, may have been broached in some form or other by the Chinese side. Sectors of the boundary, like Sikkim and the middle sector (Uttarakhand/Himachal Pradesh), are by and large free of the disputes that one sees in the western (Jammu and Kashmir) and eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors. But ‘solutions’ that segment the border instead of ensuring an overall comprehensive settlement of the boundary may be difficult to accept, especially for India.

Devil in the detail

A treaty of friendship and cooperation between the two countries recalls the 1954 “Panchsheel” Agreement which essentially tied up the status of Tibet but also outlined the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence — principles that became empty words over the ensuing years as the relationship slid into conflict and then took years to revive. The 1993 and 1996 agreements on peace and tranquility and confidence-building in the India-China border areas reiterated the five principles and also spoke of the non-use of force and the concept of mutual and equal security. While India need not spurn the latest Chinese overture made by Mr. Luo, and would do well to explore what the proposal entails, the devil is always in the detail.

Given the state of bilateral relations, and the extent of unresolved political and security issues that bedevil the relationship, not to mention the disparity in economic strength, a treaty of friendship and cooperation may only be an inventory of good intentions but not a transformative document.

As for trade and economic relations, Mr. Luo’s idea of an FTA is no doubt forward-looking. Trade between India and China has grown to an annual volume of $70 billion (2015-16). India has made a strong pitch for Chinese investments under Make in India in infrastructure development, solar energy and smart cities. Recent reports, however, also suggest security hurdles faced by Chinese firms seeking to invest in India. An FTA that is goods-centred will obviously not benefit India given the huge trade in goods imbalance that favours China. An FTA that is comprehensive, covering goods and services, cross-border investment, R&D, standards and dispute resolution would be worth exploring. As some Indian scholars have observed, “An FTA with China may have benefits that escape quantification and transcend economics.”

Connectivity builds the sinews of successful diplomacy today. Our own region of South Asia with its poor inter-country connectivity only buttresses the poor state of diplomatic cooperation in much of the subcontinent. The rigour of borders and sovereignties has triumphed over any consensus-building on connectivity and cooperation beyond borders. India’s own reaction to China’s OBOR has been hedging and tentative, mainly because of the CPEC through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. At the same time, India is a part of the frontline membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that is bolstering OBOR.

The Chinese have today chosen to disregard the sovereignty issues surrounding the dispute between India and Pakistan over the State of J&K, despite the provisions of the 1963 China-Pakistan Boundary Agreement which conceded the disputed nature of the territory (in what Pakistan now calls Gilgit-Baltistan but what India claims as part of Jammu and Kashmir) covered under the agreement. This is a crucial reason for India’s reservations about OBOR. The Chinese are seen by India to have acted in disregard of Indian sensitivities on this matter, which is a cause for legitimate concern.

Connectivity, connectivity, connectivity

The question however is, whether despite this, India should as a test of the Chinese approach, and with reference to OBOR, explore the development of connectivity between Tibet and India, especially through the Sikkim sector into Bengal. The old route between Lhasa and Kolkata via Nathu La was the most easily traversed route — and may still be, despite the road networks constructed by the Chinese in Tibet — between Tibet and mainland China, via land and sea, up until the mid-20th century. This is a road that provided for the transport of goods and services between Tibet and the outside world through India.

The case for its revival requires a serious examination and should not be dismissed cursorily. Nathu La is already the crossing point for border trade between India and the Tibet Autonomous Region. A true indicator of Chinese positivity would also be approval for India to open a Trade Office in Lhasa in place of the old Consulate General that operated there until 1962.

An opening of ties between India and the Xinjiang region of China is also worth examining. Providing for air connectivity between Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, and New Delhi as one of the OBOR linkages, for instance, would help the promotion of people-to-people ties and trade and commercial contact and could also help open a new chapter in counter-terrorism cooperation between India and China. The two countries have a common interest in curbing religious radicalism and terrorism. Kashmir and Xinjiang, both contiguous neighbours, have similar challenges posed by terrorism and separatist movements.

New thinking necessary

India-China relations can definitely do with some new thinking and new ideas, and from that point of view, the Chinese Ambassador has done well to articulate his outlook, however modest, on how more bilateral cooperation can be promoted. The long peace between the two countries, stretching from the 1970s to the present day, deserves preservation and not disturbance. It is entirely in the self-interest of each country to ensure this.

Competitive coexistence, with a clear delineation of areas of difference and how to manage them, the promotion of business and people-centred connectivity, and mutual confidence-building with tension-reduction measures cannot do any harm. The border problem, by virtue of its complexity and size, will take its time to resolve.

Maturity of approach, and strategic patience while each country is preoccupied with the demands of internal and external equilibrium and balancing, offers a constructive way forward. The modus vivendi of the last few decades are easily disturbed as recent events have shown. China as the larger neighbour must take the initiative to ensure that this trend is halted.

Its approach on NSG, Masood Azhar, the activities in PoK, to name a few, have cast long shadows on the relationship. China cannot expect India not to pursue her legitimate interests in ensuring the security of its periphery, and to promote ties with countries like the U.S. and Japan and ASEAN partners in the Indo-Asia Pacific. All these countries have extensively evolved and developed relationships with China. Likewise, our cooperation with them need not hinder a productive, comprehensive, open and frank dialogue between India and China that is aimed at preserving and promoting good contact, communication and connectivity in diverse spheres as also the peace on our shared borders of the last few decades.

Nirupama Rao is a former foreign secretary and ambassador to China.

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