India and China - I

APRIL 2000 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and China. These 50 years had their high points and also saw, unfortunately, too long a period of strain and divergence which culminated in the war of 1962. This event cast deep shadows on the ties between the two states that began to lift only in 1988 after the path-clearing visit by Rajiv Gandhi to China. The process of dialogue had begun earlier, following the visit of Mr. A. B. Vajpayee, then External Affairs Minister, to Beijing in 1979. But the progress towards recovery of confidence had been slow.

Dialogue was sustained despite periods of turbulence as in 1986- 87 and again a decade later, following the nuclear tests in South Asia. It continued despite changes of leadership in the two countries. Each time India and China not only pulled back from confrontation but, in fact, raised the level of interaction. Both have learnt their lessons from the past. The most important lesson is that the neighbours must make peace not war. This should be the fundamental guiding principle of India-China relationship in the new century.

The anniversary was celebrated by the armed forces of the two countries along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with music, dance and good cheer. This celebration serves as a good symbol of the lessons learnt from the past which promise to convert the LAC into an arrangement that will help in building a new relationship. It also demonstrates that India and China have travelled a long way since the great chill of 1998 after a decade of growing confidence and expanding contacts. In the 10 years since the Rajiv- Deng summit of 1988, considerable progress had been made by both states following a dual track strategy. Contacts and exchanges at all levels of state and society were revived and strengthened. In addition, economic and trade exchanges grew from a meagre beginning to close to $2 billion in 1997.

The events after Pokhran-II slowed, but did not disrupt, the process of normalisation. India responded sensitively to China's sense of `hurt' at the references from various quarters to it as a potential `threat' to India. The matter was cleared by the time of the visit of Mr. Jaswant Singh, External Affairs Minister, to China for both sides to make public statements to the effect that neither considered the other a threat to its security. It thus became possible for the two sides, to add an important dimension to the ongoing dialogue. They agreed to conduct a security dialogue for the first time. The first round was held last month in Beijing.

Relations at the purely bilateral level have improved enough, both qualitatively and substantively, to clear the way for the establishment of a constructive and cooperative relationship for the 21st century. However, there are still some differences, on the nuclear question as well as on other sensitive issues of a bilateral nature. These need to be frankly and openly addressed in a spirit of understanding and accommodation. India's concerns relate primarily to the territorial issue; to the Chinese friendship with and assistance to Pakistan; and to China's perceptions of India's nuclear programme.

For both countries it cannot be a satisfactory situation to have de facto borders indefinitely; both should prefer to have firm, mutually acceptable borders, enshrined in a legally-binding and voluntarily accepted treaty. Both have, however, realistically accepted that such a final settlement is a most complex process, not likely to be completed in the near-future. As an interim arrangement, the two sides have therefore agreed to honour and stabilise the LAC in all sectors which came into being after 1962. In 1993 and 1996, India and China agreed to ensure that peace and tranquillity prevailed along its entire length. They agreed to smoothen out differences through negotiations and to put in place far-reaching confidence-building measures.

The territorial issue is still highly emotive in the public mind. Repeated references to large historical claims by the two sides only revive unhappy memories of the past. The 1993 and 1996 agreements specifically mention that they were arrived at without prejudice to the positions of either side. It should be possible for India and China to agree to drop or limit the references to such claims to help consolidate the trust of the people. This would also go a long way in changing public images (and removing fears) of the other which are subliminally held, such as the Indian image of a China willing to use force, unable to accept equality, determined to seek hegemony in Asia and therefore to keep India confined to South Asia. Or the Chinese image of an India also hegemonistic, having imperial ambitions and lording it over smaller neighbours. Scholars can argue that these images are in the main false. But scholars do not and cannot have the same powerful influence in dispelling public images as harsh words, exaggerated claims or disregard of interests and sensitivities emanating at the official level have in confirming them. China's continuing unwillingness to accept Sikkim as part of India is still regarded by the general public as an act of unfriendliness. India, on its part, has not resiled and will not resile from its acknowledgment that Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.

From the Indian perspective, the three decades-long, all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan had begun to resemble a military alliance even in the nuclear field. Of late, observers of the China scene and policymakers had noted that Beijing was making significant re-adjustments in its Pakistan policy. They were greatly reassured by the statements the Chinese President, Mr. Jiang Zemin, made during his visits to India and Pakistan in 1996 that held out the promise of a more balanced and constructive Pakistan policy.

But as evidence of China's continuing support to Pakistan's nuclear programme became available, old memories and fears were revived specially after Pakistan's tests in 1998. These fears were not allayed even by China even-handedly calling on both to roll back nuclear weaponisation, not to deploy nuclear weapons and to sign the CTBT and the NPT. In the main, the fears were revived because, over the years, no satisfactory explanation of the quality of this relationship had been offered by China. Nor does Beijing deny the fulsome support and backing that Pakistan claims it has from China for its nuclear and missile programmes. The quality of this relationship, therefore, continues to be cause for concern in India even as it welcomes signs of a rational shift in China's position such as its call, during the Kargil crisis, that the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir be respected and that the Lahore process be resumed.

Prior to 1965, China appeared to separate its position on Kashmir from its political relations with India and Pakistan. Thereafter, China began to support the Pakistan position on Kashmir; then it supported the right of self-determination for the Kashmiri people and, at official levels, promised that the 650 million people of China would `stand by' Pakistan in defence of its independence and sovereignty. The right to self-determination for the people of Kashmir has sometimes been interpreted as the right to sovereign independence. If so interpreted on the basis of community or religion, it would vitiate secularism, fundamental organisational principle of the Indian state.

For multi-national states like India and China, the worldwide rise of sub-state nationalism demanding independence, based often on claims of smaller ethnic or religious community, can pose very serious challenges. Unfortunately, such claims receive wide public support especially in the West, in the name of democracy and people's rights. This, in turn, complicates the situation in Kashmir and Tibet, for example, and creates grave potential problems of `separatism'. Recent developments as well as adjustments in China's Pakistan policy will, it is to be hoped, be followed by an open stand, in its own long-term interest, against militarism, terrorism and separatism everywhere. This development will help dispel the negative images of China in the minds of the Indian public.

(The writers are Honorary Fellows of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, and the article is based on a paper they presented at a recent seminar.)