The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s China visit is being criticized for conceding advantage to China on Tibet and getting only a trading post in Sikkim in return. But what if the big story turns out to be the advanced stage of negotiations on a Tibet settlement between the Chinese and the dalai lama'

That something serious is afoot between the dalai lama and the Chinese is indicated by the attitude of the Tibetans in exile. They have not criticized India for recognizing that the “Tibet Autonomous Region” is a part of China.

What if in addition to greater autonomy the dalai lama were to agree to accept a political role (say, as the vice-premier of China) while at the same time being recognized by Beijing as the supreme Buddhist leader of Tibet' Should we then not leave the Tibetans to decide what constitutes Tibet within China and what kind of autonomy it needs' Instead of semantic battles over how to describe Tibet then, India should prepare to move on with its relationship with China.

One could argue that there are three broad aspects of India’s emerging China policy which take it in that direction. There is an attempt to stabilize and reduce suspicion in the relationship. Instead of endless meetings of technical experts which have stalled the border negotiations, there is a move towards using political principles for settling the issue. And the role of intensified economic co-operation in influencing the political relationship has been duly recognized.

Since the late Fifties, and especially after the 1962 war, China has dominated Indian strategic thinking. Despite four wars with Pakistan, it is essentially considered only an irritant by India. China is perceived as a strategic threat. Hence Vajpayee’s letter to the US president, Bill Clinton, of May 12, 1998 rationalizing India’s second set of nuclear tests and an un-deconstructed George Fernandes as the then defence minister declaring that China was India’s potential threat number one.

India’s neighbours, acutely aware of the deep distrust between the two countries have made use of it to their advantage. India was constantly on its toes about Nepal playing the China card as well as the growing military links between China and the countries on its eastern flank — Myanmar and Bangladesh. Then of course, there is the Chinese strategic alliance with Pakistan which is used by Beijing to keep New Delhi tied down regionally.

Each step that China took in India’s neighbourhood was seen as undermining its influence. Questions continue to be raised about Chinese motivations in the region: did China not fund the Kathmandu-Lhasa highway in the early Sixties to facilitate the potential movement of troops southwards' Was Rajiv Gandhi not right in imposing a trade blockade on Nepal in 1988 for acquiring Chinese anti-aircraft guns' Why is Myanmar allowing a Chinese listening post at Coco Islands' If the Chinese are building roads in Myanmar to get access to Indian Ocean, should India also not build a road to southeast Asia through Mandalay to counter its influence' Why has Khalida Zia entered into a comprehensive military cooperation treaty with China'

The stream of suspicion about China in Indian political consciousness is endless. Its negative impact is that it keeps India’s policy in the region in a flux, preventing it from acquiring a desired stability.

If Sino-Indian ties are stabilized — at least at a much lower level of suspicion — then India need not be constantly preoccupied with second-guessing Chinese intentions in the region. This does not mean that the two big neighbours will not compete for influence in south Asia and beyond. Nor should one expect China to give up the strategic advantage of its relationship with Pakistan. However, the uncertainty which has driven Indian policy not only toward Beijing but also towards its other neighbours would be reduced. The smaller countries in the neighbourhood would also not be able to play the China card wantonly.

A major step in this direction would be settling the Sino-Indian border. Finally, the Indian government seems to have decided to keep the specialists away from the negotiating table in order to take a bold political decision.

National security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, would not have been appointed as the special representative for a political settlement of the border if a considerable amount of ground work had not been done already. Although there is no evidence in the open about this, rumours have it that Mishra, who had been engaged with the Sino-Indian border issue, made at least one unpublicized visit to China to discuss this in October 2000.

The border settlement could be expected to take place within a couple of years. Jettisoning the sector-by-sector approach to the border settlement for political principles suggests giving up on the inertia associated with technical intricacies. One possibility could be that we may once again be looking at some kind of area swap between the eastern sector (roughly corresponding to the Inner Line in Arunachal Pradesh — about 90,000 square kilometre in area) and the western sector (Aksai Chin plateau — about 38,000 sq km).

The east-west swap was first proposed unofficially by Zhou Enlai in 1960 when he talked of “reciprocal acceptance of present realities in both sectors.” In 1980, the proposal was revived — once again unofficially — in an interview to an Indian defence journal by Deng Xiaoping. He suggested the package deal of China accepting the McMohan Line in the east in return for India recognizing the status quo in the west.

The geo-political significance of the Aksai Chin plateau — as the western route to Tibet — has reduced over time as China has built better land and air-links with Tibet. In any case, India stands to be a net gainer of area in the east if it accepts a swap. The area swap proposal, if revived, would meet the security needs of both the countries and allow India to benefit from oil and gas pipelines through Xinjiang from central Asia.

The speed of movement on a comprehensive border settlement, however, would depend on evolving national consensus for it in both the countries. If jingoistic forces in India start claiming that not one square centimetre of Bharat Mata can be given up or exchanged, for example, then Vajpayee’s degree of freedom in securing a border settlement would be reduced.

That enhanced economic links can underwrite a better relationship is indicated by the fact that Sino-Indian trade has been growing at the rate of 60 to 70 per cent annually without any facilitation by New Delhi. Last year the total trade between the two countries stood at about Rs 24,000 crore. The immediate goal is to double in a year.

The two trading posts in Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh together account for only Rs 9.5 crore of the total trade. Changu in Sikkim is expected to add another Rs 25 crore to Rs 50 crore a year. The tremendous potential for economic cooperation with China, if realized, will impact positively on the political ties between the two countries. This underplayed aspect of the Vajpayee’s visit may yet prove to be the catalyst that would take Sino-Indian ties to a new level. Strategic experts may keep carping about the foolishness of giving up the Tibet card. Meanwhile, the world would have moved on.

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