July 3, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Sujit Dutta

Sujit Dutta on China-India talks

India and China, notwithstanding the media hype, appear to have made only small gains in narrowing their differences over the alignment of the Line of Actual Control along the 545-km long stretch in the former's central sector, covering the Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh boundaries with Tibet.

The two sides had exchanged maps, giving their understanding of the LAC in the sector at the Expert Group meeting in November 2000. The latest EG meeting on June 28-29 was called to reconcile the differences. But the differences persist; the group will meet in December to resolve them.

The LAC is the line up to which troops of the two sides exercise effective control. It has not been demarcated. But the term was first used by then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, well before the 1962 war, in a letter written in 1959 to then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Chinese put forward the line as its understanding of the de facto positions on the two sides. Beijing claimed India and China did not have a delineated boundary, but there was a well-recognised LAC.

This was strange logic since in vast portions of the difficult mountain border, forces of neither side were continually present. Instead, a historically derived and traditional boundary existed. Diplomatically, it was a useful Chinese ploy to secure a new boundary alignment seen to be important for its security.

Between 1956, 1960 and 1962, Chinese maps were to show three distinct and advancing LACs, especially in the Ladakh sector, as its forces captured new territory across the Kuen Lun, the Aksai Chin plateau and the Karakoram ranges. The LAC established after the 1962 war has remained more or less stable, but has not been demarcated. For nearly three decades after the war, India considered it an illegitimate line created through aggression.

How did India agree to move away from attempting to settle the boundary dispute to a demarcation of the LAC?

In the post-1976 normalisation phase, the Indian position has evolved through three distinct stages. Through the years up to 1987, New Delhi searched for an acceptable boundary deal. This was given up in 1987, following little movement and the eruption of a crisis over the Sumdorong valley.

In December 1988, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China to open a new chapter of détente. Over the next decade, India and China sought to enhance politico-military dialogue and build comprehensive ties in order to create the conditions for a fair boundary settlement. The 1993 and 1996 agreements, peace, tranquility and confidence building measures were results of this phase.

While overall ties grew during this period, confidence did not. Through each of these stages, China stuck to its wide territorial claims and refused to budge from any part of the occupied territories. Beijing also evinced little interest in an early settlement of territorial issues. Meanwhile, its overall military and economic power underwent a quantum jump and its nuclear and missile collaboration with Pakistan fundamentally altered India's strategic environment.

India's Pokhran tests in May 1998 inaugurated the latest phase of the relationship and a new attempt to find the basis for stable, non-conflicting, long-term ties.

Given the vast and continuing differences between the two countries, and the fact China officially claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh besides occupying a very large part of northeast Ladakh, India has had to make hard choices. Early delineation of the LAC has therefore emerged as an option for stabilising the border regions and securing a working boundary that the military forces on both sides would respect.

However, the settlement of the LAC will not be easy as the Chinese have initiated nerve-sapping bargaining over where the Line ought to be. The first exchange of maps occurred seven years after the 1993 agreement to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC.

The central sector is the smallest and least complicated of the three sectors through which the border runs; it was expected that fixing the LAC here would be relatively simple. The eastern and western sectors are much longer and more complicated.

The dispute in the central sector revolves around the possession of the Barahoti grazing grounds and a few smaller areas. This problem, which has existed since 1960, could not be settled in this round of talks. It will be taken up again in December. Meanwhile, the Joint Working Group, which will meet in the interim, could give both countries some direction that would guide them towards facilitating an agreement.

The non-issue of Tawang

Some media reports have harped on a trade-off in the eastern sector that gives Tawang to China in return for its recognition of the rest of the boundary. This is a non-issue under the current agenda. The two sides have yet to exchange their maps in this sector. Moreover, Tawang is lodged well south of the Indian side of the LAC and the Chinese recognise this.

There are some pockets along the eastern line, where perceptions differ, but Tawang is not among them. But the Sumdorong Chu valley along the Arunachal border, where a conflict nearly broke in 1986-87, is.

The two sides had, in 1996, agreed to pull back their forces from the disputed area by 200 metres on either side, pending a final clarification of the LAC. This will be done once the central sector is settled and the EG moves towards an exchange of maps in the other two sectors.

The dynamics of a relationship

An agreement on the less complicated central sector would have a positive effect on India-China relations. But the agreement needs to be reached early, without the searing bouts of bargaining that is typical of diplomatic negotiations with China. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had stressed, during his visit to Beijing in July 1999, the need for an early delineation of the LAC in order to improve the post-Pokhran II political atmospherics, prevent accidental conflicts as might have happened in 1986-87, and expand understanding.

With economic ties not large enough to determine the dynamics of Indo-China relations, stabilising the security dimension was deemed to be a feasible alternative. The LAC demarcation is vital if both nations are to facilitate cross-border trade and road communications, especially across Ladakh and Xinjiang, Sikkim, West Bengal and the rest of northeast India.

Finally, the effectiveness of the 1993 and the 1996 political and military CBM agreements critically depend on the delineation of the LAC. India has indicated it wants stable and growing ties with China and is not averse to reasonable compromises. The Chinese initiative so far has stressed on economic cooperation and 'friendly' political ties, but has been woefully short of substance in areas that shape the dynamics of the relationship.

The long frontier with India remains China's last major unsettled land border. True, the border with Tajikstan and small segments of the Russian border have yet to be demarcated. But her border with India border is not only long, it is also caught up her Tibetan and overall Asian strategy.

Given the fact that security and strategic factors dominate the relationship, the People's Liberation Army remains the major shaper of China's India policy. A coalition of hardline forces have deeply influenced boundary policy, resulting in endless negotiations that lead nowhere, resulting in very negative consequences for her relations with India.

India's relations with the other major powers -- the United States, Russia, Japan -- are growing. There are indications that China is increasingly concerned about the strategic implications of India's evolving relationship with the United States. One way it could reduce its anxiety is by becoming more pro-active and moderate in its stance towards a settlement of the LAC and the boundary. The more China haggles over marginal gains in territory, remains inflexible over its 'claims' and continues to be insensitive to India's security interests, the more it loses diplomatically in New Delhi.

India-US relations have a dynamics well beyond the 'China issue.' Beijing's policies will determine its importance and content in India's relations with the US and other Asian powers.

Sujit Dutta is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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