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An Inside Account of Sino-Indian Border Talks

June 18, 2008

D S Rajan
June 16, 2008

A briefing to the domestic audience in China about the Sino-Indian
border issue has always been a rare event; marking one such occasion
is a recent detailed review of the subject by a Chinese analyst who
appears to be authoritative and well versed with the ongoing border

The review can certainly be looked upon as a link to understand how
China's border policy towards India is evolving; it should be of
great interest to experts and Indian officials, at a time when the
country's minister for external affairs has just returned from
Beijing after holding talks with his Chinese counterpart on a host of
issues including the border.

The examination of Chinese analyst Zhuhua (could be an assumed name,
Blog Zhuhua148, Chinese language, March 18, Zhonghua Web site
'Discussions' Page), under the title 'The Startling Inside Story of
Sino-Indian Border talks', in the main, observes and concludes as follows:

Sikkim: No Chinese formal statement recognising it as part of India

The analyst states that the Sino-Indian memorandum on Nathu La as a
border trade point (2003) has signified China's de facto recognition
of India's sovereignty over Sikkim. Quoting the Indian side, Zhuhua
mentions that at the time of border talks, Beijing handed over a
'new' official map to them showing Sikkim as a state of India.

Foreign press reports pointed out that India as a quid pro quo,
reiterated its recognition of the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of
the People's Republic of China and its policy of not permitting any
anti-China political activity by the Tibetans in India. Also,
internal opinions in China justified the changed stance of China on
Sikkim on the basis of the need for Beijing to 'struggle side by side
with compromise' in order to win 'support in other fronts.'

The analyst further points out that the Chinese foreign ministry Web
site has deleted Sikkim from its list of 'Countries and Regions' and
its spokesperson has mentioned that Sikkim is no longer a problem in
bilateral relations. Thus, overall, Sikkim has ceased to appear as 'a
historical legacy' for China. The blog at the same time notes that
the Chinese government has never issued any formal statement
recognising Sikkim as part of India's territory, about which New
Delhi has expressed dissatisfaction.

Briefing to the Chinese on the border issue

Giving a background to the border issue, Zhuhua observes that there
are two lines concerning the Sino-Indian border -- a traditional
customary line and a Line of Actual Control. The former came into
being before the modern era and relying on traditional practices and
governance, some borders came into being. The Line of Actual Control
provides the basis for India's position.

Alleging that in 1913, British India official Henry McMahon concocted
the so-called McMahon Line, pushing Indian control up north of the
customary line by 100 km, the analyst says that in this way 90,000 sq
km of territory which was under Chinese jurisdiction, was taken over
by India. Adding that the Sino-Indian agreement on taking political
parameters as the basis to settle the border dispute in 2005 takes
into account 'history and current situation' factors, the blog points
out that the same has facilitated the distinguishing of the two lines
mentioned above.

According to the blog, the total disputed border area between China
and India comes to about 125,000 sq km. In the Western Sector, the
disputed territory is about 30,000 sq km in Aksai Chin, located at
the junction of the Western parts of Xinjiang and Tibet regions. This
territory is basically within the framework of the traditional and
customary borderline and is under China's control now.

In the Middle Sector, the disputed land is about 2,000 sq km located
in areas, northwest of the China-Nepal border is in this region.

Zhuhua further observes that the main and biggest dispute concerns
the Eastern Sector -- involving 90,000 sq km territory lying between
south of the McMahon Line and north of the traditional customary
line. This territory is 'at present' under the de facto control of
India. Noting that the Sino-Indian border war in 1962 was the result
of the Indian government's 'forward strategy', the analyst adds that
the area of this disputed region is three times that of Taiwan, six
times that of Beijing and ten times that of the Malvenas islands,
disputed by Britain and Argentina. It is flat and rich in water and
forest resources. Tawang, home of the sixth Dalai Lama, is located in
this region.

On December 1, 1962, Chinese troops withdrew to 20 km from the
McMahon Line; subsequently India disregarded Chinese proposals and
re-occupied areas held by the People's Liberation Army before withdrawal.

India even pushed its control up north, to areas beyond the pre-war
border positions of the Chinese troops. It established the North East
Frontier Agency and in 1986, made it one of India's 24 states. The
analyst then points out that the migration of seven million people
into this territory at India's behest, was meant to make formation of
the new state a fait accompli, compelling China into a 'passive'
State. This fact of migration will continue to be the basis to 'fine
tune' the Sino-Indian border negotiations.

Border issue -- Outlook for the future

Quoting former Chinese ambassador to India Zhou Gang, the analyst
finds that out of the three steps needed to reach a solution on the
border -- first, an agreement on principles' second, discussions, and
the last, settlement on the ground -- only the first step has now
been completed. Real difficulties lie ahead in respect of the other
two and high pressure domestic pressure on both nations stands out.

Involved in these sentiments are issues like sovereignty, national
dignity, lives of border residents and resources. How the two nations
deal with public sentiment will determine the future course of the
border talks.

The blog then gives weight to what Professor Wang Hungwei of the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has said -- 'India's Prime
Minister Nehru had in the past made mistaken projections about China
to the Indian public as a devil and it would be hard for the present
leaders in India to retreat from Nehru's views.' For China, the
McMahon Line, stands as a symbol of imperialist aggression on the country.

The blog feels that India is adopting a hard position on the boundary
and refers to assessments by Chinese experts that even if the leaders
of the two countries are prepared to recognise the territories
controlled by each other as the border, the Indian Parliament may not
approve it. India has vested interests and it tries to convince its
people of the government's stand by hook or crook, the blog alleges.
On China's attitude, mentioning again what Zhou Gang has said, the
analyst argues that the same has been restrained and rational.

Zhuhua, referring to the views of qualified analysts in China,
further says that it would not be possible for China to recover the
lost 90,000 sq km of territory by relying on negotiations. An
unidentified researcher of the Chinese foreign ministry is quoted as
saying that a question facing China is whether it can make
concessions to India in the Eastern Sector.

If China does so, it would amount to Beijing's recognition of the
McMahon Line and acceptance of the 1962 conflict as a Chinese war of
aggression. The researcher further feels that the key to the border
solution lies in achieving a breakthrough in the matter of deciding
on the status of the McMahon Line.

That would pose a test for both the Chinese and Indian governments.
There are also scholars in China who caution about the impact of the
agreement on political parameters on China. For example, they say the
'watershed principle' in reality has the McMahon Line as the basis
and should thus be prevented.


What the analyst has said indicates that the theme of pending Chinese
de jure recognition of Sikkim as part of India, has now reached the
level of domestic comments. Without briefings from the government,
the same cannot happen. This gives rise to questions whether or not
Beijing is signalling a retreat from its declared position on Sikkim,
or is it meant to pressurise India during border negotiations,
especially on the issue of Tawang in the Eastern Sector.

Also, a new dispute on what is now known as the 'finger area' on the
Sikkim border seems to have arisen. What clarification Beijing gave
External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Sikkim remains unclear.
Zhuhua's blog is noteworthy for its revelation of what the Chinese
foreign ministry thinks -- it would be difficult for China to make
any territorial concessions to India in the Eastern Sector due to
historical factors.

The overall picture thus points to the likelihood of a prolonged
course of border talks. The boundary question may not affect the
present comfort level in bilateral ties, as both sides agree to look
beyond the border dispute in promoting relations with each other.

One cannot be optimistic, however, about the likely scenario in the
long run, considering the damage potential of the unsolved core
issues including that of the border.

D S Rajan, is director, Chennai Centre for China Studies.
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