Settle Sino-India border through compromise

EducationWorld January 2023 | Expert Comment

Can one-sided claims or a ‘no-compromise’ stance by either India or China guarantee peace along the LAC, much less cooperation between our two civilizational nations that can shape a new world order?, writes Sudheendra Kulkarni

Settle Sino-India border through compromise

JUNE 2020: GALWAN VALLEY, LADAKH. DECEMBER 2022: Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. In the absence of a mutually agreed permanent boundary, every time there is a military clash at any point along the 3,488-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC), between In­dia and China, the trust deficit between our two countries grows wider. The media and social media in both countries exacerbate hostility between the world’s most populous countries. Opposition parties in India train their guns on government.

This does not happen in China because it doesn’t have opposition parties. Yet each time there’s a confrontation on the LAC and soldiers are killed or injured, the same two questions repeat themselves in the minds of those who want peace and cooperation between Asia’s biggest coun­tries which co-existed in peace and harmony for 2000 years before the 1962 border war in the north-east. How long will this confrontation go on? And can the boundary dispute be settled once and for all?

The second question can be answered easily. And if the second question is answered to the satisfaction of both countries, the first becomes redundant.

The best opportunity to settle the dispute — in the west­ern sector (Ladakh) and in the east (Arunachal Pradesh, formerly known as North-East Frontier Agency or NEFA) — came in 1960. China offered a workable solution, but India rejected the offer and lost a historic opportunity. Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s weakness, vacillation and lack of foresight were to blame, but also the sustained pressure of opposition parties on the prime minister to make “no compromises” relating to territory claimed by India. This resulted in the Indo-China border war of 1962. India’s defeat in that war has left such a deep psychological scar that neither politicians nor people of India are pre­pared to view the boundary dispute objectively.

But it’s important to state facts clearly and dispassion­ately. In 1960, at Nehru’s invitation, China’s premier Zhou Enlai visited India. “I have come here to seek a solution and not to repeat arguments,” he said. At that time Zhou offered a ‘package deal’ for final settlement of the boundary issue. China would accept India’s sovereignty over NEFA, which meant de jure recognition of the McMahon Line, if India accepted China’s lines drawn in Aksai Chin, Ladakh.

China has always challenged the McMahon Line as il­legal, because it was arbitrarily drawn by British imperi­alists when neither China nor India was free. Neverthe­less, Zhou, obviously with the approval of Chairman Mao Zedong, agreed to accept the McMahon Line and thereby India’s claim on NEFA. “Our friendship is the most impor­tant thing,” he told R.K. Nehru, former India ambassador to China. “Non-settlement of this problem will harm us both.”

Zhou spent 20 hours in talks with Nehru. But the latter rejected the package deal because opposition leaders (in­cluding Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who, subsequently as prime minister changed his views on this matter) were stridently opposed to any land concession to China. In an illuminating paper titled Nehru-Zhou Enlai Summit of 1960: A Missed Opportunity?, historian Srinath Raghavan writes: “Nehru was pushed to a position where his diplomatic manoeu­vrability was severely curtailed. Henceforth he had to con­stantly assess what the political marketplace would bear and adopt only those policies that could conceivably be sold to the public.” Nehru himself voiced his fear: “If I give them (Chinese) that (Aksai Chin), I shall no longer be prime min­ister of India — I will not do it.”

That was indeed a missed opportunity because as India’s first prime minister and towering leader of the freedom movement, Nehru had the power and mass popularity to disregard opposition parties and convince the public that acceptance of Zhou’s compromise solution was in India’s long-term interest. Had he done so, India and China, through give-and-take negotiations, could have peacefully demarcated the border along its entire length and prevented the border war of 1962 and subsequent recurring military clashes along the LAC. Lastly, and not many people know this, in 1960 China was willing, “as part of an overall settle­ment”, to accept India’s sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir (minus Aksai Chin) against Pakistan claims. In those days Beijing accorded far greater importance to Sino-India ties.

Even today, a solution based on negotiation and com­promise is the best option to end the India-China border dispute permanently. Let’s ask ourselves: Can India defeat China militarily and wrest Aksai Chin? Similarly, can Chi­na annex Arunachal Pradesh by force? Indeed, in a 2005 India-China agreement on “political parameters guiding settlement of the boundary dispute”, Beijing consented to “safeguard due interests of settled populations in the border areas” — a clear reference to Arunachal Pradesh.

This being the case, can one-sided claims or a “no com­promise” stance by either India or China guarantee peace along the LAC, much less mutually beneficial cooperation, between our two civilizational nations that can, potential­ly, shape a new and better world order? It is time to shun jingoism and end this enmity in a win-win way.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999-2004) and is currently founder of Forum for South Asia)

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