Did former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi miss an opportunity to resolve the Sino-India border dispute in 1988? If a former Chinese career diplomat is to be believed, Gandhi did by not responding to an overture from China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
It was Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 that had begun a cautious thaw in bilateral relations, the first major breakthrough since ties nosedived after the 1962 border war.
Recalling the meeting between Gandhi and Deng, former diplomat Yang Wenchang said the Chinese leader had even suggested the existing McMahon Line be renamed the China-India line.
Yang, now president of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA), said during an interaction over lunch with Indian journalists at his office on Monday that more could have been achieved during the talks between Gandhi and Deng.
He said: “As a diplomat in the late 1980s, I was witness to a chance to solve the problem with Prime Minister Rajiv and Deng, who was also a strong man. Deng said, ‘We do some compromise on the west wing, you do some on the east wing, then we can have a new border.’
“We offered but Prime Minister Gandhi didn't have a response. After that I felt very sad we lost the chance,” Yang added.
Yang did not provide details about the purported deal but maintained that it was a lost opportunity.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi expected in China in May, there are expectations of some forward movement on the border issue.
According to India, nearly 3,500 km of the border is disputed. China has laid claim to wide swathes of Indian territory, including the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Yang said he was hopeful that two the strong leaders of India and China – Modi and President Xi Jinping – could make some headway in addressing the border issue.
“A strong man can make strong decisions,” he said. “I believe if two strong men can have a strong wish to settle, that can make a good deal acceptable to everyone,” he said.
China, Yang remarked, is willing to work with India to have a “new border”.