It?s time for detente

The time has come for a final negotiation of the border issue with Beijing, writes Delhi University's ex-Pro Vice Chancellor VP Dutt.

india Updated: Jun 23, 2003 19:25 IST
VP Dutt
VP Dutt

While we search for the pathways for peace with Pakistan, it would be equally profitable to deliberate over whether it is time now for a full détente with China that would include the resolution of the border dispute. In this writer’s view the time has come for a final negotiation of the border issue with Beijing.

International and internal developments alike in both countries should oblige them to seek a genuine modus vivendi that would put the formal seal on a new beginning. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit could be used to that effect.

It is a different world in which we live now. There is extreme dis-equilibrium in this world. One power has outdistanced all the others combined in military prowess and is willing to use it to further its interests. The resolution of all the issues between India and China and the realization of a new relationship between them could ease the pressures and contribute towards a slightly less forbidding international situation.

Many domestic (and foreign) critics of India’s foreign policy have over the years blamed India for not taking the initiative to settle the border problem. Some have even suggested that Chou En-lai came to settle the border conflict in 1959 on the basis of the exchange of the Xinjiang road in the Ladakh region that China wished to retain with the McMahon line in the Northeast that India regarded as the correct border. They failed to realize that there was and there wasn’t a time for things.

The border dispute could not have been settled at the time, nor for many years later. The critics have pointed to the vulnerability of Jawaharlal Nehru, the uncompromising stance of Govind Vallabh Pant and the volatility of public opinion. Not many of them took into account the militancy in Chinese foreign policy that left little room for accommodation and conciliation. Zhou himself almost became a victim of this.

Mao was leading the country into an unprecedented era of turmoil and violence. He was looking for a revolutionary situation around the world. As he became embroiled in a war of words with both the imperialist USA and the special imperialist USSR, with whom the wordy war deteriorated into physical clashes on the border, Beijing’s venom was particularly turned on an India perceived as friendly with both Washington and Moscow.

India felt betrayed and the Indian psyche was deeply bruised by the Chinese armed attack in 1962. Domestic conditions in both countries was not conducive for a serious dialogue. It took many years before the poison could be taken out of their relations, when both countries felt sufficiently normal to begin the process of engagement. Leaders in both countries were gradually realizing the need for a normal relationship, but they had to be wary of being snubbed by the other side or of running ahead of public opinion.

It was Indira Gandhi who began the de-escalating of tension between the two countries and sent K.R. Narayanan as India’s ambassador to China in 1975, paving the way for the resumption of full diplomatic ties. The Chinese responded by sending, a few years later, a senior leader, Huang Hua, to New Delhi for promoting the process of normalization. Indira Gandhi was well aware that the ice had to be melted and said to this writer — “We cannot take the position that here we stand and here we shall stand for all time to come”.

This was in reference to India’s insistence that the border issue must be settled first before normalization could take place. But she was also a nationalist and did not want to give the impression of craving for peace with China.

The Chinese leadership after Mao was initiating dramatic changes in their internal policies, embarking upon an ambitious programme of reform and modernization. It was quite responsive to the movement towards normalization of relations with India. The preeminent leader of the time, Deng Xiaoping, told an Indian delegation led by G. Parthasarathy, of which this writer was a member, that the two countries should put aside the border problem and concentrate on building trust and confidence. Once they achieved a measure of confidence in each other, the solution to the border problem would be more easily found. Gradually, India accepted this approach.

A major step forward was taken with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988. The long handshake between Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping was symbolic of the vast improvement of relations between the two countries and of the fact that the ice had melted. Yet a caveat needs to be entered in this positive picture.

China came to view Pakistan as a useful second front against India. In fact for many years China seemed to be carrying on the conflict with India through Pakistan. Besides providing significant military and economic assistance Beijing extended critical aid in the nuclear field, advancing the acquisition of the nuclear bomb by Pakistan by at least a decade. But gradually China’s stance has become less strident and more even. The tilt has not been abandoned but it has become less pronounced. Détente with China and the resolution of the border dispute would put further pressure on the Sino-Pak special relationship and would oblige the Chinese towards a more genuine even-handed approach.

India would have to make larger concessions to obtain a border settlement and Parliament would have to rescind its earlier resolution on the issue. The border settlement cannot be divorced from the present ground realities on the border, but certain attendant problems can be addressed, like China’s acceptance of Sikkim’s accession to India and, to use the Chinese words, “the proper relationship” between Bhutan and India. In any case, both international and internal developments in each country demand that they respond to them in a creative way.

The mysteries surrounding the spread of the SARS epidemic and the manner in which it was initially handled have bared the systemic weaknesses of China. The SARS tragedy uncovered, more to the Chinese people than just the international community, the fundamental shortcomings in the Chinese system of administration. It has also led to renewed factional fighting within the ruling party.

It took an incensed medical doctor to alert the country and the world to the perils of the deadly disease. The gentleman has not since been heard of, but the need for transparency and accurate information and crisis management procedures at all levels was glaringly clear. So was the mismatch between Beijing’s push for economic benefits of globalization and its resistance to its political and social consequences. The political fallout has been to reduce the leadership to pleading with the people and the international community to trust their capacity to handle such crisis.

The economic fallout has been no less obvious. Beijing will probably have to lop off at least two per cent from its rate of growth which now may not exceed 5-5.5 per cent for at least the next two years. Beijing has also already lost some 3-4 billion dollars worth of tax collections this year. The Chinese leadership cannot delude itself about the exposed vertical and segmented structure of China’s bureaucracy and the lack of integration between economic development with social development.

In the light of apparent failings in both China and India and in the context of the harsh international realities, the ground should be ready for them to resolve the border issue as well as all other outstanding problems so as to mitigate the rigors of both internal weaknesses and external challenges. One indispensable link in this process of rapprochement is the economic dimension.

India and China have not realized the vast potential of their economic relationship. The more they develop their trade and commerce, exchange of technology, promotion of joint ventures, and other allied economic activities, the greater will be the impulse for peaceful relations.

The writer is former Pro Vice Chancellor, Delhi University and a former Member of Parliament

First Published: Jun 22, 2003 02:43 IST