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Seeking middle ground

Seeking middle ground
Dai Bingguo belonged to a nation, the foreign ministry of which he served, and preferred symbolism more than bald direct interlocution. Barring Zhou Enlai, very few at the top wrote memoirs. Dai, a former special representative on the boundary talks with India, has written one that has stirred the Indian policy-makers. Reason: he has spoken of a formula to resolve the border issue with India. This has appeared to be a workable formula for many in south and western side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

With trepidation at the pain of repetition, it is worth going over what Dai has talked about to Global Times. He has said that if India concedes the Tawang tract of Arunachal Pradesh (AP), the Chinese side could withdraw the People's Liberation Army (PLA) 100 km inside of what is Aksai Chin, on the northern extremities of India.

There should be some perspective about the place from where Dai is coming. The Chinese do not accept the Shimla Convention and an agreement of 1914 concluded by the British with the Tibetan rulers, and a Nationalist China's delegation. This convention preceded the demarcation of the McMohan Line that divided the two territories of Tibet and what Beijing called southern Tibet. And New Delhi calls it an inalienable part of the country, AP.

In 1954 Zhou Enlai, the second highest official of the People's Republic of China visited India. His talks with Jawaharlal Nehru had sought to get his agreement on giving up north-eastern state. The Chinese would vacate 40,000-odd square kilometres of Aksai Chin they now hold, the northernmost tundra-like region of the country, Zhou had said. Nehru had demurred.

The 'forward policy' undertaken by the Nehru government at the behest of then Intelligence Bureau Director BN Mullick was about border patrols reaching right up to the McMahon Line, the disputed extremity of the country. For an army that was still using British hand-me-downs of arms and ammunitions of WW II vintage, this was an almost impossible task.

Not that the Chinese PLA had any sophisticated weaponry. But they had their 'human wave' strategy. India lost the 1962 border war, and the advancing PLA almost breathed down the neck of Assam. But they halted. And they retreated. The PLA even left Tawang and the AP territory, barring 13,000-odd square kilometres across the Himalayas.

But that short border war and the defeat had left a deep scar on the minds of the Indian ruling class. It was evident even with Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister, who wanted to make a move to resume normal relations between the two countries. Indeed, the biggest story of that meeting was the almost minute-long handshake with Deng. The Chinese supremo had then repeated the same solution to the vexed problem that Zhou had suggested. Again the Indian side took a maximalist position.

But much has changed since then. Congress Party of the nationalist bourgeoisie is a pale shadow of its own. The resultant political vacuum at the national level has been filled by the BJP and its allies. The BJP's Narendra Modi-led government has a self-identification with pragmatism on all issues, thus to remain connected and enhance the economic well-being of the country.

Dai's deal – he could not have made the suggestion if it was not cleared at the highest strategic level of the current regime - appears to have caught their attention. It is important for the state –centred realist school of security managers in New Delhi to recognise this as the first shot to an attempt at finding a final solution.

The 100-km retreat can only be a baseline the Chinese have proffered. Its long thread can catch that trial balloon and given a concrete shape if, say, the Chinese can make Islamabad accept the Line of Control as the final boundary. Even the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) that passes through what was known in Pakistan as Northern Territories, and now called by their territorial names of Gilgit and Baltistan.

The reason these two issues are intrinsically linked because of the implicit understanding of the Pindi-Islamabad gang that formalising the LoC as an international boundary is the best deal they can have. An acknowledgement of that reality was available when the same gang had ceded parts of Northern Territory, which rightfully (Instrument of Accession signed by the then ruler of Jammu and Kashmir) belonged to Independent India for the Chinese. They built the Karakoram Highway. And they now want to build the CPEC.

A 2007 meeting at Beijing University cafeteria with Prof Hen Hua, a leading South Asia expert, the new Chinese position was articulated to me. She had said that Zhou and Deng deal was off the table now. A new deal had to include Tawang for she said, "the Tibetans consider the Tawang monastery one of the holiest in their religion." She stated that the nationalism evident in platforms like Weibo reflect this position. In a society that is as strictly administered as in China, that accession to popular desire specially on an issue of Chinese and Indian State is a shorthand for hard bargaining.

So here is something to chew on for the readers. Let the Tawang monastery be a World Heritage Site under the UNESCO jointly administered by New Delhi and Beijing, for it cannot be just given away on a platter to the latter. It is too deep inside the modern Indian territory for the Chinese PLA to be allowed to operate.
(Views are strictly personal.)
Pinaki Bhattacharya

Pinaki Bhattacharya

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