January 17, 2020
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Bordering On Tranquility

But it’s a long haul for New Delhi and Beijing to resolve the contentious boundary dispute

Bordering On Tranquility

IT was billed as the most important exchange between India and China since 1993. But when Chinese President Jiang Zemin arrived in India on November 28, the atmospherics seemed rather more important than the specifics of diplomacy. Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda went out of his way to receive the visiting dignitary at the airport. President Jiang and Dr S.D. Sharma duly made cosy, tone-setting remarks about the close historical links between the world’s two biggest neighbours.

Neither the Indian establishment nor the media went overboard. Some people wondered if President Jiang should be asked to address a joint session of Parliament, an honour accorded to many other leaders. But the idea was turned down. What really marked the visit out was the pragmatic approach displayed by the Indian leadership. The domestic compulsions were such that it did not want to be seen to be too effusive. But right through, the Indian response remained correct. The ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ slogan died 35 years ago. And there is no way it’s going to be resuscitated.

The real achievement of the visit was the agreement on Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) along the Line of Actual Control, building upon the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC, signed on September 7, 1993. Three other agreements were signed: on combating narcotics trafficking and international crime, maritime transport and the maintenance of the Indian consulate general in Hong Kong after its transfer to China on July 1,1997. Of these, the one on CBMs is easily the most significant.

The first article of this agreement speaks for itself: "Neither side shall use its military capability against the other. No armed forces deployed by either side in the border areas along the LAC...shall be used to attack the other side or engage in military activities that threaten the other side...." Indian Foreign Secretary Salman Haider, in his media briefing, stopped short of calling it a no-war pact, but observers see it as a crucial development. The CBMs, as President Jiang said at the delegation level talks, were "an important message to the world". Which it clearly is. Says Sujit Dutta, a China expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses: "The CBMs are good. Anything that improves border management and prevents war is good for both the countries. It rules out the use of force." As Dutta says, the pact on CBMs is very detailed and seeks to minimise the possibility of a confrontation on the sensitive border. Some specifics:

 The two sides have agreed to reduce or limit their military forces within mutually agreed zones along the LAC to mutually agreed ceilings. Major categories of weapons will be subjected to ceilings. These include: combat tanks, infantry combat vehicles, guns with 75 mm or bigger calibre, mortars with 120 mm or bigger calibre, surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles and any other mutually agreed weapon system.

 Military forces will be reduced or limited to minimum levels "compatible with the friendly and good neighbourly relations between the two countries".

 The two sides will avoid large-scale military exercises involving over one division.

 Flights by combat aircraft within 10 km of the LAC, except with prior notification, will be prohibited.

 There will no firing, blasting or hunting within two km of the LAC, with certain exceptions.

 The flag meetings between border commanders at designated points will be expanded and telecom links between border meeting points and contacts between border authorities will be established.

 The two sides can seek clarifications if a doubtful situation develops in the border areas or if either side has doubts about the manner in which this agreement is being observed by the other side.

The inbuilt rider is that full implementation will hinge on the two sides arriving at a consensus on the LAC, a pending task that will be expedited now. Until then, the CBMs will be implemented on an interim basis. Troops reduction, according to the Chinese, will take place depending on peace and tranquility on the border. The two sides also reiterated their resolve to seek a fair and mutually acceptable settlement to the boundary question.

India and China failed to sign the agreement on protection of investment due to some differences. Dutta feels India must go into this agreement very carefully because the Chinese market is a difficult one, unlike more predictable markets.

But what about India’s primary concern about Chinese military and nuclear aid to Pakistan? Was it raised? "India expressed deep concern that advanced weapons were flowing into the region, but it did not mention any country. Its concern was expressed in a broad sense and there was no specific reference to China". So said Chinese foreign office spokesman Shen Guo Fang, after the talks between President Jiang and Gowda.

By the time Haider came to brief the Indian and international media in the evening, he was aware of what Shen had said. And he was prepared. He sought to pre-empt questions on India having remained silent on issues that concern it. He said India had broached the topic. Pressed further, he admitted it had been merely "touched upon" in talks with President Jiang, but said "adequate attention" was paid to the nature of the Chinese nuclear cooperation with Pakistan in the subsequent meeting External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral had with Chinese counterpart Qian Qichen. Offering this as counter-evidence, Haider rejected suggestions that India was diffident in expressing its concerns to China. He said this assessment was "wide of the mark. All Indian concerns have been taken up and clearly enunciated."

MUCH before President Jiang arrived in New Delhi, the media had speculated and China-watchers had warned that India would not present its worries forcefully to the Chinese leaders. This had put the Indian foreign policy establishment somewhat on the defensive. Says Dutta: "The main problem in our dealings with China is that we never raise our concerns concretely. We raise them in a most palatable manner. We feel otherwise it will spoil the atmospherics".

Indeed, India’s carefully tuned stance towards China is markedly different from the frequently ‘defiant’ voice it adopts visa-vis the US. India had gone hammer and tongs at the Clinton administration for supplying arms to Pakistan by waiving the Pressler law. India has also often accused Washington of turning a blind eye to the Pakistani nuclear programme. Such aggressiveness is absent when it comes to dealing with Beijing.

Maj Gen (retd) Dipankar Banerjee of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies reflects another viewpoint. He admits Chinese military and nuclear aid to Pakistan is an issue, but says "it doesn’t necessarily serve any constructive purpose by repeatedly emphasising it. After all, their relationship is one between two sovereign countries and they have a stock response to our statements".

What was the Chinese response when Gujral raised the issue? Faced with this query, Haider—uncharacteristically—fumbled, looked up his notes, and said he couldn’t speak on behalf of the Chinese. However, he said the Chinese response was in line with their past stand—that transfer of M-11 missiles to Pakistan doesn’t violate the Missile Technology Control Regime. 

Earlier, the Chinese spokesman had gone a step further, saying "China does not own such advanced and complicated weapons". Pressed on the transfer of M-11s to Islamabad, Shen said Beijing has never provided such weapons to Pakistan and "it is not in our interest to sell advanced weapons to our neighbours". The relationship in the nuclear field was focused on peaceful purposes and was under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision, he added.

Sources say when Gowda raised thorny issues with Jiang, the latter was courteous, but bland and ambiguous. In fact, sources say Dr Sharma interacted more confidently with Jiang than Gowda, who was a little cautious, "even a little uncertain", perhaps because this was his first encounter with a great power leader in a bilateral context.

Jiang, on his part, is believed to have dwelt at some length on the Dalai Lama’s activities in India. The Chinese spokesman, confirming this, said the President told his Indian interlocutors that the Chinese policy on Tibet is consistent. India, while reiterating that it recognises Tibet as an autonomous region of China, does not allow any anti-China activity in India. But being a democracy, "we can’t coerce the Tibetans into silence", the Chinese were told.

Jiang’s visit should be seen in the context of China’s Asia strategy. He just attended the APEC summit in Manila and will visit Islamabad and Kathmandu after New Delhi. Dutta feels the main objective is to project an important Chinese role in Asian politics—and paint a China willing to cooperate to reduce tensions, to soften the concerns being expressed about its growing power. This effort can be traced to the fact that China has bigger problems—in South China Sea, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Beijing also has troubled ties with Washington. It urgently needs to improve relations with countries in South-East Asia and India, at least to have this flank stable. And these countries have a reciprocal need to buy peace with China. 

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