More than 50 years after the British left India, Delhi is still finalising its territorial boundaries with China. In the latest round of talks between Chinese and Indian officials last week, maps of unresolved border areas were exchanged for the first time in Beijing. The maps reportedly show each country's claims towards areas in the middle sector (in the Uttaranchal hills and Himachal Pradesh) of the 2,400 km disputed border. The exchange could help clarify what has in the past led to incursions on both sides of the Line of Actual Control (lac).
Explains Sujit Dutta, senior fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (idsa): "The recent exchange of maps is a move towards resolving the Barahoti (falling in the middle sector) problem." Adds Prof Manoranjan Mohanti, director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, "My understanding is that the central sector in Uttaranchal is the place easiest to demarcate while the western and the eastern sectors are heavily disputed."
The lac came into existence following a ceasefire between the two countries at the end of the 1962 war. Then, the Indian Parliament decided not to accept any territorial claims of the Chinese. But without calling it a formal border settlement, the two countries are now the closest they have ever been to finalising contentious border issues. "No one is calling it a settlement of the national border but that's really what it is," says Prof G.P. Deshpande of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Aksai Chin in the west and Arunachal Pradesh in the east are claimed by both countries. But experts believe that the time for what the Chinese have termed as muma (mutual understanding and mutual accommodation) may be at hand. Says Mohanti: "The last serious incursion into India was in eastern Arunachal Pradesh at Sumdorong Chu in 1987. Now India might well be willing to let go of Aksai Chin while China may be more amenable to losing Arunachal Pradesh." Most Sino experts back this view.
Since Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit in 1996, there's been a distinct thaw. However, Arunachal still claims that intrusions into the state have not stopped. Chinese troops have been sighted in the Subsansiri division there. And they are said to frequently intrude on Points 5495 and 5459 south of the Chipchap river in the western sector. Recent reports suggest that the Chinese have built a road which intrudes about five km into Indian territory at Ladakh. "If the reports are true, the Chinese are obviously consolidating their positions before the lac agreement is reached," comments Dutta. The ministry of external affairs, however, didn't wish to comment on this issue.
Indeed, border disputes take considerable time to resolve. "It is really pointless to look for fast developments in Indo-China relations. Instead of looking at it from a 50-year perspective, we should look at it from a 5,000-year perspective, because that is how long these things take," says Dr Swaran Singh of the idsa.
In 1960, Chinese premier Zhou En Lai had offered a border settlement to India. Jawaharlal Nehru had rejected the offer because of pressure from the US which wanted to contain China. But with the US actively pursuing a policy of engagement with China, Dutta says the notion that India should act as a buffer against Beijing has become irrelevant.
There are other pressures on India to actively engage with China. Explains Mohanti: "China is going to join the wto very soon, thereby facilitating an even freer movement of goods and services into India.With the business community wanting to have a piece of the Chinese pie, the border problem has to be looked at from a broader perspective than just politically."
The Vajpayee government is claiming credit for the latest round of talks and map exchanges but experts say it was the Congress government of Indira Gandhi which set the ball rolling by establishing full diplomatic ties with China in 1976. Again, it was during Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Beijing in 1988 that a joint working group was set up to resolve the conflicting claims on the lac. His visit was then followed by Rao's visit to Beijing. Says Deshpande: "In fact, things would have moved even more quickly had the bjp not tested the nuclear bombs in 1998."
Fearing that a coalition government's decision may not stick in the future, Mohanti feels a consensus should be evolved among the political class in any resolution of the Sino-India border dispute. "They should really include the Congress in any decision-making about the Chinese border," says Mohanti. That's a different line of control one would talk about.
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