Saran speaks of a 'lost opportunity' to solve the Sino-Indian border issue in the early 1980s.
He writes: "In 1983, when I was serving in our embassy in Beijing, there were a series of informal and confidential exchanges on the possibility of resolving the border issue. ...The answer was to point to Deng's package proposal, i.e. to formalise the status quo. Our counter was that something more than the status quo would be necessary given the grievous blow to Indian psyche that the 1962 war had delivered. There was some indication that if Gandhi would be ready to visit, then some additional territory in the western sector, occupied as a result of the 1962 operations, may be conceded. Unfortunately, the Indian side did not follow up on this and the opportunity was lost."
In this context, it is interesting to quotes from a paper by Sumit Ganguly, 'The Sino-Indian Border Talks, 1981-1989: A View from New Delhi' (Asian Survey, Vol. 29, No. 12, Dec., 1989, University of California Press, pp. 1123-1135).
Ganguly describes the eight rounds of Sino-Indian talks, held before Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988.
Here is Ganguly's views on the first round:
The Eight RoundsBut the real chance to sort out the border issue occurred earlier, in April 1960, when the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai visited Delhi. Since then, the scar of 1962 has greatly complicated the issue for the Indian public opinion as well as for the Indian political class.
Most of the Indian officials who were closely connected with the process of border talks between 1981 and 1988 cluster the eight rounds into two groups. Though the specific division varies, they all agree that the first four dealt with ‘basic principles’ and the last four with ‘the situation on the ground’.
The first round.
The first round of talks began in December 1981 with the Chinese offering the so-called package proposal, a suggestion Deng Xiaoping had put forth via the two visiting Indian journalists. Pared to the bone, this proposal entailed freezing the status quo on the ground, with minor concessions by both sides. Its seriousness can be questioned because, when pressed by the Indian side, the Chinese refused any cartographic examination.
In fact, according to a senior Indian official closely connected with this round, the Chinese did not appear interested in turning it into anything more than a propaganda exercise. When the Indian side appeared less than enthusiastic about the package proposal, the Chinese suggested that the border issue be frozen and progress be made on other matters such as scientific and cultural exchanges. Foreign Minister Rao rejected the Deng package proposal, contending that it equated the aggressor with the victim, denied the legality of the McMahon Line, and in no way assuaged India's 1962 humiliation. Furthermore, it was felt that the package would legitimize Chinese gains made through the use of force.
Additionally, there was a historical problem associated with this proposal as, in many ways, it was a reprise of the one made by Zhou Enlai in 1960. It had been rejected then because of Chinese claims to significant portions of land claimed by India. To accept the proposal in 1978 would have meant further territorial concessions. India's minimal expectation was that the Chinese would concede that they were occupying a modicum of Indian, or at least disputed territory. From a negotiating standpoint, this position could hardly be deemed particularly helpful, but it needs to be borne in mind that many in the Ministry of External Affairs had strong memories of the humiliating defeat inflicted on India by China in 1962 and this had strongly colored their perceptions.
In fact, in the words of an Indian diplomat who has been associated with the border talks, there are the so-called ‘settlers’ (of the dispute) and ‘non-settlers’ in the Ministry of External Affairs.
The second and third rounds
The first round ended without accomplishing much beyond agreeing to meet again. By the second round, which was held in New Delhi, Chinese ardor had cooled considerably and little transpired then or in the third round. India's position was that it would not discuss the legality of the case as the legal positions of the two sides had been fairly well documented in the Officials' Report of 1960. The one tangible concession that the Indian side was willing to make was that it would seek some common ground without abandoning its legal position...
I am posting here a description of the 1960 talks between Nehru and Zhou Enlai. Using the recently declassified P.N. Haksar Papers at the The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, Lorenz Lüthi, an Associate Professor in History of International Relations at McGill University in Montreal wrote about the Sino-Indian Relations, 1954-1962.It is a good analysis.
Over the period of April 20-25, Zhou and Nehru met daily while their ministers and specialists held conversations in parallel or in between summit sessions. The two talks on the first day revealed not only differences in claims but also differences in defining terms. Both sides stressed their maximalist positions as they had during the past six months. Nehru underlined how much India’s national security, including the security of its capital Delhi, was affected by Chinese troops in the Himalayas, while Indian troops there hardly threatened most of China or its capital, Beijing.The rest is history.
Zhou in turn stressed that China did not recognize the McMahon line at its borders with both India and Burma, and repeated the claim that the customary border at the eastern sector was in the Himalayan foothills.
Talks the following day suffered from a bad start. During Zhou’s courtesy call, Vice-President Sarvepalli Radnakrishnan bemoaned how China was treating India despite all the help Delhi had provided Beijing in international relations since 1950.
On the issue of borders, he repeated India’s maximalist positions, arguing that China had occupied all of Xinjiang, to which Beijing had added Aksai Chin, in the late 19th century and Tibet only in 1950. Zhou replied—with irritation—that both had been Chinese for hundreds and thousands of years, respectively. Foreign Minister Chen Yi reminded the Indian vice-president of the value of good relations with the PRC: “What are a few thousand square miles of territory compared to the friendship of six hundred million Chinese?”
Obviously, the same question could have been also asked about China’s friendship with hundreds of millions of Indians. Zhou left the courtesy call in anger.
The negotiations with Nehru in the afternoon were personally less hostile but still uncompromising. After observing that the two sides had aired their disputing versions on the border, Zhou proposed to find a procedure to discuss the issues step by step. With regard to the territory of NEFA at the eastern sector, the Chinese Premier claimed that, while Tibet and the PRC had hardly possessed any actual control in the past, they still had a legal claim—a statement which Nehru disputed immediately.
Zhou continued to insist that the PRC would legally recognize neither the McMahon line nor the Simla convention. In turn, the Indian prime minister claimed that India had patrolled Aksai Chin in the 1950s without ever meeting Chinese troops there until late in the decade. In a talk with Indian ambassador R.K. Nehru late that evening, Zhou made a hard case for Aksai Chin based on a history of patrolling since 1950 and on road building that had not been disputed by India.
On the third day, April 22, Zhou strenuously tried to move the discussions towards an agreement. Under the heading of establishing facts and finding common ground, the Chinese Premier explained why China could not accept the McMahon line. In his view, the Tibetan government had no right to sign the Simla convention in 1914, as it was bound by age-old law to get approval from the Chinese government for any such international agreement. Apart from the fact that China had no effectual central government at the time, his explanation implicitly pointed to the crux of the problem.
Any legal recognition of the McMahon line would have meant that Tibet had acted as an independent country in 1914, which would have undermined China’s historical claim to it and would have marked PRC actions in Tibet since 1950 as aggression or even imperialism. No wonder that Zhou wanted Nehru to stop bringing up Simla at all, but he was willing to solve the problems at the eastern border on the basis of the status quo. While making a concession at the eastern sector, the Chinese prime minister again was unwilling to compromise on Aksai Chin. Implicitly, he had put a deal on the table.
Both sides would compromise on the basis of the existing geographic makers which formed one of the principles in international law regarding border settlements. Thereby, the territory of NEFA would go to India, and Aksai Chin to the PRC. But Nehru was not willing to accept the deal.
The talks on April 23 resumed where they had left off the previous day. Nehru opened the conversation by complaining that, the previous evening, the Chinese side’s experts had refused to engage in any discussions regarding Aksai Chin.
Obviously, Zhou had ordered his team to stall after Nehru had refused to accept the deal proffered the previous day. In reply to these Indian complaints, the Chinese prime minister used arguments similar to those which Nehru had used all along for the eastern sector, to come to an agreement at the western sector: geographical markers, linguistic place names, treaties, maps, etc. Despite his proposal for a five-point statement on the principles which should govern the solution of the Aksai Chin dispute, the day did not end with any movement toward an agreement.
On April 24, Nehru replied to Zhou’s assessment of the situation at the western sector, countering the Chinese narrative of past events that underscored PRC claims with an alternative narrative supporting Indian claims. The host also warned that, after the Indian Supreme Court had recently made a land mark decision on unrelated border issues with Pakistan, any agreement on boundary changes had to pass through the process of a constitutional change in India’s parliament.
This legal obstacle, however, probably carried little weight with the guest from the Communist neighbor. But Zhou again was willing to break the impasse by proposing principles about troop disengagement and future patrolling.
On the last day of talks, the two leaders negotiated on the text of the joint communiqué to be issued. Zhou was willing to use Nehru’s draft as a basis for discussions. But he quickly realized that his host wanted a communiqué that described the talks as a failure—not even a statement of mutual respect for the status quo at the eastern sector was inserted. The Chinese guest also complained that there was no reference to panch sheel in the Indian draft, but Nehru firmly replied that any such reference would make the communiqué look insincere after all that had happened in the Himalayas in the past years. Eventually, the joint communiqué ended up to be a short and pessimistic text that announced the lack of agreement and the start of bilateral talks among specialists in June. At the press conference late on April 25, Zhou deplored the failure to reach an agreement, but publicly announced his proposals both for a five-point statement on the principles, which should govern the solution of the Aksai Chin dispute, and for the principles of troop disengagement and future patrolling. Clearly, Zhou tried to impress the public that he had come to find a settlement, which even Indian observers recognized in retrospect. Yet, the Indian Premier subsequently blamed his Chinese counterpart for the failure, publicly calling him a “hard rock.” Archival documentation from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, however, suggests the opposite, as shown above. Internally, the Indian side also considered the talks a complete failure; a circular to all embassies asserted that there was virtually no agreement on any of the issues raised. In fairness, however, it did acknowledge that Zhou offered a deal linking the territory of NEFA to Aksai Chin.
This all raises the question of why Nehru was unwilling to go for Zhou’s deal? It offered the status quo at the eastern sector which benefitted India and it left Aksai Chin to the PRC which had strategic interests there. The problem rooted in the public propaganda war ongoing since the fall of 1959 in which both sides had made exaggerated claims. In China’s case, one might add, this had happened for nationalist and tactical reasons with regard to the eastern sector where its claims were rather weak. The propaganda war, however, had cornered Nehru to a much greater degree than Zhou.
Unlike his Chinese counterpart, the Indian prime minister headed a country with vibrant public debate and a rigid constitutional framework, and not one with a tightly controlled monopoly both of information and political power. As the historian Srinath Raghavan concluded, Nehru was convinced that Indian public opinion would not accept any deal in which territories would be exchanged. Also, Delhi considered its case to be strong while it charged Beijing with using dishonesty and military force.
Furthermore, the Indian prime minister knew that the Supreme Court decision made relinquishing Aksai Chin virtually impossible in the contemporaneous political climate, as constitutional changes required a two third majority in parliament.
And finally, after all the Chinese ideological propaganda in previous years, India’s leaders also had lost all trust in their former Chinese friends. Among the four impediments, which Raghavan lists, Nehru might have been able to overcome the first three through a less rigid public stand in 1959 and 1960.
To a certain degree, Nehru thus was the victim of his own public statements and actions. The Indian distrust toward China, however, predated the events of 1959.
India and China subsequently came to different conclusions about how to proceed with regard to the disputed borders, particularly since the bilateral meetings among specialists did not lead to any results by the end of 1960. Even if Nehru might have had good reasons not to agree to Zhou’s offer of a deal, his subsequent assertive policy was unwise and even dangerous.
In 1961, Delhi decided to implement a forward policy at both sectors by resuming border controls and establishing military sentry posts within disputed territories. Beijing was aware of these developments, but did not react beyond the lodging of protest notes initially. By the summer of 1962, the two sides traded fire across the disputed border again.
Another border war was in the offing.
One point has to be noted: Nehru told Zhou that "after the Indian Supreme Court had recently made a land mark decision on unrelated border issues with Pakistan, any agreement on boundary changes had to pass through the process of a constitutional change in India’s parliament," this legal point is still probably valid today.
It makes the possibility to find a solution all the more distant.
Shyam Saran's article also proves that the Chinese are masters at moving the posts when it is in their interest to do.