Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 15

By Harvey Stockwin

Relations between China and India pass periodically through a vast gamut of emotions. These range, on the Chinese side, from superciliousness over India’s addiction to democracy and comparative lack of economic achievement, to deep curiosity and even envy that India is so far ahead in the complex arena of developing and producing computer software.

On the Indian side, emotions range from the euphoria of misperceived Sino-Indian togetherness, to the bitterness of India’s 1962 military defeat by China, and back again to the euphoria of imagined togetherness. A variety of cliches accompany this emotionalism and are typically applied to relations between the two countries. This occurs mainly on the Indian side, but the Chinese are catching up. Some of these cliches were on display as Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited China toward the end of June. The visit received blanket coverage in India, though not in China’s controlled media.

The cliche of choice at the moment is “Sino-Indian partnership will produce an Asian Century”–an understandable dream but an unlikely prospect. The most enduring cliche, however, is the slogan conjured up by the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai.” That is, “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” It was because this slogan was so naively but so passionately believed by the Indians in the first bloom of post-colonial Sino-Indian ties, in the 1950s, that the Indian bitterness over the 1962 border war was so deep and long lasting.

Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai is making a comeback. The emotionalism that India brings to the relationship has come again to the fore. “It’s kiss and make up at the Indo-China summit,” said one headline that ran in The Times Of India during the visit. This is not the way that most nations would hail an improvement in international relations.

The general impression created by the press and TV coverage, both in India and overseas, is that the Vajpayee visit was a great success and that Sino-Indian relations are both warmer and closer as a result. Ties may indeed improve, but probably not as much as the drumbeaters anticipate. In fact, the visit is a classic example of how hype by the modern media can distort international relations. The visit demonstrated very clearly the degree to which India’s ostensibly free press has been transformed into a public relations arm of the Delhi government, at least with respect to foreign affairs. The summit prompted fresh thoughts about the longstanding emotional imbalance in Sino-Indian relations. And of perhaps greatest importance, the summit vividly illustrated the centrality of reciprocity, especially in New Delhi’s ties with China, as India seemingly mis-negotiated the visit from start to finish.

The hype and the lack of criticism are easiest to explain. Newspapers that were once staid and comprehensive in their coverage have become sensational and simplistic. Where there was once more international than national news in English language Indian dailies, now the balance has swung completely the other way. When India does look outward it looks to the West, not the East. Many newspapers have correspondents in both Washington and London, and in other cities as well. But at present there are no Indian newspaper correspondents in East Asia, and perhaps only one or two in Southeast Asia. The lone Indian journalist in Beijing is the correspondent of the Press Trust of India news agency. So the swarms of journalists accompanying Vajpayee had little local knowledge and no local correspondents to fall back on. They depended on Indian officials–and naturally the officials hyped their handiwork.

The fact that the handiwork was flawed is less easy to explain, given the usual professionalism and expertise of Indian diplomats. But with respect to the Vajpayee summit in Beijing, one reason was that the politicians were definitely in charge. The top Indian leaders announced the visit even before it was arranged. They let their wish for better relations drive negotiations, rather than first waiting for clear evidence that leaders in Beijing wanted better relations as well. Diplomats are still guessing at what motivated the politicians. Naive hopes on the Indian side of somehow undermining ties between China and Pakistan seem the most plausible explanation.

First, Defense Minister George Fernandes, fresh from an April visit of his own to China, made a speech in New Delhi on May 12 announcing that the prime minister’s visit would take place in June. Next, in an interview with the Financial Times, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha also asserted that the visit would take place. Finally, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani made a speech in Leh asserting that Vajpayee would go to Beijing from June 22-26.

All these statements were made before any official announcement was made either in Beijing or in Delhi about the trip. The pronouncements signaled to the Chinese that the Indian government was, for political reasons, anxious to stage a summit at this time.

This meant that, on the one hand, the diplomatic price exacted by China for the visit could go up–since India was committed to it. On the other hand, China strengthened its negotiating position by never publicly committing itself to the June visit, assuming a diplomatic posture that was diametrically opposed to that of the three Indian ministers.

Meeting Vajpayee in St. Petersburg in late May, President Hu Jintao was quoted in the Chinese press as anticipating a visit “within this year.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons were also vague, referring to a visit in the “near future.”

Additionally, India made the fundamental error of indicating publicly, through numerous press reports, the concession that it wanted from Beijing–China’s acceptance of Sikkim’s accession to India. Chinese maps do not yet designate Sikkim as part of India. Why India raised this issue is something of a mystery, since India has no need for Chinese approval of Sikkim’s accession.

But once India had telegraphed its concern, China set out to pressure India on the subject of Beijing’s own perennial area of insecurity–its hold on Tibet. In the end, India gave ground on Tibet while China gave no ground on Sikkim. This is true despite many assertions by Indian officials, including by Vajpayee himself. External Affairs Minister Sinha still maintains that a memorandum on trade means “the issue of Sikkim has been largely resolved.”

The main document produced at the summit was a lengthy and verbose joint declaration of “Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation.” In it, India “recognizes that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India.”

India claimed that this was similar to what has been said on earlier occasions. For China, this was the first time India had said what China wanted to hear. “An important and positive expression,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry called it. In the Joint Declaration, India also repeated its longstanding recognition of “One China.” Beijing offered no recognition of Sikkim as part of India.

China watchers anticipate that at the next opportunity, or if Sino-Indian relations deteriorate, Beijing will use this Indian recognition of Tibet to start pressing New Delhi to end what Beijing often regards as anti-China activities carried out by the Tibetan government-in-exile, led by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.

But the belated release of the full text of the Sino-Indian memorandum “on expanding border trade” further underlined the critical lack of reciprocity in the way the recent summit was negotiated.

The fact that China insisted on a further elucidation of India’s position on Tibet to suit itself, and then failed to clarify its own position on Sikkim in a fashion that would suit India, can be regarded as a classic example both of Beijing’s avoidance of reciprocity–and of India’s failure to insist upon it.

India has made numerous statements since the 1950s explicitly recognizing the Chinese right to rule Tibet, notwithstanding the fact that Tibet was incorporated within the People’s Republic by force of arms. China has yet to make a statement explicitly recognizing the Indian right to rule Sikkim, despite the fact that Sikkim’s legislative body actually approved integration in 1975.

The Indian assertion after the summit that China tacitly recognizes Sikkim as part of India is not born out by the text. To the contrary, China carefully avoided giving any such implied signal.

In the preamble to the memorandum, China and India state that they are “desirous of opening another pass on the India-China border and setting up an additional point on each side for border trade.” Since “another pass” is vague, this implies nothing regarding Sikkim.

What this means is then made clear in Article One of the memorandum, which states that “the Indian side agrees to designate Changgu of Sikkim state as the venue for a border trade market: The Chinese side agrees to designate Renqinggang of the Tibet Autonomous Region as the venue for a border trade market.”

In Article Two of the memorandum, China and India “agree to use Nathula as the pass for entry and exit” for expanding border trade. But this reference too hardly serves as an implicit Chinese recognition of the Indian position. China makes agreements with Southeast Asian nations regarding the South China Sea, but that does not stop Beijing from continuing to claim the whole of the South China sea as its territorial waters.

So what emerges is a totally unequal exchange–India gets next to nothing with regard to Sikkim, but China gains an advance in the Indian position on Tibet. One can only wonder under what compulsion Indian negotiators felt obliged to give China what it verbally sought regarding Tibet.

Previously, India had merely recognized “Tibet” as part of China, which was taken to refer to all the Tibet-majority areas in China. But China has drawn the borders of the “Tibet Autonomous Region” (TAR) in a fashion that leaves half of the Tibetan community living in four other provinces. Now India, by recognizing the TAR, has explicitly recognized this Chinese policy of divide and rule.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee insists that the end of the Sino-Indian dispute over Sikkim is in sight. But when Indian officials first suggested that China had tacitly recognized Sikkim as part of India, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, quickly rejected this notion–without even waiting for Vajpayee and his party to leave for Shanghai.

Kong was categorical that China was sticking to its previous position. “The question of Sikkim is a question left over from history, and is an enduring one. The question cannot be solved overnight. We hope this question can be resolved gradually.”

The Indian negotiators should have said exactly the same thing about Tibet to the Chinese when the Joint Declaration was being negotiated. Had they done so, they would have gained true reciprocity. Instead, India chose to illustrate its inferior status in Chinese eyes by accepting a one sided verbal bargain.

All told, it seems likely that, as the hype subsides, the Vajpayee visit to China may add to the emotional imbalance in Sino-Indian relations.

Harvey Stockwin has been reporting and analyzing Asian developments since 1955. Currently he broadcasts a weekly fifteen-minute talk “Reflections From Asia” for Radio Television Hong Kong. He also contributes to the Japan Times and is the East Asia correspondent of The Times of India.