A dangerous hysteria has taken hold of India-China relations since the anti-Beijing uprising in Lhasa in March last year. This hysteria is not due to any actions or rhetoric by the two governments, which have been conducting themselves in a balanced and restrained manner.They have been trying to preserve and expand the gains in bilateral relations since the famous visit of Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988. They have been sincerely trying to adhere to the bilateral agreement on maintaining peace and tranquillity till a final solution is reached to the border dispute between the two countries. This hysteria has been the creation of some sections of the non-governmetal strategic communities in the two countries.
There are issues on which the two governments have reasons to be concerned and unhappy with each other. India has reasons to be concerned over past Chinese contacts with the Naga and Mizo insurgents in the North-East and with their present contacts, as suspected, with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Similarly, China has reasons to be concerned over the activities of the set-up of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) from the Indian territory and over the reported presence in the Indian territory of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) of the US which they blame for part of their troubles in Xinjiang and Tibet.The two governments have refrained from publicly articulating these concerns and have taken care to see that these concerns do not come in the way of the further development of the bilateral relations.
Even in respect of the bilateral dispute over the border, one has to take note of the fact that there has been no attempt by either government to change the status quo by setting up an illegal territorial presence in any sector of the border. In respect of the Ladakh sector, India feels that the status quo favours the Chinese because of the Chinese occupation of large parts of our territory in this sector after the People's Republic of China came into existence in 1949. The Chinese have consolidated the status quo, which favours them, by constructing roads, setting up border posts and creating boder habitations in areas which used to be unpopulated. India, while not accepting the status quo de jure, has not tried to disturb it de facto.
In the Eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh), the status quo, which we inherited from the British, favours us. The Chinese disturbed it briefly during the Sino-Indian war of 1962 by occupying large parts of it by taking advantage of our weak military and administrative presence in that area, but they unilaterally restored the status quo by withdrawing from the area occupied by them. If they had not withdrawn unilaterally, our Army was not in a position to eject them and we would have been confronted in the Eastern sector with a situation similar to the one in the Western sector--that is, with a new post-1949 status quo set up by the Chinese which we are not in a position to change. The Chinese have been trying to change the status quo in the Eastern sector in their favour not through military means, but by claiming a large part of this territory and insisting on our conceding their demand over some (Tawang) if not all of this territory as part of a border settlement.
Unfortunately, we find ourselves in an unequal position with the Chinese. This is because while the Chinese have consolidated the status quo in the Western sector and made sure that India will not be able to change it militarily, we have similarly not consolidated the status quo in the Eastern sector and made sure that the Chinese will not be able to change this militarily. Our long-neglect of the North-East and our failure to consolidate the status quo in Arunachal Pradesh have placed China in a strategically advantageous position in the Eastern sector. Only in the last two or three years have we realised the importance of consolidating the status quo in the Eastern sector by strengthening our military and administrative presence in the area through the construction of roads and inducting fresh military units to protect this area from any adventurist Chinese action.
While the Chinese have not sought to change the status quo in the Arunachal Pradesh sector militarily, they have created for themselves a capability for doing so eventually if the border talks fail. They have done this by developing road and rail communications in Tibet and by strengthening military deployments in Tibet. We have only recently realised the importance of giving ourselves a capability in the Arunachal Pradesh sector to thwart any Chinese attempt to change the status quo militarily if the bilateral border talks fail to break the deadlock.
The Chinese long-term strategy with regard to India has many facets. The trans-border developments are only one--but the most important-- component of their strategy. There are other components--namely, strengthening their relationship with Pakistan in order to confront India with the danger of a two-front war should it try to change militarily the status quo either in respect of China or in respect of Pakistan with regard to Jammu & Kahmir; giving Pakistan a nuclear and missile capability for threatening India; weakening the Indian influence in the rest of South Asia and strengthening their presence and influence in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal; creating a presence for their Navy in the Inbdian Ocean region and opposing India's attempts to emerge as an Asian power on par with China.
Till recently, we had no well thought-out long-term strategy with regard to China--neither in the border region, nor in South Asia nor in the Indian Ocean region.Only recently the initial rudiments of such a strategy have been appearing. Our attempts to strengthen our strategic relationship with the US and Japan is one such building-block of this comprehensive strategy. Our proactive Indian Ocean policy is another building block. But we find ourselves handicapped in further developing such a comprehensive strategy because we have let our influence be weakened in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
The post-March 2008 hysteria in the bilateral relations has not been the creation of the two governments. It has been the outcome of a new activism with regard to each other in the non-governmental strategic communities of the two countries. Sections of the Indian strategic community saw in the Lhasa uprising an opportunity to change the status quo in Tibet by playing the Tibet card against China through helping the Tibetans in securing their legitimate rights from the Han Chinese. By changing the status quo in Tibet--not militarily which is out of question, but politically by backing the Tibetan people's efforts to change the status quo themselves-- India might be able to change the status quo in the Western sector and preserve the status quo in the Eastern sector. So these analysts believed and started advocating vigorously a policy of playing the Tibet card against China.
The activism in the Chinese non-governmental strategic community is partly the result of what they see as the Indian activism on Tibet and partly the result of the Indian activism in Arunachal Pradesh for consolidating the status quo. They want their government to be more assertive in playing the Arunachal Pradesh card and to take advantage of the difficulties faced by India in the North-East to counter any attempt by India to play the Tibet card. This hysteria has resulted in a campaign of mutual demonisation and mutual sabre-rattling. This sabre-rattling is only at the non-governmental level. The two governments have maintained a distance from this hysteria without trying to discourage it.
The danger of such hysteria is that it could acquire an uncontrollable momentum and take the two countries towards a precipice from where they may not be able to withdraw. Any confrontation as a result of this hysteria would damage the interests of both the countries.This hysteria has to be defused in time by the top leaderships of the two countries interacting with each other more frequenly and more directly than now and taking initiatives to remove wrong perceptions about each other. It is unwise for Indian analysts to talk of the Tibetan card. The international community has recognised Tibet as a part of China. While it will be sympathetic to any Tibetan attempts to free themselves of Chinese control, it will not support any Indian initiative or move in this regard. By frequently talking of the Tibetan card, we will only be adding to the suspicions and concerns in the Chinese mind.
It is equally unwise for Chinese analysts to talk of the Arunachal Pradesh (southern Tibet as they call it) or the North-East card. The international community looks upon these areas as a part of India and will not support any Chinese move to change the status quo. Much of this hysteria will die down automatically if the two countries reach a border settlement.The only border settlement, which will be equally advantageous, is for India to accord de jure recognition to the status quo in the Western sector in return for China recognising the status quo in the Eastern sector. The present difficulties in the Eastern sector are apparently due to the fact that China wants a face-saving formula by India handing over at least Tawang to it.India cannot do this because Tawang is a populated area. Its inhabitants are Indian citizens. No India political leader will be able to sell to the people and the parliament any concession, which would involve any population transfer.
So, what are the options? Either go on holding one meeting after another without any forward movement or think of some idea which could break the present deadlock. One idea could be to explore the possibility of a 'status quo plus' solution under which China will recognise the status quo in Arunachal Pradesh in return for India accommodating some of the Chinese interests in Tawang.
Once the border dispute is solved to our mutual satisfaction, the danger of a military confrontation between the two countries across the Himalayas will lessen considerably. But the competition between the two countries for influence in the region and outside will remain in the near and medium-term future, but this competition need not lead to a military confrontation.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd),Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.