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Friday, July 30, 2004

Drawing the line with China

NEW DELHI -- India and China have held regular border-related negotiations since 1981 in the longest such process between two nations since the end of World War II. Yet, after 23 years of negotiations, the two Asian giants have not achieved the bare minimum -- a mutually defined line of control separating them -- even as they deceptively call their disputed front line the "line of actual control."

The latest round of border negotiations in New Delhi on July 26 and 27 testified to the lack of real progress.

Since negotiations first began, China has emerged as a global economic and political force and strengthened its leverage vis-a-vis India, both directly and through transfers of weapons of mass destruction to Pakistan and strategic penetration of Myanmar.

As the negotiations have proceeded, Beijing has shown a weakening inclination to settle the border or even clarify the front line. This is because the unresolved, partially indistinct Himalayan frontier fits well with Chinese interests.

First, the status quo keeps India under strategic pressure. Second, it pins down, along the Himalayas, hundreds of thousands of Indian troops who otherwise would be available against China's "all-weather ally," Pakistan -- a "third party whose interests China cannot disregard" (as a Chinese official admitted at a "track 2" dialogue in Beijing). And third, it arms China with the option to turn on the military heat along the now-quiet frontier if India were to play the Tibet card or enter into a military alliance with the United States.

More importantly, China is sitting pretty on the upper heights, having gotten what it wanted, either by furtive encroachment in the 1950s or by conquest in 1962. It certainly sees no strategic imperative to accommodate India, a potential peer competitor. By persisting with the border dialogue with India and singing the virtues of give and take, Beijing seeks to influence Indian policy and conduct through engagement while looking to take more, such as the Buddhist Tawang region -- which China claims as a cultural-continuity extension of its annexation of Tibet.

Given these realities, a succession of Indian governments put priority on fully defining the line of control (LOC), even as they remained open to any Chinese proposal for an overall border settlement.

The complementary process of confidence building since the 1980s was pivoted on the elimination of ambiguities along the LOC to stabilize the military situation on the ground and ensure peace and tranquillity permanently. But with the Chinese dragging their feet on defining the line, the confidence-building process has overtaken the line-clarification process. The two countries, for example, farcically prohibit certain military activities at specific distances from the still-blurry line.

India and China are the only known neighbors not to be separated even by a mutually defined LOC, as their entire 4,000-km frontier is in dispute. By contrast, the India-Pakistan frontier is an international border -- except in Kashmir -- where a clearly delineated LOC exists.

China, by and large, has settled land-border disputes with its neighbors other than India. For one, its dispute with India involves larger tracts of territories than any other land-border problem. For another, China has a track record of clinching land-border settlements with declining states (except in the case of Vietnam) so that it can impose the majority of its claims, as it did with a rudderless Russia before Vladimir Putin and with three internally troubled Central Asian states.

It took China two decades of border talks with India before it agreed to exchange maps of just one segment -- the least-controversial middle sector. This step was to be followed up with a promised exchange of maps of the western sector in 2002, and finally of the eastern sector. The Chinese side reneged on its promise to exchange maps of the western and eastern sectors.

China also injected deliberate confusion by suggesting that the two sides abandon years of laborious efforts to define the LOC and instead focus on finding an overall border settlement. This was clearly a dilatory tactic intended to disguise its breach of promise: If Beijing is not willing to even clarify the LOC, why would it be willing to resolve the border problem through a package settlement?

Clarification of the LOC, after all, would not prejudice rival territorial claims. A border settlement, on the other hand, would be a complex process that would involve not only a resolution of territorial claims but also agreement on a clear-cut front line through a lengthy three-part process to define, delineate on maps and demarcate on the ground the border. Put simply, a disinclination to define the LOC translates into a greater aversion to clinch an overall border settlement.

Yet, in a surprise decision before being swept out of office in national elections, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided during a China visit to turn Indian policy on its head and shift the focus from LOC clarification to the elusive search for a border settlement. His concession to the hosts in agreeing to initiate a new framework of discussions between "senior representatives" has not only sidelined and stalled the process of clarifying the front line, but also taken India back to square one -- to discussing "principles" of a potential settlement, as the just-concluded discussions show.

A specialty of Chinese diplomacy has been to discuss and lay out "principles," and then interpret them to suit Beijing's convenience, as the past half-century bears out. It is incomprehensible that India would weaken its own negotiating strategy by diverting focus from the practical task of clarifying the LOC to a conceptual enunciation of "principles" to guide future talks.

The first requisite to good-neighborly relations is a defined front line. It is time India insisted on mutually clarifying the LOC with China. Otherwise, China will continue to take India round and round the mulberry tree.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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