External Affairs

Why Ajit Doval Must Not Make Throwaway Comments on the China Border

Map Showing India Tibet Frontier as Mutually Agreed Upon by the British and Tibetan Plenipotentiaries, 24 March 1914 [North-East frontier, McMahon Line]

In his recent Rustamji Memorial Lecture, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval stated that settling the boundary dispute was “critical” for India-China relations. He went on to observe that China’s stance was in “complete contravention of accepted principles”. The Chinese, he added, “have accepted the McMahon Line while settling the border with Myanmar and then they say that the same line is not acceptable in case of India, particularly in Tawang.”

The NSA’s point about the centrality of the dispute is spot on. Not so, his claims about China’s stance on the McMahon Line. This is not a trivial or pedantic point. In many ways, it is central to understanding the history of the dispute as well as the possibilities for its settlement in the future.

Wrong on Myanmar and China

Let’s start with the facts. In their boundary agreement with Burma in October 1960, the Chinese did not accept the McMahon Line. For one thing, the section of the agreed Sino-Burmese boundary that was part of the original McMahon Line of 1914—Burma was an administrative unit of British India until 1937—departed slightly from the McMahon alignment. The difference was minor, but significant from China’s perspective. Further, as part of the negotiations the Burmese explicitly disavowed the McMahon Line, and at Chinese insistence they negotiated on the basis of a “customary” alignment.

Both China’s negotiating stance and the agreed border underscored Beijing’s refusal to give any credence to the McMahon Line. This is because the McMahon Line had been defined in a set of notes exchanges between British Indian and Tibetan representatives in March 1914. Accepting the line would amount to accepting that Tibet was practically independent back then—a position that was, and remains, totally unacceptable to China.

During the negotiations with India in April 1960, China took a stance rather similar to that with Burma. At the very outset, Premier Zhou Enlai told Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that China did not accept the McMahon Line but was willing to take a “realistic view”. In subsequent discussions, Zhou indicated that China would want India to make some concessions in areas that lay south of the McMahon Line. As the Chinese Foreign Minister, Chen Yi, explained to Swaran Singh: “If the Chinese government recognised the Simla Convention and the McMahon Line, there would be an explosion in China and the Chinese people would not agree. Premier Chou has no right to do so.” If the nuances of the Chinese stance on the McMahon Line continue to elude the government, it can only be put down to an unwillingness to carefully read its own historical records.

Tawang as dispute

What about the Chinese claim to Tawang? During the 1960 discussions, the Chinese did not press this point. What they sought then was to break the McMahon alignment by securing some pockets of territory to the south of the Line. The area where they sought major concessions from India was in the Ladakh-Aksai China sector. The Chinese revived this proposal for a “package settlement” in 1979-80. India refused to go along with this and insisted on a sector-by-sector negotiation, starting with the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh). The Indians believed that Chinese concessions here would make it politically easy for them to give up formal claims to Aksai Chin.

In the ensuing negotiations, however, the Chinese hardened their stance on the eastern sector, especially Tawang which had been occupied by India only in early 1951. If India was unwilling to put all territorial trade-offs on the table, it made sense from the Chinese perspective to adopt a maximalist stance on every sector. In short, it was India’s negotiating position in the early 1980s that made Tawang the focal point of China’s demands in the eastern sector.

Role of Vajpayee, Manmohan

During his visit to China in 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee courageously and sensibly abandoned India’s old position. By agreeing to negotiate on all sectors simultaneously and aim for a political settlement based on a “package deal”, Vajpayee paved the way for progress on the boundary issue. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was able to take it further with the 2005 agreement on political parameters and guidelines for a boundary settlement.

Articles 6 and 7 of this agreement sought to reconcile the fundamental interests of both sides. Article 7 stated that the final settlement should “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” This implied that areas like Tawang would not be up for grabs. Article 6 stated that the final boundary should follow “well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features to be mutually agreed up by the two sides.” Hitherto, India had insisted that the boundary in the eastern sector should follow the watershed (the highest range of mountains). The McMahon Line had, in fact, been defined on the watershed principle. Since 1960, however, the Chinese had insisted that the watershed need not be the sole geographical principle on which to delineate a border: other features, such as river valleys, should also be taken into account. This position stemmed from the imperative to break the McMahon alignment. By conceding that the geographical features would have to be mutually agreed upon, the 2005 agreement was tending towards this long-standing Chinese demand.

Basis for settlement

Taken together, these articles of the agreement suggest that a solution can be found in the eastern sector provided India is willing to make concessions south of the watershed but north of the populated areas. Of course, these will have to be balanced against security considerations as well as China’s willingness to make concessions—perhaps to the tune of 2000 square kilometres—in the Ladakh area.

Doval is right in pointing out that the Chinese position has toughened since 2005. But this is par for the course in such negotiations. The challenge for New Delhi is to push the negotiations to the next stage and consider concrete ideas for territorial give-and-take. Moreover, the Prime Minister will have to prepare domestic opinion for an eventual settlement. Even if both sides are genuinely committed to finding a settlement, the process will be long and arduous. Throwaway statements about China’s negotiating position will only make it tougher.

(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)