SPEAKING FREELY China-India border talks pivot on Tibet
By Namrata Goswami and Jenee Sharon
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WASHINGTON - Throughout the protracted Sino-Indian border dispute, Tibet and its status has always been a predominant influence, whether implicitly or explicitly on the negotiating table. This has both historical and contemporary ramifications.
India, much to China's chagrin, utilized the Tibet issue as a key point of departure in order to strike a grand bargain with Beijing
after China occupied Tibet in 1949. Jawaharlal Nehru was of the firm conviction that China and India could encapsulate a grand cooperation in Tibet based on which India would recognize Tibet as part of China while China would recognize Tibetan autonomy.
To Nehru, Tibetan autonomy meant safeguarding Tibet's cultural and social uniqueness. It also meant that China would not militarize Tibet with a massive People's Liberation Army (PLA) presence which could pose a security threat to India.
Propelled by this belief, Nehru recognized Tibet as part of China in 1954. Mao Zedong, however, interpreted Nehru's insistence on Tibetan autonomy as a diabolical plan to turn Tibet into an Indian "protectorate or colony". In the several meetings that he conducted with his Politburo colleagues in the run-up to the 1962 war with India, he argued that the "Indian expansionist" had devious plans to occupy Tibet.
In an essay titled "The Revolution in Tibet and Nehru's Philosophy", published in The People's Daily on May 6, 1959, at the behest of Mao, Nehru was faulted for his sympathy for the Tibetan people and accused of upholding the Tibetan upper-class structure to the detriment of what the essay termed as "Tibetan serfs".
Nehru, the essay argued, wanted to turn Tibet into an "Indian colony". By extension, India's "forward policy" activated since November 1961 to establish forward posts in unoccupied territory that China and India each viewed as its own was also interpreted by Mao as an Indian design to create the logistical conditions to occupy Tibet in the long run.
These differences and a "no-negotiation" posture by India on the border from 1961 onwards in the face of what Nehru interpreted as Chinese aggression on Aksai Chin led to the China-India border war in October 1962 in which India suffered defeat.
While both countries have come a long way since then, having re-activated diplomatic relations in 1976 and border negotiations since 1981, the border talks were stalled at this stage due to increased Chinese territorial posture in 1985 especially with regard to Tawang. In 1988, a Joint Working Group (JWG) was institutionalized during the visit of Rajiv Gandhi to China.
At present, there is talk of "progress" on the border issues and statements from high-level officials representing both parties on not letting the border dispute affect the bilateral working relationship. Yet, both China and India remain deeply entrenched in their rigid negotiating positions.
The border dispute, especially in the eastern side, is becoming financially costly to both parties, particularly as resources are diverted to build up militarily at the border to deter the other while additional political resources are utilized to continue the negotiations in official diplomatic fora.
India has planned to invest US$100 billion in military modernization in the next decade, with $15 billion already under negotiations for 126 French Rafale Multi Medium Role Combat Aircraft to be deployed in the eastern sector. China has also visibly demonstrated its military presence in Tibet with nearly 300,000 PLA troops and fighter aircraft like the J-10 deployed at the Gonggar airport in Lhasa. Military exercises by both China and India along the eastern frontier have also increased since 2012.
The territorial dispute has lingered for decades, crippling the bilateral relationship and thus preventing the two countries from working as closely together as could have been possible had the border dispute been resolved. The bottom line: as China and India rise as global powers, now is the time to pursue real conflict resolution on the border dispute.
The border dispute will only continue to divert resources and time from both countries which could better contribute to enhance China and India on their way to becoming stronger global actors on the world stage.
Why is the border dispute so intractable and why has it continually resisted resolution in the past 60 years? The answer is threefold - the inflexibility of negotiation positions, the choice of conflict resolution mechanisms utilized, and the mistrust that perpetuates and further prevents progress from being made toward a lasting resolution.
With regard to flexibility, at present, both parties seemingly remain firmly committed to their territorial claims and these claims are at times strategically utilized as leverage in the negotiations. China maintains its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, which India has administered since the British left India in 1947, while India seeks control of Aksai Chin, which is under Chinese control.
Despite China's claims, India firmly maintains that Arunachal Pradesh is and will remain Indian territory, while implicitly utilizing the Tibet issue and India's spiritual connection to the Dalai Lama, a great insecurity for China, as leverage.
The Tibet issue is distinctly intertwined with the greater Sino-Indian border dispute along the borders of Arunachal Pradesh because China maintains that Tibet is an integral part of Chinese sovereign territory and considers Arunachal Pradesh to be "Southern Tibet".
Recently, a Chinese scholar from Huazhong University, Du Dacai, argued that "solving the problem of our territory of South Tibet [as China refers to Arunachal Pradesh]" should be China's fourth priority territorial unification issue after Taiwan, the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands and the South China sea issue "to realize the Chinese dream and China's unification."
This conceptualization of "Southern Tibet," whether legitimate in the minds of the Chinese or a negotiation tactic to try to gain control of Arunachal Pradesh from India, links the Tibet issue to the border dispute because if China and India's borders are to be delineated, Tibet's borders with India must also be determined.
The fact that Tibet's status within China itself is not accepted by many Tibetans and that the Tibetan government-in-exile and Dalai Lama reside in India, threatens China. This also contributes to the intensity of mistrust among both parties and complicates the already complex process of negotiating the disputed borders.
In order to resolve the dispute through negotiations, both China and India should seek to take another evaluation of their core interests and determine possible areas of flexibility on certain issues.
The Tibet issue is also incredibly important to both China and India because the Tibetans' struggle for independence affects both countries greatly from a national security standpoint. China views the Tibetans' struggle for independence as a great source of instability because it directly threatens China's domestic social stability and territorial integrity.
India's spiritual connection to the Dalai Lama and tenuous relationship with the Tibetan government in exile further exacerbates this insecurity. The Indian government has made public statements expressing India's "official" policy of not supporting the Tibetans or the Dalai Lama, such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's comments that "India will not allow Tibetans to conduct anti-China activities in the country [India]", but India may hesitate to make further statements regarding the status of Tibet while China is pressuring India to do so. Despite these official statements, the Dalai Lama holds spiritual significance in India, thus making China more dubious about India's intentions.
In this respect, India isn't exactly helping to resolve that tension by refusing to make bolder statements on China's claim to Tibet, and from the Indian perspective, why should it? From a purely bargaining perspective, India retains more leverage to potentially use against China to gain concessions in the border negotiations. The real issue here is that ultimately, this play for leverage further breaks down trust and makes the process of negotiating more difficult.
Another key issue at play, is that of Tawang, which is in Arunachal Pradesh, closely linked to the Tibet issue and considered to be a holy place for Tibetans. This further complicates the Tibet issue and thus the overall border negotiations because if Tibet is a part of China and Tibetans consider Tawang to be culturally linked to Tibet, then China has an incentive for why it should obtain Arunachal Pradesh from India in the negotiations.
If Tibetans seek independence from China, this claim becomes less legitimate, but as the Tibetan government-in-exile and Dalai Lama currently reside in India, it again causes insecurity for China. India has likely recognized this concern and in response to China's aggressive posturing towards Arunachal Pradesh, India has increased the civilian and military presence in that area, similar to what China has done in increasing the Han Chinese and PLA presence in Tibet.
Another key concern on the Tawang issue is whether the next Dalai Lama will come from Tawang, and if so, will that further complicate the Tibet issue and tensions between China and India if China does not approve of the new Dalai Lama? The Dalai Lama will always have spiritual connections with India, even if the current Dalai Lama has renounced former political ties, and given that it is a religious issue, it is not plausible that India would break these spiritual and cultural ties it has historically respected.
As long as the Tibet issue remains unresolved and the questioning of Chinese legitimacy over Tibet continues, China remains fearful of India's intentions for Tibet, and as long as India does not make those intentions more clear, it will be increasingly more difficult to resolve the ongoing border dispute.
Although China and India have made progress in developing economic and diplomatic relationships with an attempt to disregard the Tibet issue, the border issue is time and time again raised. The current pace of negotiations has not resulted in progress on the resolution of the border dispute.
China and India have less to lose and more to gain by rethinking how to resolve this dispute. First off, the mechanisms for resolution should be expanded. On their own, the Special Representative talks set up since 2003 may not be enough to come to a mutually beneficial negotiated solution.
There are other possibilities for creating a common border mechanism outside of the Special Representative talks to supplement conflict resolution efforts, such as talks on the Track I5 levels. Within the field of conflict resolution, one such conflict resolution method is known as the "Problem-Solving Workshop" (PSW).
The PSW emerged from the field of social psychology and was pioneered by several scholars and practitioners including Herbert Kelman, John Burton, Benjamin Broome, Ronald Fisher, and Leonard Doob. This method of conflict resolution was designed to bring together influential people who have connections to high-level decision makers but the flexibility to more freely discuss the key issues, various parties' perspectives, and explore creative options for conflict resolution, all the while building trust among the participants.
In the beginning, this could be conducted as unofficial sessions internally within India and China respectively to explore key issues and perspectives before meeting with their counterparts. Once the participants become comfortable with the process, Indian and Chinese influentials could be brought together to engage in a PSW on the border issue.
In addition to PSW among influentials, a forum should be created between the think tanks and academic communities (Track II) in China and India to bring together the brightest minds working on these issues. While there are many within both China and India who work on these issues and related ones, there is little sharing or joint work among these individuals and groups together.
A joint forum, roundtable discussion or partnership among think tanks working on these issues would act as a way in which to collective brainstorm with a problem-solving approach to determine options for resolution of the border dispute.
At this point in time, it is clear that official negotiations alone may not resolve the border dispute. Additional mechanisms of conflict resolution like the Track II should be sought after, and if deemed appropriate by each party internally, Problem Solving Workshops and partnerships among those working on these issues may provide additional methods in which to unofficially explore options that could be proposed to the negotiators with an aim at resolving the border dispute.
Dr Namrata Goswami is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington, DC and research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Jenee Sharon is a research assistant at the USIP. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the authors.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.