China’s opposition to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang and similar past objections to any VIPs’ visits to the area has to be seen in the context of the position taken by Dai Bingguo, China’s Special Representative from 2003 to 2013, when he held 15 rounds of talks with his Indian counterparts for a settlement of the boundary question. Of course, China’s reaction this time was more strident, toxic and venomous. If his interview in the Beijing based journal “China-India Dialogue” is the official Chinese position, then India-China relations in the coming days would encounter many bumps and a settlement is unlikely any time soon.
Since 2013, another three rounds have been held with little results. Bingguo’s interview for the first time publically and explicitly laid down what China’s new terms are for a settlement of the boundary question. He claimed the state of Arunachal Pradesh, referring to it as “Southern Tibet”. He wants India to surrender this area because (i) “India now controls the majority of the disputed territory” and (ii) it is “inalienable from China’s Tibet in terms of cultural background and administrative jurisdiction”. This he claimed would “correct the wrong made by the colonialists and restore fairness and justice”.
In April 1960, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in his talks with PM Nehru in Delhi had accepted the McMahon Line as the frontier between the two nations despite reservations.
In articulating his views, he said that after 30 years of negotiations on the boundary, the two countries were “standing in front of the gate towards a final settlement” and insisted that the “Indian side holds the key to the gate”. Calling for making “meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments to their respective positions”, he recognised it was “no small task for either party and both must make painful decisions and address each other’s demands”. While asking India to sacrifise a whole state of the Union, he did not elaborate what China’s sacrifice would be to clinch the issue. Asking India to surrender Tawang, which China calls “South Tibet”, China has put a stiffer price for settlement than what it had asked in the past.
In April 1960, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in his talks with Prime Minister Nehru in Delhi had accepted the McMahon Line as the frontier between the two countries despite his reservations on the legality of the line, thereby leaving the area now claimed by China within India. He had only insisted that India in return accepted the Chinese occupation of Aksai China in the Western Sector where it had constructed a road to Tibet. Since this quid pro quo was not acceptable to Nehru, the talks failed.
In 1962, the Chinese government statement of 21 November, while ordering a ceasefire in the conflict then raging, also offered to withdraw from its then held positions “to the north of the line of actual control, that is, north of the illegal McMahon Line.” In its memorandum, five days later, the Chinese reiterated that “in the Eastern Sector the Chinese frontier guards will withdraw to positions 20-km north of the illegal McMahon Line”.
Cut to June 1980, the Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping broke the stalemate and offered a “package deal” to resolve the issue and said in the Eastern Sector China recognised “the so-called McMahon Line” which was left over by history and “India should recognise the status quo in the western sector”. India’s response was half-hearted. Reacting to Deng’s offer, External Affairs Minister Narasimha Rao in his statement in Lok Sabha on 2 July 1980 welcomed Deng’s proposal regarding the Eastern Sector as “somewhat more precise,” and therefore acceptable, but remained silent on the western sector which was China’s life-line to Tibet and Deng’s offer was a “package deal”.
Then within days of Rao’s statement, India’s recognition of the Soviet-backed Heng Samrin regime in Kampuchea vitiated the atmosphere. A People’s Daily commentary on 9 July described the Indian recognition as “perverse action” and “inglorious”. “In doing so”, said the commentary, “India has forsaken its non-aligned stand and sided with the aggressor.” Beijing also “postponed’ the projected visit of its foreign minister to New Delhi. Thus, another opportunity to settle the border dispute was allowed to pass.
If India had accepted Chinese Premier’s offer in April 1960 or Deng’s package in 1980, it would have been left with the area in the Eastern Sector now claimed by China. If India failed to clinch the issue both in 1960 and 1980, it needs to introspect.
What has happened between 1960 or 1980 and now for China to change the terms of the settlement? It appears to be the Dalai Lama factor. Since the next Dalai has to be an incarnate of the present, who is going to be 82 in July, and he is not immortal, there will be need to look for his successor when he is no more. The Chinese are worried that if the Tibetans in India were to find one in “South Tibet”, where also the 6th Dalai Lama was born in 1683, he will find greater acceptability by the Tibetans both in India and in Tibet than the one propped up by them.
By claiming this territory they want to deprive the Tibetans in India of this option since they believe that the one born in territory other than “Tibetan” would not have acceptability by the Tibetans, particularly in Tibet. Earlier in 1960 and 1980, this factor was not very much in evidence which with the passage of time has become dominant.
A.S. Bhasin is a former Director of the Historical Division in the Ministry of External Affairs and has published many books on neighbouring countries.