Although there are many books on the complex issue of the unsettled boundary between India and China, Ambassador Ranjit Singh Kalha’s book Indian-China Boundary Issues is a welcome addition. Broadly, there are two schools of thought among scholars studying China. The first one worships China with such devotion that we need to coin a new word, sinolatry, along the lines of idolatry, to describe it. Examples of two books in this school readily come to mind. One is When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World Order and the Birth of a New Global Order by Martin Jacques, which came out in 2009. The other is Eclipse: Living under China’s Economic Dominance by Arvind Subramanian, who was recently appointed Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India.
The second school, much less prolific and much less influential, propagates a sort of sinophobia, basically a mixture of hatred and fear of China. Kalha, neither sinolatrous nor sinophobic, is sober and scientific, and he writes with remarkable lucidity.
Kalha’s compulsory foreign language when he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1965 was Chinese. In 1972, he was posted to China. He went to China via Hong Kong, and on the train in the mainland he asked for bacon as breakfast was being served. He was refused because some official had decided that the passenger was a Muslim and hence should not be served bacon.
Kalha’s showing his passport and declaring his Sikh identity did not change the decision. It is the personal and professional experience of the author, who has dealt with China for over 12 years, including three years of boundary negotiations, that makes this book refreshingly different from others.
Addressing the question whether Tibet was ever independent, the author points out that all Chinese governments have maintained that Tibet has always been part of China. This claim is not supported by history. China occupied Lhasa first in 1720, but the government of the Dalai Lama continued. For the next 200 years, China’s presence and authority were “intermittent and at times absent.” In 1792, China, on invitation from Tibet, helped defeat the invading Nepalese army.
The Manchu general Chao Erfang occupied Lhasa during 1908-10. But after the fall of the Manchu Empire in 1911, the Chinese garrison surrendered and by 1912 Tibet was free of any Chinese military presence. The Chinese military came back only in 1950.
The 1914 Shimla Conference in which China, Tibet, and the British government of India took part has been analyzed diligently, and the author establishes that China had conclusively accepted the Tibet-India boundary delimitation. China’s objection was to the Tibet-China boundary, and records show that in China’s view Tibet was entitled to settle its boundary with India. A memorandum from China dated June 29, 1914, “hoped that His Majesty’s Government will consent to continue in its original intention to act as mediator between China and Tibet in order that the questions between these two countries may reach a harmonious conclusion.”
Significantly enough, China announced on January 1, 1950, that the liberation of Tibet would be one of its basic goals, 24 hours after India announced its recognition of the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao Zedong was at that time in Moscow and his orders to the People’s Liberation Army to move into Tibet could not be implemented as soldiers refused and many deserted as they feared that they might not return safely from the “far and forbidden land of Tibet.”
The invasion started on October 7, 1950. Jawaharlal Nehru asked High Commissioner V.K. Krishna Menon to seek the advice of the British government. The advice was: do not recognize Tibetan independence; short of military assistance, Tibet should be supported. Nehru had no sympathy for the plight of the Tibetans, and the protest note sent on October 21, 1950, was rather “curious.” Omitting any reference to the rights of the Tibetans, India pleaded for a peaceful settlement and advised China that it was an incautious move at the present time, even in a matter which is within its own sphere.
Earlier, Ambassador K.M. Panikkar, in a note dated August 26, 1950, to the Chinese Foreign Office, conveyed acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet though he tried to take back that reference to sovereignty in another note, of November 1, 1950. The author points out that in 1914 the Chinese delegate Ivan Chen had asked only for recognition of China’s suzerainty.
The author has pointed out a less well-known reason for China’s invasion of Tibet. The United Kingdom Foreign Office assessed that the Chinese had taken seriously the possibility of India moving into Tibet, as highlighted in the Soviet press. The Soviet newspaper The New Times carried a story that India was hastily constructing new roads and aerodromes adjacent to Tibet and that “vast quantities” of American arms and war material were being shipped via Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Darjeeling. The reader would have liked some comment by the author on the motivations of the Soviet Union for spreading such cock and bull stories.
When Tibet tried to raise the matter at the United Nations, India stood in the way and the matter was not even discussed. The U.K. and Canada advised Nehru not to do anything to provoke China. Even before the Chinese invasion, when Tibet requested arms, India refused to give any and advised Tibet to settle the matter with China. N.R. Pillai, the Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs, wrote in an article in 1954 in Foreign Affairs: “We may be stupid or completely blind but where we do not see the menace we cannot pretend to do so, merely because we are so advised by no doubt wiser people.” A reader who cannot resist exercising hindsight might wonder whether the humiliating defeat China administered eight years later was an instance of poetic justice.
Although officially India maintained that there was no threat from China after its occupation of Tibet, Nehru took action to secure the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, or Arunachal Pradesh); he detached it from Assam and brought it under the control of the Central government. Tibetan ecclesiastical officials were evicted in February 1951, and there was no protest from China. In 1952, China made a request for transit facilities to send supplies to its army in Tibet. Nehru had reservations, but Panikkar persuaded him to oblige.
Next year, China suggested that India might forgo its rights in Tibet arising from “unequal treaties” and replace the Indian Mission with a consul general. Without bothering to consult his Cabinet, Nehru agreed. The reader gets a detailed account of India’s sleepwalking to the 1962 disaster. Even though the author has not added to our knowledge, his account is fascinating for its clarity.
The author has tabulated the references to Tibet in Sino-Indian joint communiques, drawing attention to the lack of attention on the part of India and China’s success in making India agree to formulations progressively favorable to it.
For example, in June 2003, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited China, the communique issued said: “The Indian Side Recognises that the Tibet Autonomous Region is a Part of the Territory of the People’s Republic of China.” There are three implications: 1) There was no invasion in 1950 as the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949; 2) China had lopped off considerable parts of erstwhile Tibetan territory and incorporated these into other provinces. India recognized such changes opposed by Dalai Lama; and 3) Chinese maps of the Tibetan Autonomous Region showed Arunachal Pradesh as part of it, referred to as “Southern Tibet.” Was India indirectly and by implication accepting China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh?
The reader will come to the disturbing conclusion that it was not only the war of 1962 that India lost. In subsequent diplomatic negotiations China has consistently gained and outwitted India.
Let us take one example of China’s ability to be inconsistent and to derive advantage from that. Article VII of the April 2005 Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question reads: “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border area.”
The Indian side concluded that by this formulation China was abandoning its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. India came out with statements reflecting that conclusion and China kept quiet for a while. As India moved closer to the United States with the famous 123 Agreement on nuclear energy, China decided to tell India that its interpretation of Article VII was wrong. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee at their meeting in Hamburg in 2007 that “the mere presence of populated areas (in Arunachal Pradesh) would not affect China’s claims on the boundary.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised the matter later with President Hu Jintao but to no avail. In short, China was upset that India and the U.S. were getting closer and wanted to show its displeasure by going back on a signed agreement.
The last chapter, presumably written before the Narendra Modi government took office, tries to answer the question why there has been no settlement so far. The conclusion is that the unresolved boundary dispute enables China to practise “coercive diplomacy” towards India and to confine the latter to South Asia as China pursues its aim to form a G2 with the U.S.
The reader might note the merit in the agreement but would still have expected more from Kalha on India’s options. He seems to believe that the U.S. and China are in such a tight embrace that they cannot get out of it without both of them getting hurt, and therefore, India cannot count on U.S. support in case of an attack from China.
The Modi government has sent clear signals to China that it cannot expect India to accept China as a friendly economic partner while it continues with a hostile policy on the boundary. Further, by explicitly linking India’s “Act East” policy to the rebalancing of the U.S. in Asia in the Modi-Barack Obama joint communiqué and by sending out clear signals to Japan and Vietnam, India is signalling that it too has options. Let us see how China will respond to such assertive diplomacy from the new government in India, which is in sharp contrast to the policy of the previous government.
Editor’s Note: The above article was initially published iinitially published in Frontline website. This article also originally appeared on February 3, 2015, on Ambassador Fabian: Reflections on International Policies, Books & Lives, a website featuring commentary by Ambassador KP Fabian. It was reproduced here with the consent of Ambassador Fabian.
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