Originally Published 2003-07-14 10:54:16 Published on Jul 14, 2003
It has been said that any foreign observer who spends a month in China is apt to write a book on the country; if he spends a year in China, he is content to write an article; and if he lives in China for five years, he deems it wise to refrain from making any prediction! I spent three and a half years in China ¿ too long a period for a book but perhaps but perhaps not for a short talk on India-China relations.
Recent Trends in India-China Relations
It has been said that any foreign observer who spends a month in China is apt to write a book on the country; if he spends a year in China, he is content to write an article; and if he lives in China for five years, he deems it wise to refrain from making any prediction! I spent three and a half years in China - too long a period for a book but perhaps but perhaps not for a short talk on India-China relations.

I propose to approach my subject in three steps.

First , I will outline the main developments in India-China relations in recent years, pointing out the major milestones in the improvement of ties.

Second , I shall thereafter try to identify some of the factors- bilateral, regional and global - that have influenced the process. In the context of global factors, special attention will necessarily be given to the role of the United States, the only superpower in the world today. I will try to examine the relative importance of these bilateral, regional and global factors in advancing or retarding the growth of India-China ties. Did developments in these relations emerge primarily from internal and bilateral impulses or do their origins lie primarily in regional and global factors?

Third , on the basis of the preceding analysis, I shall offer a few concluding observations on the future of India-China relations.

Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988 is usually identified as a turning point and break-through in India-China relations. As we shall presently see, this assessment is well-founded, but it should also be noted that the path for the visit was paved by several years of previous effort. 

As early as on January 1, 1969, prime minister Indira Gandhi indicated at a press conference that India would be prepared to hold talks with China without any preconditions in order to seek ways of solving conflicts between the two countries. On May 1, 1970, during the festivities at Tien An Men Square, Mao Zedong conveyed an important signal to the Indian charge d'affaires, Brajesh Mishra (currently Vajpayee's National Security Advisor). He told Mishra: "India is a great country and the Indian people are a great people. Chinese and Indian people should live as friends, they cannot always quarrel."

Further exploration of Mao's intriguing signal was delayed by the outbreak of the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971. India and China found themselves ranged on opposte sides. India sympathized deeply with the cause of the people of Bangladesh. Millions of Bangladeshis fled to India to save their lives and honour and it became clear that they would not return to their homes unless the Pakistani occupation forces were made to leave the country. China, on the other hand, sided with its quasi-ally, Pakistan. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the Bangladesh struggle coincided with a major development on the global scene. The United States decided to form an entente with China in order to contain Soviet influence. Anxious to cultivate its new ally, the Nixon Administration went to the extent of secretly encouraging China to take military action against India, ignoring strong American public support for the Bangladeshis.

Further difficulties arose from the Chinese stance on two internal developments in India. The first of these was the designation of Arunachal Pradesh as a centrally administered territory. Beijing's negative reaction to this development reflected her territorial claims to this area. Beijing also refused to accept Sikkim's full integration into the Indian Union in 1974. Despite the fact that Sikkim never had an international personality, China took the position - the only country in the world to do so - that Sikkim was an independent state. 

Because of these complications, the pursuit of improved India-China relations could only be resumed in 1976. In that year, the two countries decided to restore ambassadorial-level diplomatic ties after a gap of 15 years. India took the first step by appointing K.R. Narayanan - who later became the president of India - as its ambassador and China quickly reciprocated by posting an ambassador to New Delhi.

The next major step was foreign minister Vajpayee's visit to China in February 1979 - the first high-level visit between the two countries since 1960. Among the issues Vajpayee took up with the Chinese was the question of Beijing's assistance to certain insurgent groups operating in north-eastern India. He received an assurance from his host that this was a matter that belonged to the past. There has been no evidence since that date of any Chinese involvement with insurgents operating in India. A major irritant in bilateral ties was thus removed.

Vajpayee's visit was interrupted by a regional development. China decided to launch an armed attack against Vietnam while Vajpayee was on Chinese soil and Deng Xiaoping added to India's discomfiture by tactlessly drawing a parallel with the Chinese action against India in 1962. The Indian foreign minister had to cut short his visit in these circumstances. 

The regional factor - India's recognition of the Heng Samrin government in Cambodia - also delayed Chinese reciprocation of the Vajpayee visit. However, in June 1981, the Chinese foreign minister, Huang Hua, came to India, reciprocating Vajpayee's visit. It was agreed during Huang Hua's visit to institute an annual dialogue at the level of vice-ministers/ foreign secretaries. By ensuring a regular dialogue at a senior level, another significant step had been taken in developing bilateral ties.

In many ways, Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988 marked a turning point in India-China relations. It was the first visit by an Indian prime minister to China since 1954 and it reciprocated, after a gap of 28 years, premier Zhou En-lai's 1960 visit. Rajiv Gandhi's discussions with Chinese leaders significantly enhanced mutual confidence and understanding. A Joint Working Group was formed for negotiations on the boundary issue and for exploring ways of maintaining peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the border areas. Another Working Group was set up to promote trade and investment. Agreements were signed on cooperation in cultural exchanges, on science and technology and on civil aviation. In short, steps were taken to promote all-round bilateral cooperation and to maintain a tension-free Line of Actual Control while the two sides continued to seek a peaceful solution to the border issue.

This is the basis on which India-China ties have been developed since 1988. There has been a regular exchange of high-level visits between the two countries. The Joint Working Group on border issues negotiated an important Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control. This was formally signed during prime minister Rao's visit to China in 1993. Another important agreement, covering military confidence-building measures along the Line of Actual Control, was signed when president Jiang Zemin visited India in 1996. Both parties have honoured these accords and the Line of Actual Control has remained free from tension.

During prime minister Vajpayee's visit to China last month, some progress was registered in regard to the Chinese attitude to Sikkim. China is the only country in the world that regards Sikkim as an independent country and not a part of the Indian Union. Under a border trade signed during the Vajpayee visit, India and China agreed to conduct "border trade" at a market in Sikkim on the Indian side and at another in Tibet on the Chinese side. This amounts to an implicit recognition of the fact that Sikkim is a part of India but it falls short of an explicit statement or formal recognition. It would be reasonable to expect that the Chinese will in due course take further steps to remove this needless irritant in India-China relations. 

Among the most encouraging recent developments in India-China ties is the rapid increase in bilateral trade. Trade has registered double digit percentage increases each year over several years. It rose from an insignificant level of million dollars in to 5 billion dollars last year (2002). During his visit to India last year, premier Zhu Rongji set an indicative target of 10 billion dollars to be achieved by 2005. This is an ambitious target but progress so far has been promising. In January-April 2003, India-China trade saw a spectacular increase of over 70 per cent compared to the corresponding period last year. At a time when both countries are according top priority to economic development, burgeoning trade ties will create new bonds between India and China.

C Dasgupta, former Ambassador to China, is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He is the author of War And Diplomacy in Kashmir 1947-48.

The above article is excerpted from the text of a talk the distinguished Ambassador had given at the Zayed Centre For Coordination and Follow-up, Abu Dhabi, UAE, on July 5, 2003
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