Dai Bingguo is a respected Chinese politician and diplomat. Many in India will be familiar with him as a long-time interlocutor with a string of Indian National Security Advisors in the Sino-Indian border discussions. He has served as a State Councillor and as the director of the General Offices of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Group of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee. A senior Chinese official once described him to me as China’s Kissinger. He retired in 2013 but his voice is still heard in the higher echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, and his voice is also often their voice. Hence it is as important to have him hear you, as it is to hear him.
Dai returned to headlines in India on March 2 when he told the Beijing-based magazine China-India Dialogue that: “The disputed territory in the eastern sector of the China-India boundary, including Tawang, is inalienable from China’s Tibet in terms of cultural background and administrative jurisdiction. The major reason the boundary question persists is that China’s reasonable requests [in the east] have not been met. If the Indian side takes care of China’s concerns in the eastern sector of their border, the Chinese side will respond accordingly and address India’s concerns elsewhere.”
Dai was clearly alluding to a new package deal on the border issues between India and China, quite different from an old package deal offered several times in the past. That package deal entailed India recognising the Aksai Chin plateau in the North as Chinese territory in lieu of China recognising Arunachal Pradesh as Indian. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai first offered this package deal in 1960. But this was not acceptable to New Delhi and India and China went on to fight the 1962 war over the border issue. We have been eyeball-to-eyeball since.
In the interview, Dai said that the deal was offered to Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1979. The last time it was reportedly offered was during Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s meeting with Deng Xiaoping in 1988.
At an interaction with Indian journalists in Beijing in 2015, Yang Wencheng, President of the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs said: “As a diplomat in the late 1980s, I was witness to a chance to solve the problem with Prime Minister Rajiv and Deng. Deng said, ‘We do some compromise on the West wing, you do some on the East wing, then we can have a new border.’”
Yang added: “We offered but Prime Minister Gandhi didn’t have a response. After that I felt very sad we lost the chance.”
What China wants
The goalposts have since changed. The Chinese now clearly want the populated Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh and want to go beyond the old Macartney-MacDonald line in Ladakh. This proposal requires India to cede territory it holds at present.
Though the Simla Conference of 1913 between British India and an independent Tibet agreed upon the McMahon Line as the effective boundary between India and China in the North East, the border was only notified by Delhi in 1935 at the insistence of Sir Olaf Caroe, then deputy secretary in the Foreign Department. China disputes the legal status of this line.
In 1944, civil servant JP Mills established British Indian administration in the North East Frontier Agency up till the McMahon Line, but excluded the Tawang tract, which continued to be administered by the Lhasa-appointed head lama. In 1947, the present Dalai Lama wrote to newly-independent India laying claim to these parts.
On October 7, 1950, the Chinese attacked the Tibetans in Qamdo and asserted control over all of Tibet within a year. In anticipation, on February 16, 1951, Major Relangnao ‘Bob’ Khating of the Indian Frontier Administration Service, at the head of a column of Indian forces, raised the India tricolour in Tawang and took over the administration of the tract. Clearly India’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh does not rest on any long historical tradition or cultural affinity. But then the Chinese have no basis whatsoever to stake a claim on the area either besides a few dreamy cartographic enlargements of the notion of China among some of the hangers-on in the Qing emperor’s court. The important thing now is that the McMahon Line is over 100 years old and India has been directly administering the territory for almost eight decades. China was never there, either in 1913 or before or after.
The case of Aksai Chin
India’s claims on Aksai Chin in the North rest on the “advanced boundary line” formulated in 1865 by WH Johnson, a civil sub-assistant in the Survey of India. Johnson proposed this line after claiming to have surveyed the territory. The authorities in Delhi and London waited three decades before rejecting this alignment, now called the Ardagh-Johnson line.
Viceroy Lord Lansdowne wrote on September 28, 1889:
“The country between the Karakoram and Kuen Lun ranges is, I understand, of no value, very inaccessible and not likely to be coveted by Russia. We might, I should think, encourage the Chinese to take it, if they showed any inclination to do so. This would be better than leaving a no-man’s land between our frontier and that of China.”
Lord Curzon, who was Secretary of State for India in London, wrote:
“We are inclined to think that the wisest course would be to leave them in possession as it is evidently to our advantage that the tract of territory between the Karakoram and Kuen Lun mountains be held by a friendly power like China.”
In 1893, Hung Ta-chen, a senior Chinese official at Kashgar in China’s western-most province of Xinjiang, handed a map of the boundary proposed by China to George Macartney, the British consul-general there. This boundary placed the Lingzithang plains, which are South of the Laktsang range, in India, and Aksai Chin proper, which is North of the Laktsang range, in China. Macartney recommended and forwarded this to the British Indian government. There were good reasons for the British to support this border along the Karakorum mountains. The Karakorums formed a natural boundary, which would set the British borders up to the Indus river watershed while leaving the Tarim river watershed in Chinese control.
The British presented this line, known as the Macartney-MacDonald Line, to the Chinese in 1899 in a note by Sir Claude MacDonald, the British minister to the Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty. China believed that this then was the accepted boundary. But post-1962, the Chinese are ahead of this too.
In 1941 after military intelligence in Delhi got reports of Soviet troops garrisoning in Xinjiang, it was decided to push the existing boundary outwards to the old Ardagh-Johnson line. Thus, Aksai Chin once more became part of India. This late incorporation appeared in few maps only. The India map of the original Constitution of India adopted in 1950 leaves the boundary between India and China at Aksai Chin as an airbrushed blank without indicating any line.
Chinese claims exaggerated?
There are doubts in China too about its border claims. Professor Ge Jianxiong, director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai wrote in China Review that prior to 1912 when the Republic of China was established, the idea of China was not clearly conceptualised. Even during the late Qing period the term China would on occasion refer to the Qing state including all the territory that fell within the claimed boundaries of the Qing Empire. At other times it would be taken to refer to only the 18 interior provinces excluding Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Sinkiang (now Xianjiang).
Professor Ge added that the notions of Greater China were based entirely on the “one-sided views of Qing court records that were written for the court’s self-aggrandisement”. Ge criticised those who felt that the more they exaggerated the territory of historical China the more patriotic they were deemed to be.
Both, India and China are now experiencing new levels of nationalism. Territory is at the core of this nationalism, making the exchange of territories unpalatable to public opinion in both countries. If the package entails the withdrawal of the two territorial claims, it might win a modicum of support in both countries. But this is clearly not so. What Dai Bingguo is now suggesting is that India gives up its claim on Aksai Chin, and also cede the strategically vital Tawang tract.
What is feasible is for India and China to find acceptable lines of actual control based on sound strategic principles. Claims and counter-claims on territories is clearly not the way to go about it.