Saturday, Feb 24, 2018 | Last Update : 05:32 AM IST

Han-style diplomacy: What China says, and what it may really mean

The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.
Published : Feb 8, 2018, 2:16 am IST
Updated : Feb 8, 2018, 2:17 am IST

From security to expansion, France sought a “guarantee” from both current contracting and past confronting parties.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (Photo: AFP)
 Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (Photo: AFP)

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has, once again, made his country’s position succinctly clear: “China always values ties with India but is firm on ‘sovereign rights’.” This statement has two dimensions — ties with India are of value but China’s “sovereign rights, interests and territorial integrity” are paramount. The question is thus how valuable is this “value”.

While it seems “perfect” for China, it will soon become “not-so-perfect” if “the other side of the hill” too adopts the same strategy!

Who decides the “perfect” median: the average, central point of agreement — a unilateral diktat from Beijing or a mutually agreeable agreement? This is the crux as one sees the evolution of Chinese “sovereign rights”, post-1949.

The scenario is somewhat like the post-World War I French “quest for security” that pertained to the frontier, finance, firepower and the franc to undermine the provisions of the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty to regain the old 19th century glory of Napoleonic days when France overran Europe, where non-French nation states and dependencies, duchies and republics were like vassals and satellites. “Guarantee” was the password.

From security to expansion, France sought a “guarantee” from both current contracting and past confronting parties.

To establish its “(extra)-territorial” grip on soil which might not necessarily have been its own in the past, China began quite early. It began its quest for “territory stabilisation process” after a long war and a still longer civil war, and at the behest of its weak and small neighbour like Burma (now Myanmar). The Sino-Burmese frontier has a turbulent past as China “claimed” Burmese territory.

Nevertheless, to show how peaceful, peace-loving, tolerant, just, fair and flexible international “model big brother” it can be, China signed the Sino-Burmese border agreement on January 28, 1960 and ceded a small portion of its “claimed land” of “Nam-Wan assigned tract” and “Panghung and Pangloo Tribal Area” to Myanmar. With this Beijing’s pretence to be the “good boy of Asia” came full circle. It sent a message to the international community that a “strong, yet sensible and sensitive China surrendered its avowed ‘sovereign rights’ to the small and weak”.

Taking this further, a year after the Sino-Burmese Boundary Treaty, the Sino-Nepalese Boundary Treaty was signed on October 5, 1961. Here, China’s softness stiffened as it claimed sovereignty over Mount Everest.

Though Nepal’s then PM B.P. Koirala summarily rejected Beijing’s claim, China was in its “sovereign” element in pointing out that “Chinese climbers had scaled Mount Everest (without the customary permission of Nepal) and placed a bust of Mao wrapped in a Chinese flag on the summit”, asserting China’s sovereign right to not compromise with its territorial ambition and claim; it outright rejected the Nepalese point.

Thus, the assertion or desertion of Chinese “sovereign rights” in “friendly boundary-agreements with Myanmar and Nepal” (achieved by the Chinese Communist government’s acceptance of principles which it had rejected in the case of India) “were used for isolating India” as New Delhi proved to be “an intransigent renegade from the Bandung spirit”. “Sovereign rights” for China thus was a tool for accepting or rejecting an opponent’s claim in line with Beijing’s national interest and convenience alone. And there’s no reason to believe anything contrary will happen today or in future in China’s attitude and actions toward India. The buck now stops at China’s unilateral traffic of “sovereign rights”.

Coming back to “China values ties with India”, a question arises. Since when exactly did China begin doing that? In 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was born? In 1950, when Tibet was forcibly captured? In 1959, when the fugitive Dalai Lama took refuge in India? In 1962 (when China attacked India on Mao’s order, without provocation)? In 1971, when India was “invaded” by the Pakistan Army and (then) Pakistani citizens as refugees? In 1978, when the then foreign minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China? In the late 1980s, when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China? Or in 2017, when China had a comfortable surplus trade balance of $52 billion?

Today there are several serious issues which lie pending for a solution. If not a solution, at least some kind of diplomatic or political resolution. Why? One gets the eerie feeling that China is comfortable only with a “unilateral” than a bilateral “resolution” of issues.

Let’s then be honest with ourselves. Sooner or later, this “values ties with India” is bound to come into conflict with the “real non-addressed issues” — that both sides appear to be underestimating. It’s bound to get more serious. Remember Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich on September 29, 1938 — that was the prologue to a tragedy?

The core Sino-Indian issue is territory and geography, on the basis of which every sovereign state stands. Just a cursory look at the words of the Chinese foreign minister — “We handled the Indian border troops’ trespass into China’s Dong Long area in our national interest” — is enough to explain the gravity of the situation. This implies there were no Chinese troops there. India is the wrongdoer and China the victim! As if China never trespassed before? As if China is the ultimate paragon of peace, prosperity, virtue, wisdom, wealth and prosperity, and India just the opposite. Does this really corroborate with “China values ties with India”?

There’s no doubt that even in the best of times the Sino-Indian bilateral situation is fraught with ups and downs, given its turbulent past and complicated present. But the most peculiar things appear to have either been forgotten or ignored. Usually, a war ends with a meeting or a declaration. The 22-day India-Pakistan war of 1965 ended with the 1966 Tashkent Declaration. The 17-day India-Pakistan war of 1971 ended with the 1972 Shimla Agreement. The 1999 Kargil war ended with several India-Pak bilateral treaties.

How come till date nothing appears to have officially happened after the 1962 Sino-Indian war? China objects to Japanese leaders going to pay tribute to their fallen heroes during the war. Has China ever apologised to India for the 1962 aggression? Has India insisted on the expression of at least token regret by China? This single factor of unilateralism is a reflection of the Han psyche of one-way diplomacy — from commerce, economics to defence; the sooner the Chinese realise and rectify this, the better would be the prospect of Sino-Indian bilateral ties.

Tags: wang yi, b.p. koirala, sino-burmese boundary treaty