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The Rediff Special

by Claude Arpi

published in on April 29, 2004

Part I

Panchsheel, 50 years after


     Today, India and China 'celebrate' the 50th anniversary of the 'Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India,' better known as the 'Panchsheel Agreement.'

     Is there something to celebrate? While this can certainly be questioned, nobody can dispute that the events of 1954 marked an epoch for India and Tibet.

     The time has perhaps come to look into the history of these troubled years and introspect to see if new opportunities can be found to sort out the old knots of the past.

     The ball started rolling a hundred years ago (in July 1904) when a young British colonel, Francis Younghusband, forced his way into the holy city of Lhasa. Today it is fashionable to speak of the 'clash of civilisations' but in this particular case, it was truly two different worlds meeting for the first time.

    At the end of his stay in the Tibetan capital, Younghusband forced upon the Tibetans their first agreement with the mighty British empire. By signing this treaty with the crown representative, Tibet was 'acknowledged' by London as a separate nation. However political deals are never simple; Tibet's Western neighbour, China, whose suzerainty over Tibet in Lord Curzon's words was a 'constitutional fiction', was extremely unhappy not to be a party to the accord.

     Ten years later (March 1914), wanting to show fairness, London called for a tripartite conference in Simla to settle the issue: the three main protagonists sat together at a negotiation table for the first time. The result was not fully satisfactory as the Chinese only initialized the main document and did not ratify it. The British and Tibetans however agreed on a common border demarcated on a map: the famous McMahon Line was born.

     This treaty was still in force when India became independent in August 1947.

     But in October 1950, an event changed the destiny of the Himalayan region: Mao's troops marched into Tibet.

     Lhasa appealed to the United Nations against China's invasion of Tibet. India, though recognising Tibet's autonomy ('verging on independence' as per Nehru's words), began to vacillate and was unable to stand up in favour of their peaceful neighbour against the might of Red China.

     In May 1951, some of the Dalai Lama's representatives signed -- 'under duress' -- a 17-Point Agreement with Communist China. For the first time in its 2,000-year history, Lhasa officially 'accepted' Tibet as a part of China. However, the incorporation of the Tibetan nation into China was not immediately acknowledged by Delhi which continued for a couple of years to maintain a full-fledged mission in Lhasa.

     The signature of the Panchsheel Agreement between India and China on April 29, 1954 marked the tail-end of events set in motion by the entry of Younghusband into Tibet. While the British expedition accepted Tibet as a separate entity, the signatures on the Agreement put an end to its existence as a distinct nation. The Land of Snows merely became 'Tibet's Region of China.' The circle was closed with incalculable consequences for India and the entire Himalayan region. One of the most ironic aspects is that the Tibetans themselves were not even informed of the negotiations.

     The preamble of the Agreement contains the Five Principles which formed the main pillar of India's foreign policy for the next five years. They heralded the beginning of the Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai policy and the 'non-aligned' position of India.

     A great tragedy is that the Agreement is remembered not for its content, which concerns the trade relations between India and Tibet, but for its preamble which directly caused the destruction of an ancient, spiritual 'way of life' (backward in one sense though much more advanced at an inner level).

     Another misfortune is that the idealistic Five Principles have never been followed either in letter or in spirit by China. Non-interference in the other's affairs and respect for the neighbour's territorial integrity are two of the Five Principles, but Chinese intrusions into Indian territory began hardly 3 months after the signature of the accord.

     The Agreement opened the door to China's military control of the Roof of the World by the People's Liberation Army. This translated into building a network of roads and airstrips heading towards the Indian frontiers in NEFA and Ladakh.

     Nehru and his advisors had progressively fallen in love with a 'revolutionary' China and sacrificed Tibet for the sake of the new-found brotherhood. India did not obtain any benefit out of her 'generosity.' On the contrary, she lost a peaceful and friendly neighbour.

     Eight years later, the Principles had evaporated so much that the two Asian giants fought a war in the Himalayas.

     The Panchsheel Agreement is composed of two parts: the Preamble (the Five Principles) and the content (regarding trade between India and Tibet and pilgrimage rights for Indians and Tibetans). However it was the title itself, 'Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India' which was the most important victory for Beijing. For the first time since Younghusband had entered Lhasa, India acknowledged Tibet as only a 'Region of China.'

     India had to pay dearly, and is still paying 50 years after an agreement (which in any case lapsed in June 1962) for the idealist policy of her first prime minister.

     Nehru wanted to be a modern Asoka, renouncing violence and force to solve the problems of the world. In his admiration for the noble emperor, he did not remember that the Mauryan empire did not survive the Asokan edicts. The greatest empire of ancient India crumbled less than 70 years after Asoka's death.

     It is perhaps unfortunate, but still a fact of life that strength and power are necessary to defend some eternal values. Sardar Patel knew this, but he passed away in 1950. Had he been alive, no Panchsheel Agreement, finishing off the Tibetan nation, would have ever been signed.

     Today, fifty years after the signing of the Pancheel Agreement, one can only hope that a new generation of Indian leaders will be able to live by the Principles as enunciated in the agreement, but will also have a more insightful vision to take firm actions to make India truly strong and self-reliant.

     The agreement had many tragic consequences. We recently wrote about the proposed damming and diversion of the Brahmaputra which can only happen because the people of Tibet have no say in what is happening in their country. Though neither the Preamble (the Five Principles) nor the provisions of the agreement are in force today, the acceptance of Tibet as a part of the People's Republic of China remains a fact.

     Another disastrous outcome of the signing of the agreement is the refusal of some of Nehru's advisors to bargain for a proper delimitation of the border between Tibet and India, against the relinquishment of India's rights in Tibet (accrued from the Simla Convention). These officials considered these advantages an imperialist heritage to be spurned by a newly independent India.

     During the talks with Beijing between 1951 and 1954, K M Panikkar, the Indian ambassador to China and his colleagues 'cleverly' tried to avoid bringing the border question to the table. Their reasoning was that if the Chinese did not consider the border to be an agreed issue, they would themselves bring it up for discussion. The Indian cleverness backfired, ending in a disaster for India. In his speech after the signature of the agreement, Zhou Enlai congratulated the negotiators for having solved all the matters 'ripe for settlement.'

     Fifty years later, the folly of this policy still haunts an India unable to sort out her border tangle. In June 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee expressed the wish to start 'fast track' parleys on the issue with Beijing.

     Does it mean that today the border tangle is 'ripe for settlement'?

     Will the 50th anniversary of Panchsheel finally witness a breakthrough?

     We shall have a look at the different options in the second part of this article.



Part II

Can the India-China border issue ever be solved?

     Fifty years ago, during the Panchsheel negotiations, India shied away from bringing the questions of the borders to the negotiating table with Beijing. Today, India is still unable to sort out her frontier tangle with China.

     The question remains: is there a creative but feasible solution to solve the border issue?

     In June 2003, Brajesh Mishra, the Indian government's National Security Advisor, was nominated as the special envoy to negotiate with Beijing. The first round of talks between Mishra and his Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo, the vice foreign minister, was held in Delhi on October 23 and 24, 2003.

     The envoys met again in Beijing on January 12 and 13. Though the two parties agreed not to publicise the outcome of the talks, Kong Quan, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, declared that the second 'ministerial-level discussions' were 'positive' and the atmosphere was 'constructive.'

     'Such complicated issues cannot achieve rapid progress through only one or two rounds of talks,' he added.

     Brajesh Mishra does not have an easy task in front of him. Fifty years of Chinese 'possession' of Aksai Chin, the remote region of Ladakh, makes the tangle even trickier to sort out.

     Time has not simplified the issue.

     Let us take a moment to look back. Soon after the PLA entered Lhasa in 1951, the Chinese made plans to improve communications in Tibet. To 'consolidate the borders' as announced by Mao, Beijing began to construct a large network of roads on a war footing.

     Priority was given to the Chamdo-Lhasa and Qinghai-Lhasa sectors linking the Tibetan capital with eastern Tibet as well as the western road known as the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway (or Aksai Chin road).

     The construction of the feeder road leading to Nathu-la, the border pass between Sikkim and Tibet, had a weird consequence. India began providing food to the Chinese road workers in Tibet, sending tons of rice through this route. John Lall, a former Dewan of Sikkim, was posted in Gangtok at the time. He witnessed long caravans of mules leaving in the direction of Tibet. He recalled: 'But suddenly all was sweetness and light. The reason became apparent when a request was made for shipment of Chinese rice through India and Sikkim to their troops in Tibet. This could, and indeed should, have been made the occasion for a settlement of the major problems with China.'

     It was not to be.B N Mullick, the then Intelligence Bureau director, claimed that he had been reporting the road building activity of the Chinese in the Aksai Chin area since as early as November 1952. According to him, the Indian trade agent in Gartok also informed Delhi about it in July and September 1955, and August 1957.

     Instead of alarming Nehru, these disturbing reports reinforced his determination to bolster the friendship with China.

     Finally, in October 1957, a Chinese newspaper reported: 'The Sinkiang-Tibet -- the highest highway in the world -- has been completed. The Sinkiang-Tibet Highway is 1,179 km long, of which 915 km are more than 4,000 meters above sea level; 130 km of it over 5,000 meters above sea level, with the highest point being 5,500 meters."

     The circle was closed. The two newly-acquired Western provinces of Communist China (Sinkiang and Tibet) were linked.

     The tragedy is that it took nearly two more years for the news to become public in India. Only in August 1959 did Nehru drop the bombshell in the Lok Sabha: the 'Tibet-Sinkiang highway' was cutting through Indian territory.

     The prime minister had kept the information secret for more than 5 years!

     Today, fifty years later, what can be done about it?

     Although during the 1960 negotiations on the border issue Indian officials proved beyond doubt that Aksai Chin was a part of Ladakh, the fact is the Chinese have now occupied the area for half a century.

     Will the Chinese ever relinquish this strategic artery?


     And for India: is it conceivable that any government (especially during an election year) could 'gift' away such a large chunk of Indian territory?

     Besides, what could India receive from Beijing in return for such a 'gift'? The recognition of Arunachal Pradesh as being a part of India has been mentioned as a possible compensation. But this does not make any sense as the Chinese claim on Arunachal is legally and historically empty of any substance.

     On the Chinese side, the new leadership in Beijing knows very well that ultimately it is in China's interest to settle this long outstanding issue with India and put the relationship between the two nations on sounder tracks.

     At one point in time, an idea was mooted to have an international board of 'neutral' historians who would ascertain both China and India's claims. But one can doubt if Beijing would ever accept such an arbitration: their 'historical' case is too weak.

     But with both parties firm on their respective stands, is there a possible solution where no party would lose face?

     An innovative solution could be to create a condominium for the Aksai-Chin-Lizingthang area. The region could be jointly administrated by Beijing and New Delhi through two appointed commissioners (or whatever other designation may be agreed upon).

     One small grace in this intractable problem is that very little development is possible (apart from a road) in the region due to the lack of water, the high salinity (a part is known as the Soda Plain) as well as the high altitude. In this sense, Nehru was right when he said that not a blade of grass could grow there. This would make the condominium solution far easier to work out. Practical modalities would have to keep in view the fact that China needs the road to connect Tibet to Xinjiang.

     The concept of condominium was popularised in the 18th century, when hundreds of small principalities were in existence. Very often, they were not self-sufficient and found it difficult to survive. In a few cases, they appealed to two princes for help and protection. Was it not safer to have two protectors instead of one? Things changed in the 20th century with the birth of the League of Nations and, later the United Nations Organisation. From that time, only one ruler could be recognised for a given territory.

     A condominium for Aksai Chin would not face many of the challenges that other condominiums had to confront. First and foremost, nobody lives permanently on the high plateau. Therefore, there is no question of stakeholders other than the two States: India and China. Secondly, no natural resources such oil, minerals have been discovered so far, therefore there is no need for a complicated sharing mechanism.

     The trickiest issue to solve would be the right to transit across the region. China would continue to have the same facilities that she is presently enjoying. In the future, it is essential for India to reopen the trade route to Kashgar through the Karakoram Pass. Though technically this route is not cutting through the occupied area, this provision would have to be included in a general settlement.

     A few weeks ago, China Daily mentioned that a similar solution was proposed by Deng Xiaoping in the seventies for the disputed Diaoyu Islands between Japan and China, 'to promote friendly relations and pursue a win-wincompromise with Japan, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the two countries seek common exploitation of the islands while shelving disputes over the ownership of them.'

     With the Aksai Chin issue solved, many other issues could fall into place. The others sectors of the border would be comparatively easier to sort out.

     Another advantage for both India and 'Tibet's Region of China' would be that the old trade route between Leh and Gartok could be immediately reopened and subsequently the pilgrimage road to Kailash-Mansarovar. It would be a great boon for Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who would be able to travel by car in two days from Leh to the sacred mountain.

     The main question remains: is the time ripe for settlement?

     Let us hope that 50 years after agreeing to the Five Principles a great leap forward will be taken the right direction.


© Jaïa Bharati