India's refusal to enter into a negotiation with China to address the boundary dispute is at the root of the current crisis between the two emerging giants of Asia, says journalist and writer Neville Maxwell, author of India's China War. In an exclusive interview to DNA in the context of the recent escalations in tensions between the two countries over developments relating to Arunachal Pradesh, Maxwell noted that "the Indian refusal to negotiate (with China) is the A to Z of this problem. While that lasts, things will just get worse…"
Drawing on decades of research and writings, which have made an important contribution to the historiography of the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Maxwell said that the Indian side "is still impaled on Nehru's folly of declaring India's boundaries fixed, final and non-negotiable. No successor Indian government has dared - and many have not been inclined - to challenge that assertion."
What is your assessment of the current controversy over Arunachal Pradesh and the overall state of Sino-Indian relationship?
The protracted talks between the governments of China and India are not negotiations proper. The Indian side is still impaled on (Jawaharlal) Nehru's folly of declaring India's boundaries fixed, final and non-negotiable. No successor Indian government has dared - and many have not been inclined - to challenge that assertion. A boundary dispute is soluble only in the context of negotiations. If one side or the other refuses to negotiate, a conflict is almost inevitable…
The present position, as far as India is concerned, is the worst of all possible worlds. Since these are not 'negotiations', neither side can move from its originally stated position.
Ever since the question arose in diplomatic exchanges in the 1950s and the prime ministerial correspondence between Zhou (Enlai) and Nehru, China's position has been: 'There is a dispute between us. It results from history, particularly Imperial history. But we will resolve it to mutual satisfaction once we open negotiations.'
Unfortunately, the Indian position from the beginning until today has been: 'We'll tell you where the Sino-Indian boundaries lie, and you'll have to respect the conclusion that we reach. And should you decline, we'll charge you with aggression, and public pressure will force us to take military action against you…'
That's what happened in 1962. China, therefore, made use of a well-established principle in international law, and acted in pre-emptive self-defence. The Indian side had already been moving militarily against China for a couple of years, and the Indian government, in the voice of their Prime Minister Nehru, had publicly and internationally declared that it was going to attack China.
Your view that India is to blame for the war with China in 1962 has been challenged by scholars like John Garver, who have argued that Mao Zedong committed a fundamental 'attribution error' by concluding that Nehru sought to seize Tibet from China. How do you respond to that?
It's utter nonsense… The facts on the ground were quite clear-cut. India was bent on military aggression against China to confirm its badly based territorial claims, and China reacted with an entirely legitimate act of pre-emptive self-defence. That is the legal position, and perceptions about Mao and Tibet don't come into it. That's just absurd.
How valid are China's claims - as articulated by its Ambassador to India recently - that the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory?
It's been the Chinese position from Day One. They are simply restating their original position: which is that the territory of China was clearly marked on its maps and the fact that the British intruded upon it and changed their maps. China has always claimed the boundary lies at the foot of the hills bordering the Brahmaputra Valley. They are not going to change that without negotiations.
In the context of negotiations, everything is negotiable. If India would only come to the negotiating table, the two sides can feel each others' positions out. But until India is willing to negotiate, China will stand where it has always stood. It is not going to change that until India is ready to negotiate.
But was a public articulation of that view by the Ambassador the best way to address it?
Ambassadors, when pushed, can sometimes be a little tactless. An ambassador pushed on the ropes by aggressive questioning might well respond, 'Well, the whole of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory.' He is simply restating the basic pre-negotiation position of every Chinese government.
Clearly, the Chinese Ambassador made the obvious and correct reply. The Chinese are saying: 'So far as we are concerned, that's our territory. The fact that you call it Arunachal Pradesh may be good for you, but we don't acknowledge that. We're not going to take it back, because we are a pacific neighbour. But don't kid yourself that the matter is forgotten. It's got to be negotiated.'
How about the denial of China visas to officials from Arunachal Pradesh?
It's part of the same thing. The Chinese view is: 'If you call yourself the Chief Minister or an official of Arunachal Pradesh, don't present your passport to us for a visa. You don't exist as far as we are concerned.'
It's all quite logical when you realise that the Indian refusal to negotiate is the A to Z of this problem. While that lasts, things will just get worse… It can never be resolved.
China had in the past informally proposed an east-west 'package deal' under which if India made territorial concessions in Aksai Chin (in the western sector), China would reciprocate and renounce its claims in the eastern sector (the area corresponding to Arunachal Pradesh)…
If India had acted on those indications, could the Sino-Indian boundary dispute have been solved?
Yes, I do believe that but for Nehru's folly of saying that India's boundary is non-negotiable, had India in the late 1950s acted as Burma (current-day Myanmar) and every other neighbour of China in due course was to act, and said ' Okay, let's sit down and negotiate', the boundary dispute could have been settled.
China would, I believe, have confirmed the McMahon alignment - not the McMohan Line - as more or less the boundary and then the joint boundary commission would have ironed out the minor differences on the ground. At that stage, I do not believe China would have demanded the retrocession of the Tawang monastery because there was no illwill towards India.
I believe that had India acted rationally, there would have been a Sino-Indian boundary settlement in 1959 or 1960 with mutual acclaim
— and a major alteration in world history.
Do you believe China will revert to that stage where it was willing to make those concessions?
If India were to say it will negotiate from the start and if the Chinese believed that it was being honest, the process will still be fairly protracted; it might take years. And it would be not easy because a lot of mutual mistrust has been built up now.
So, what's the way forward?
The answer remains what it has always been: India must reverse Nehru's position and say 'Let's sit down and negotiate'. The Chinese will be sceptical at first, but once they believe that India means business, the two sides could begin by inviting the Myanmar government in to fix that trijunction so that they have a starting point on which to anchor the McMahon alignment, and they could then proceed westward.
When they come up against a point of dispute that appears to be beyond compromise - that might be over Tawang, for example - they could put it aside for settlement at some future date and not let that deadlock disrupt the negotiations. That diplomatic tactic was the key to settling the Sino-Soviet dispute.
If I were to advice the Indian government, I would say: 'See if you can agree on confirming a Line of Actual Control.' That means a broad-brush agreement, not nitpicking. Get a cordon sanitaire that neither side will intrude upon. Then they can go on quietly talking.
But it's important to agree on a Line of Actual Control because otherwise there will be constant little clashes, with the military wondering why the other side sent a patrol onto that hilltop. And then the opposition will pick that up and say, 'We've been invaded again.'
Given goodwill on both sides, a settlement can be found. But the problem is that no Indian government is likely to be secure and committed for long enough to pursue this matter for several years of hard negotiations….
If an Indian government agrees to negotiate with China, the outcry would be clamorous. The opposition would say, 'You're selling out sacred Indian soil.'
In 1986, (Mikhail) Gorbachev reversed that position and said 'We will negotiate'. That was a brilliant act of statesmanship. India awaits its Gorbachev!