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The former Special Representative of China for border talks with India, the State Councillor Dai Bingguo, presents his country’s perspectives on the issue, taken from his book of memoirs, Strategic Dialogues: Reminiscences of Dai Bingguo.

The memoirs of Dai Bingguo provide deep insights into the border talks and the personal chemistry of the negotiators. Dai Bingguo reveals that the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and his national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, had hoped to reach “an early settlement” in 2003 as they thought that a breakthrough was possible after the general election in 2004, but Vajpayee’s ruling alliance lost the election.

As Dai Bingguo sees it, China believed that the prospects of a solution looked bleak because of a “weak” Congress-led government coming into power in 2004 and also because achieving a resolution with a Congress government was less likely due to the party’s “historical baggage” concerning the boundary dispute.

The Chinese special representative further writes that a solution based on the status quo was ruled out by both countries, and that in order to reach a final settlement, both countries would need to make “mutual adjustments,” with China giving up some territory in the Aksai Chin in the northwest, and India handing over some land in Arunachal Pradesh in the east. Further, he believes that both countries have failed to grasp a few opportunities to resolve the border dispute—first during Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s India visit in 1960, secondly during Vajpayee’s visit to China in 1979, and thirdly when India insisted on a sectoral arrangement rather than a package deal in the 1980s.

China’s Special Representative (SR), Dai Bingguo, who negotiated border issue with four Indian SRs between 2003 and 2013, candidly airs his memories about these talks, acknowledging India’s support for China during its war with Japan, as well as China, India and Burma jointly advocating the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

Dai explains that beginning from the second half of the nineteenth century, the British colonial rulers “unilaterally concocted” the so-called ‘Johnson Line’ in the Western Sector. “In 1914 by way of coercing and luring, they again concocted the infamous ‘McMahon Line’ with the plenipotentiary of provincial government of Tibet, a line which has never been recognised by the respective Chinese governments.” After 1947, India inherited the legacies of the colonial invasions, and between 1951 and 1952 India gradually occupied large swathes of territories south of the ‘McMahon Line.’ He writes that in 1954 India changed the map and showed the undefined borders in the Middle and Western Sectors as defined. Henceforth, the Sino-Indian border formed huge chunks of disputed areas, involving 125,000 sq. km. of land. Of this 33,000 sq. km. is in the Western Sector, primarily in the Aksai Chin region; 2,000 sq. km. in the Middle Sector; and 90,000 sq. km. in Eastern Sector including large swathes of territory between the ‘McMahon Line’ and the traditional customary line.

Dai Bingguo regards Vajpayee’s visit to China in June 2003 as a landmark resulting in the adoption of the “Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India.” The Declaration states that the Indian side recognised that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India. The Vajpayee visit placed Sino-Indian relations on a fast track, Dai believes, as the Declaration created the SRs mechanism to “explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement.” In a personal glimpse, Dai writes that it was Vajpayee who proposed establishing the SRs mechanism for border negotiations during his visit to China in 1979. He explains: “Vajpayee reiterated it again on 23 June 2003 and immediately appointed his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra as India’s SR, and [Chinese premier] Wen Jiabao in turn appointed me as China’s SR.”

Dai’s starting point is that there was never a commonly agreed and legally defined border between the two countries. China, he declares, adopted an attitude of non-partisanship, mutual understanding, and mutual accommodation in the early-1960s. The Indian government, however, “declined to negotiate, adhered to its unilateral approach on border, and continued to nibble the Chinese territory,” he states. In the Western Sector, India had constructed 43 strongholds inside Chinese territory in 1962, he writes, and adds that in the Eastern Sector India constructed 24 sentry posts “along the so-called McMahon Line by the first half of the 1962 and continued to provoke China.”And “when China was at the end of its forbearance, when push came to shove, China was forced to resort to counter attack in self-defence, and evicted India from all the 43 strongholds” it had constructed in the Western Sector and restored the Line of Actual Control, while in the Eastern Sector, “China’s assault after reaching the adjoining areas of traditional customary line retreated to the Line of Actual Control.”

After the war, relations touched the nadir, he explains, adding that the although “the Indian side though knew about the reasons and facts about the conflict but shied from squarely facing the reality, and adhered to the view that as long as the border remained unresolved, there can be no improvement in relations.” It was only in the late 1970s that India started to restore contacts with China and agreed to resolve the border issue through negotiations, Dai writes.

China, he explains, had “consistently sought peaceful resolution of the issue” by advocating “taking into account the historical background, ground realities and the sentiments of the people on both sides.” He recollects that in 1960, the premier, Zhou Enlai, visited India for talks with the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and pushed forward three rounds of official level talks. After an improvement in relations, they held eight rounds of talks between 1981 and 1987 that discussed the guiding principles for the resolution of the border issue, but they could not reach any agreement. After prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s China visit in 1988, the Joint Working Group on the boundary held fifteen rounds of talks, however “since India was adamant on its initial position, there wasn’t any positive movement,” he declares.

Dai explains that the creation of the system of the SRs was a logical conclusion of the complex early talks. It happened first when “India at last realised that it was difficult to impose its unilateral stand on territory by force on China, and that it was also impossible to ask China for unilateral accommodation and resolve the issue,” and therefore “India accepted to resolve the issue through peaceful negotiations.” Secondly, an impetus for negotiations resulted from rapid globalisation, when “India seriously started to study China’s developmental experience, and concentrated on its economic development.” India realised, he explains, that “in order to guarantee development, it needs to create a good external environment, especially in its neighbouring areas. It realised that it must get rid of all the roadblocks that may deviate it from this path.” Thirdly, when the BJP government led by Vajpayee came into power, the desire to develop relations with China accelerated, along with an “urgency to settle the border issue.” Moreover, he writes: “Vajpayee’s prestige was very high, he had great political capital and charisma, he aspired to settle the border dispute during his tenure and enter his name in the annals of history.”

In an account rich in fine detail, Dai explains that the mechanism of the SRs was proposed by India. First, “through diplomatic channels India explained to us that through this we would explore the guiding principles for resolving the issue,” and that “it will not involve specific negotiations for border demarcation and work on the maps.” Secondly, India proposed that “the goal would be to accomplish the task of the SRs within four to five rounds through frequent contacts and talks,” and thirdly “India would adopt a constructive approach when negotiating with China.” Agreeing with India’s offer, China proposed that the consultations between the SRs “must be dealt with a political and strategic stature, and also from the broad perspective of their macro-level bilateral relations, not confined merely to the facts as they stood.” The Indian mechanism proposed that the SR level talks “must transcend the conventional bureaucratic system, and seek a new thinking for settling the issue.” The appointment of Brajesh Mishra as the national security adviser “demonstrated Vajpayee’s desire and determination to resolve the issue.” Dai recalls that “it was during the first SR talks that Vajpayee told us that the ‘SRs’ responsibility is big; I think you must go all out and do it.’” At the time, the Chinese view was that the resolution of the border issue would be conducive for the overall development of Sino-Indian relations, as it would stabilise the environment in the neighbourhood, and “enhance our international standing, and promote the stability and prosperity along our south-western border.”

During the first round of talks on October 23-24, 2003, Dai told Mishra: “We must not leave this historical baggage forever to our younger generations,” and Mishra appreciated what Dai had said and, in turn, proposed six guiding principles. And so, on January, 12-13, 2004, he invited Mishra for the second round in Beijing. During this round, “although India’s stride could not be considered as big, however, it was a pragmatic and flexible approach.” Yet as regards India’s “guiding principles,” Mishra for the first time proposed the principle of “give and take,” declaring that “India was open and willing to keep them aside and would welcome a better proposal from China.”

At the first and second rounds when Dai suggested that a settlement should be reached in three to five years, Mishra at once clarified: “If it takes so many years as you have said, perhaps I would not be around to see it.” Dai recalls that at the end of the second round, “Mishra took me aside and told me to convey a message to the Chinese leadership. He told me, ‘Vajpayee is already seventy-nine years old; he is concerned about the India-China border issue.’ Mishra told me he himself was seventy-five years old, and wished to resolve the problem as soon as possible.” Dai writes: “I was hopeful that with Mishra’s negotiating style, the SRs talks would lead to an early outcome.” However, the BJP suffered an unexpected defeat in the general election in May 2004. “Afterwards when I met Mishra, he told me, ‘I would have never wished to pass the baton to another,’ which is a pity!” Dai writes.

The Congress party carried a historical baggage that was heavier than what the BJP carried, Dai explains, adding that the Congress led a weak coalition government which was restrained by many factors and had limited decision-making ability. It strove for political stability, and “its foreign policy priority was India’s relations with South Asian countries, and had no urgency for resolving the Sino-Indian boundary question,” he writes. “The SRs talks that should be pushed forward, on the contrary faced new challenges.”

When the Indian government appointed Jyotindra Nath Dixit as the new NSA and SR in May 2004, Dai informed him that the former SR, Mishra, had set a timeframe of four to six months for reaching an agreement on guiding principles. Dixit hoped the agreement could be reached during the fourth round. Both sides aspired that these issues should be worked out prior to prime minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in April 2005. Dai recollects that in the process of negotiations, the Indian side was apprehensive whether the guiding principles should be discussed first or the framework for resolution of the border. During the fourth round on November 18-19, 2004, Dai proposed a three-step formula for resolving the border, which was appreciated by Dixit and finally agreed upon by both sides. After Dixit’s sudden demise, India appointed M.K. Narayanan as the next NSA and SR.

Dai and Narayanan met nine times from the 5th to the 13th round of the SR talks. During the 5th round in Delhi on April 10-11, 2005, both the SRs were successful in reaching an agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles, and an agreement was signed during Wen Jiabao’s visit in April.

The 6th round between Dai and Narayanan, held during September 24-28, 2005 in Beijing, was the first time that they explored the framework for resolving the issue. At the 7th round between March 11-14, 2006 in New Delhi, Dai drew attention to the existence of a dispute on the Eastern, Middle and Western Sectors, and recognised the need for both sides to make a very significant adjustment, which would be mutually acceptable to both the sides through a package deal. The 8th round was held in Xi’an and Beijing between June 24-28, 2006, and at the 9th round in Delhi on January 17-18, 2007. Dai told Narayanan frankly: “This is our 9th round, I do not wish to discuss it to the 99th round, and I do not wish to keep it for our future generations. China is fully prepared for a political resolution of the Sino-Indian border issue,” adding: “I sincerely hope we endeavour to find a framework for resolving the issue at the earliest.” He recalls that after having said this, he “expounded China’s views on a political resolution,” pointing out that the disputed area was large, and involved a historical background, the actual situation, and the people’s sentiments on both sides, the actual difficulties and other factors. “Given these factors, if we hold on to just one and ignore the others, we would be negotiating endlessly and I am afraid we would not be able to find a solution in 100 years or even 1,000 years The framework should be more specific than the guiding principles and simpler and clearer than the border demarcation plan,” he writes.

The 10th round from April 20-22, 2007, broke from the practice of alternatively holding talks in the respective countries, and was held in Delhi. Dai writes: “I pointed out that while discussing the border, we cannot sever history, we cannot ignore history, we must factually understand history, and justly and reasonably consider the historical factors, and we must fully consider the Chinese people’s historical and national sentiments towards the Eastern Sector.”

Although “I expounded the Chinese stand from different angles,” he explains, the talks made no progress during these five rounds. At the next two rounds (September 2007 and September 2008) in Beijing, Dai recollects: “Our main focus was to keep the channels of talks open, and safeguard the atmospherics,” implying that the Chinese made an effort to maintain an atmosphere of cordiality.

As the Congress party emerged stronger in the general election in May 2009, Dai was more hopeful. He recalls: “Narayanan told me that the Indian side hopes to resolve one and all issues between India and China within three to five years.” The 13th round of the SR talks was held in New Delhi on August 7-8, 2009, and during this round, “I met Narayanan nine times and we engaged in talks for twelve hours. He told me that the sheer number of times I have met you is more than Hillary Clinton had met you,” and as a result the “India-China SR talks can be termed as a strategic dialogue.” Dai writes: “I told Narayanan that China has no intention whatsoever to scramble for any ‘sphere of influence’ in South Asia. Though we did not achieve any real progress on border issue, but it was indeed a bit of a strategic dialogue as we talked about bilateral, international and regional hotspot issues.” 

A veteran of the negotiations with India, Dai remembers that at this juncture he was dealing with the fourth SR from India as Narayanan had been given another appointment and was replaced by an old China expert, Shiv Shankar Menon. The 14th and 15th rounds were separately held on November 29-30, 2010, and January 16-17, 2012 in Beijing and New Delhi, respectively. 

Dai explains that Menon’s approach to the Sino-Indian boundary was no different from India’s previous SRs. But he believes “it was a worthwhile effort” because “we were able to formulate a ‘three step’ blueprint for the resolution of the border issue; the first step of which was completed in just two years.” He writes that after 2005, “we entered the second step” and that “after nine rounds of talks we did achieve some progress, but it is a pity that we have not been able to reach a consensus on a resolution for framework all along.”

Nonetheless, he explains that “in the last thirty years, we have been able to put the most sensitive and complex issue of Sino-Indian border on the track of peaceful negotiations, which has promoted strategic trust between the two, and has created conducive conditions for the restoration, improvement and development of bilateral relations.” Dai suggests that the mechanism of the SRs should be continued and strengthened. “In order to complete the three steps, both sides must grab opportunities thrown up by history and make bold strategic decisions,” he recommends.

For Dai, India is an important partner for China’s open door policy. India, he believes, has a stable polity and is capable of becoming a major power in the twenty-first century. China, he writes, must treat India not only as a major country in Asia but also as a major world power, and China-India relations must be accorded priority and must transcend the confines of ‘neighbourhood diplomacy.’ He believes that the element of ‘pragmatic cooperation’ between China and India is at a very low level, which is asymmetrical given the potentialities of both the countries. The mechanism of SRs, meanwhile, has become a platform for strategic engagement, and should be optimally used, he recommends. Yet he explains that the border issue is difficult to resolve in a short time because of their differing stands, but both sides have to manage it well and avoid conflict.

At the 21st round of border talks in Chengdu, Sichuan province in November 2018, the two SRs reached “an important consensus” and pledged to maintain border peace, according to the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi discussed the border dispute, and reviewed the progress made in bilateral ties since the Wuhan Summit between prime minister Narendra Modi and president Xi Jinping in April. It was the first meeting of the SRs since the last one which was held in New Delhi between Doval and the State Councillor, Yang Jiechi, in the immediate backdrop of a 73-day standoff in 2017 between the two militaries at Doklam.

The Chinese state newspaper, Global Times, quoted Qian Feng, a research fellow at the National Strategy Institute of Tsinghua University as saying: “Euphemisms for disagreements or divergences do not appear in the ministry’s statement. The language of the statement indicates the border talks have made significant progress and bilateral relations are back on track.” Zhao Gancheng, director of the South Asia Studies Department at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, remarked that the latest talks showed that the two countries “no longer see each other as an enemy and are willing to strengthen cooperation in maintaining tranquillity at the border.” Since the confrontation at Doklam, Modi has met Xi, and hotlines have been set up both by the respective defence ministries and the border troops of the neighbouring military regions.

The Chinese ministry of national defense announced in October 2018 that the seventh annual “Hand-in-Hand” military exercise, suspended in 2017, would be revived soon. The November border talks underscored the need to expand border trade and exchanges between people that would create a good atmosphere for border negotiations. Tsinghua University scholar Qian declared: “Where there are more merchants, there will be fewer soldiers.” Cross-border trade at the Nathu La Pass had increased nearly one hundred times since trading began in 2006, according to the Xinhua news agency. The trade volumes, however, remain small because of a lack of trade-related infrastructure and the mountainous terrain and harsh climate.

Dai Bingguo is a Chinese politician and diplomat who became one of the highest-ranking leaders of Chinese foreign policy under the president, Hu Jintao. Currently, Dai is the Chairman of Jinan University, and honorary dean of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. A graduate of Sichuan University, majoring in Russian language, he was instrumental in the normalisation of diplomatic relations between China and the Soviet Union. Between 1989 and 1991 Dai served as the Chinese ambassador to Hungary. He then held a succession of positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs. He has served as State Councillor, and director of the general office of the National Security Leadership Group of the central committee of the Communist Party of China.