Recently the Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui while speaking at a function in Mumbai said that in order to improve relations between India and China “we should negotiate the bilateral Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation, a Free Trade Agreement and gather early harvest related to border issues”. Luo also raised the rhetorical question of how to “synergize China’s One Belt One Road [OBOR] project with India’s Act East Policy”. It is not in the public domain whether Ambassador Luo has officially proposed these initiatives to the Foreign Office in Delhi or whether he was simply raising these publicly to elicit and test public opinion. Be that as it may, let us assume that these are official Chinese initiatives. In Part-1, the proposed Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation is analyzed, and some suggestions offered on what should be India’s reaction?
Whenever the Chinese take such initiatives, the most important aspect is that such initiatives must be examined in the context of the prevailing international situation; for rarely are they bereft of such linkages. In present uncertain times any Chinese strategic analyst based in Beijing would aver that the principal threat to China would be from its eastern seaboard, in tandem with the deep anxiety and uncertainties that the new Trump Administration has raised. This would also suggest that the Chinese would be keen to cover their flanks, so as to concentrate fully on the gathering storm coming from the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese are completely unsure on how to deal with the rhetoric emanating from Washington that suggests that the two countries maybe sliding towards a conflict situation. It is highly unlikely that this might happen, given the enormous stakes that both the US and China have in the peaceful evolution of their bilateral relations. But the Chinese are clearly worried and rarely miss the importance of being fully prepared.
If we were to look back in history, a near similar situation had risen in the late 1950s when the Chinese were bombarding the two Taiwanese held islands of Quemoy and Matsu, but were deterred from further military action when the US warned them that it would use “all means” [indicating nuclear weapons] to defend Taiwan [Note: Not Quemoy and Matsu]. This was a bitter period in Sino-US relations and it was also a period when the final break in Sino-Soviet relations took place when the then Soviet leader, Khrushchev refused to back China in case the US used nuclear weapons. On 19 March 1959 a revolt had also broken out in Tibet that led to the flight of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa to India for personal safety. On 6 May 1959 the People’s Daily published a scathing article entitled “The Revolution in Tibet and Nehru’s Philosophy”. It was popularly believed that the People’s Daily article was personally approved by Mao and carried a personal attack on Nehru for the first time since the signing of the 1954 Tibet Agreement. Nehru was devastated by the viciousness of the personal attack.
Despite extreme Chinese unhappiness at what had happened in Tibet and their unflinching belief that Nehru was involved in the events leading to the flight of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese never lost sight of the greater strategic threat that was gathering in the shape of US military deployment in the Straits of Taiwan and the Soviet refusal to back them in case nuclear weapons were used. It was a threat that they could not ignore. Mao had referred to it in his conversation with Nehru in Beijing in October 1954. This is what Mao told Nehru:
Between friends, there are times when there are differences; there are also times when there are fights—even fights till we become red in the face. But this type of fight is different in character from the sort of fight we have with Dulles. China needs very much. We are a new country. Although we are counted as a large country, our strength is still weak. Confronting us is a larger power America….therefore we need friends. PM Nehru can feel this. I think India also needs friends.
Therefore it was not surprising that Chinese Ambassador arrived at South Block on 16 May 1959 and handed over a demarche. The strategic purpose clearly was to sanitize their south-western border with India. The demarche was a long rambling litany of complaints against India and was reportedly personally drafted by Mao himself, but at the end contained a most interesting proposal. It was:
The enemy of the Chinese people lies in the east—the US imperialists have many military bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and in the Philippines which are all directed against China. China’s main attention and policy of struggle are directed to the east, to the west Pacific region, to the vicious and aggressive US imperialism and not to India....India is not an opponent but a friend of our country. China will not be so foolish to antagonize the US in the east and again to antagonize India in the west...Friends! It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts....Is it not so? If it is, here lies the meeting point of our two sides. Will you please think it over?
The response to the Chinese Ambassador’s demarche of 16 May 1959 was personally drafted by Nehru who assessed it as “discourteous.” The tragedy lies in the fact that this demarche and its contents were taken by Nehru as a personal affront and the hapless Foreign Secretary directed to respond within a week on 23 May 1959, to say that the statement was “wholly out of keeping with diplomatic usage and courtesies due to friendly countries.” And further the astonishing remark was made that “the government of India do not consider or treat any country as an enemy country, howsoever much it may differ from it”[Was Pakistan then a “friendly” country?].
But let us fast forward to present times. Placed in the historical context and considering China’s deep anxiety on developments near its eastern seaboard, what then should India make of the latest Chinese offer of a Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation? The first point to understand is that there exists in the Chinese mind the belief that Indians are by nature rather fond of “Vision Statements”, “Joint Declarations”, “Guiding Principles”, “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” etc. Therefore offering a “Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation” to India, at present, would be in line with Chinese thinking about Indian nature.
Secondly, in the Chinese mind such “lofty statements/declarations” matter for little when placed in the context of real politics. These can be easily ignored or subverted should the need arise. Take for example, the 11 April 2005 Agreement setting out the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles” for the settlement of the boundary issues. In Para VII it was agreed that “In reaching a border settlement the two sides shall safeguard the due interests of their settled populations in border areas”. Any unbiased observer would read this to mean that in the eastern sector the two sides had agreed to settle the border on the existing status quo. And yet when the political situation turned, the Chinese referred to Para V which refers to “national sentiment” and say how could they ignore “national sentiment” and concede so much territory? Further in May 2007 the then Chinese FM told EAM that “the mere presence of populated areas would not affect Chinese claims on the boundary”. So much for the surmise derived from Para VII.
Therefore the question that arises is how can India pin down the Chinese in concrete terms, so that they cannot escape so easily any commitments that they might make in the proposed Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation? We too should by now be aware of the nature of the Chinese mind.To begin with we must not reject the Chinese initiative, as Nehru had so impetuously done in 1959; but play along for it gives us room for diplomatic maneuver not only with the US, but also in the neighborhood. And yet the Chinese must be pinned down in concrete terms. On 4 November 1962, PM Zhou clarified to Nehru in an official Note [emphasis added] that in the Eastern Sector the LAC “coincides with the McMahon Line”. Zhou further said that the Indian government must be having a copy of the original McMahon map and therefore it should be easy to read the co-ordinates of the McMahon Line. That being the case, we should insist that the Chinese live up to the initiative of their then PM Zhou Enlai and not only reaffirm that the the LAC in the Eastern Sector conforms to the McMahon Line, but insist that it be demarcated on the ground to avoid any misunderstandings.
If the Chinese government were to agree with their own stipulation, as made by PM Zhou in November 1962, that indeed would be a concrete basis for negotiating a meaningful “Treaty of Friendship”. It would also indicate serious intent on the part of the Chinese government. Anything less than this would be another meaningless document to be "misinterpreted" as the occasion demands!