Shyam Saran is a diplomat who joined the Indian Foreign Services in 1970, and has served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar, Nepal and Indonesia, as well as a foreign secretary to the Indian government. Saran spent several years in China, during which time he was involved in India’s negotiations with China over the border disputes between the two nations. Negotiations regarding the issue have been ongoing for decades, and were held most recently during a weeks-long standoff between Indian and Chinese forces in Doklam that ended in late August.
In the following extract from his book, How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century, Saran recalls an incident from his posting in Beijing in 1983. He recounts how he, along with the ambassador AP Venkateswaran and foreign-relations scholars in China, brought about a discussion between the Chinese leadership and Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister at the time. Saran notes that the outcome of these talks—or lack thereof—continues to be relevant to China’s stance on border disputes with India in the present day.
In 1983, I was back in Beijing on my second assignment. AP Venkateswaran was the ambassador. I had become friendly with a Chinese scholar, Zhao Weiwen, a senior researcher and a specialist on India with the newly established think tank China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. During one of our many conversations, she suggested that Ambassador Venkateswaran meet with the head of her institute, Professor Ma, who she claimed had direct access to the senior leadership, in particular to Zhao Ziyang, then the Chinese premier. Through her good offices a series of informal and confidential meetings were held through 1984 between Venkateswaran and Ma, at which Zhao Weiwen and I were the only others present.
At these meetings, Ma argued that there was a shift taking place in Chinese foreign policy. From too close a relationship with the US and a virtual alliance against the Soviet Union, China was moving towards a more centrist position. A decision had been taken to improve relations with Moscow. China would also lay greater stress on its third-world credentials.
In this context, Ma said relations with India were of particular importance because China, too, in effect, was becoming more “non-aligned.” These conversations led eventually to a query as to whether Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi would respond to an invitation to visit China in her capacity as India’s leader and also as chairman of the NAM [Non-Aligned Movement]. Venkateswaran pointed out that she could hardly contemplate such a visit with the border dispute still unresolved and with the painful memories of what had happened in 1962. In response, Ma referred to Deng’s “package proposal” [a 1960 proposal in which China offered to accede to India’s demand to adhere to the McMahon Line on the eastern sector of the border, in exchange for India’s concession for Aksai Chin on the western front] and said the border issue could be settled on that basis. Venkateswaran rejected the “package proposal,” saying it would legitimise the territorial gains achieved by China through force of arms. A deal could only be politically saleable in India if it was status quo-plus. This meant that India would retain the territory it claimed in the eastern sector while China would concede some additional territory in the western sector.
One possibility was that in the western sector, China would return the additional territory it had occupied as a result of the 1962 operations, thus restoring the status quo in this sector. With this additional territory in the west and the LAC [Line of Actual Control] in the east, there could be a basis for an agreed boundary.
This would have meant China returning to India some 3,000 square-kilometres of territory in this sector. Ma said he would discuss this with his leadership. After several days he sought a meeting, asking whether the Indian prime minister would be ready to visit Beijing if the Venkateswaran proposition was agreed to. He added that he was posing this hypothetically, to see if things could move forward.
It just so happened that I was going on leave to India soon afterwards. Venkateswaran asked me to take the proposal confidentially to [the prime minister’s adviser] G Parthasarathi on his personal behalf, and to request him to put it to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
I met Parthasarathi at his residence in Delhi, armed with detailed maps to show what was being contemplated. I conveyed Venkateswaran’s view, which matched my own, that if the proposal was accepted by the Chinese this would be the best deal we could hope to get.
However, Parthasarathi was not convinced. He was in any case opposed to the idea of Mrs Gandhi visiting Beijing. He kept referring to Chinese hostility towards Nehru and claimed that Mrs Gandhi still nursed bitter memories on that score. When I gently suggested that he should at least put this proposition before her he refused. I conveyed this to Venkateswaran, who said he would follow up the matter with Mrs Gandhi herself. I learnt later that the proposition had indeed been put to her but she wanted to wait until after the general elections in 1985 before responding. Unfortunately, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards on 31 October 1984.
In 1985, the Chinese side reworked the “package proposal,” significantly hardening their stand on the border issue. This followed the Wangdung incident in the eastern sector, where Chinese troops overran an Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) post near the Thagla Ridge and set up a helicopter base at a point called Le. This post was usually left unoccupied in the harsh winter months and reoccupied in summer. When we protested, the Chinese side claimed they were well within their side of the LAC and were only strengthening their border management.
At the regular secretary-level talks that followed, the Chinese now conveyed to us that to arrive at a solution, India would have to make “meaningful” concessions in the eastern sector, which was the largest area in dispute, involving 90,000 square kilometres of territory. In return, China would make “corresponding” but undefined concessions in the western sector.
For the first time an explicit demand was made for the handing over of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh as an indispensable component of any boundary agreement. When it was pointed out that this was contrary to what Deng Xiaoping [the Chinese head of state] had himself conveyed just a couple of years earlier, the response was that the Indian side had misread their leader’s words.
With this moving of goalposts, the likelihood of a settlement became even more remote. The situation in the eastern sector worsened when Indian troops unexpectedly moved to occupy the entire ridge opposite Chinese positions across the Sumdorung river. This was known as the Hathongla, Lurongla and Sulunga Ridge Line. Two forward posts, Jaya and Negi, were also established on the northern bank of the Sumdorung river. The Chinese retaliated by setting up their own forward post just ten metres away.
It is not entirely clear why the Chinese altered their long-standing implicit acceptance of the McMahon Line as the basis for the boundary in the eastern sector at this particular juncture. Perhaps they felt the power asymmetry between their country and India had moved decisively in their favour. They may have also been emboldened by the coming to office of a young and as-yet-untested prime minister in India following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination.
Another fact that explained the Chinese action was the diminishing strategic importance of the Aksai Chin road after their sustained building of infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang. There was now less reason to concede ground in the east to retain strategic advantage in the west. This post-1985 posture adopted by China has remained unchanged up to the present day.
This is an extract from How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century, by Shyam Saran, published by Juggernaut Books. The book is available in stores and on www.juggernaut.in.
Shyam Saran has served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar, Nepal and Indonesia, and as a foreign secretary to the Indian government.