Triumph of Pragmatism

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing, June 24, 2003
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visits Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing, June 24 (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP-Getty Images).

The decision of India and China to launch a bold political initiative to break the impasse over the boundary dispute and the reaffirmation of their readiness to seek a mutually acceptable solution should boost the expanding bilateral relations. The decision, the centerpiece of the Beijing Declaration issued at the end of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s summit talks with China’s new leaders, is both acknowledgment of the yearlong deadlock over exchange of boundary maps and the political resolve to end it at the earliest. The two sides have reaffirmed that, pending an ultimate solution, they will work to maintain peace and tranquility and continue work on delineation and clarification of the Line of Actual Control [the disputed border region between China and India near India’s eastern Jammu and Kashmir state].

The first joint declaration by the two countries, it gives the seal of approval to the pragmatism and proven step-by-step approach to problem-solving that has characterized the relations in the past decade and seen peace prevail on the long borders between the two countries. The visit, the first by an Indian prime minister in a decade, had aroused high expectations, which have been partially fulfilled. After the breakthroughs achieved during the visits of [former Prime Ministers] Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and Narasimha Rao in 1993, there is now a clear demonstration of the political will on both sides to seek solutions to contentious issues.

The road map to bilateral cooperation that the declaration has laid out, together with the memorandum of understanding on expanding border trade, has the potential to end a long period of mutual suspicion and herald a new phase in the relations between the two neighbors. With the political initiative on the boundary question, there was some movement on the linked issues of  Tibet and Sikkim [the latter is a former kingdom in the Himalayas, annexed by India in 1975, over which China claims sovereignty]. Affirming the Indian position that the Tibetan autonomous region is a part of China and reiterating the earlier commitment not to allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China activities, India did not apparently succeed in securing Chinese recognition of the 1975 merger of Sikkim with the Indian Union. But the agreement to expand cross-border trade, which should include the traditional silk route through Sikkim, must be regarded as tacit Chinese acceptance of the reality of the merger. That China has dropped its position that India had annexed Sikkim must be welcomed on the assumption that official Chinese acceptance will perhaps come as the two travel the road to improved relations. When this Himalayan trade bridge is rebuilt, it can transform the entire region across to the Tibetan plains. If Sikkim does indeed become a non-dispute, this will boost tourism around the holy sites across the mountains.

A constructive atmosphere for tackling the boundary question and differences over Sikkim and Tibet needs an environment in which the overall relationship is seen to be beneficial to both. The goals and guiding principles for bilateral relations set by the declaration and the nine documents on cooperation that the two countries have signed must create the conditions that facilitate greater people-to-people contact and enhance the interaction among professionals, including scientists, lawyers, and educators. The most striking aspect, however, of the evolving relationship is the conscious decision to anchor the bilateral relations to economics through greater trade and investments. A joint study group of economists and officials has been set up to identify new areas of promise in trade and investments, which can provide the major ingredients for an interdependent relationship. They can, besides, generate mutual trust, the lack of which has kept the two Asian giants apart for four decades.