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Vajpayee’s guidelines still remain India’s best hope of solving border dispute with China

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The framework put in place by Vajpayee holds out the best possibility of an eventual agreement about borders.

Among the many tributes paid to late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one came from the Chinese government, hailing him as an “outstanding statesman” who had made “outstanding contributions to the development of Sino-Indian relations”. It may be too soon to make a serious historical judgement of Vajpayee’s tenure as Prime Minister, but India’s relationship with China was a running thread throughout Vajpayee’s political career.

The young Vajpayee made his mark in Parliament as a persistent critic of Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy towards China. The India-China boundary dispute came to light in early 1959. It encompassed three segments of the boundary: the western sector in Ladakh, including the Aksai Chin plateau; the middle sector in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, which was a minor dispute; and the eastern sector in Arunachal Pradesh. As these differences surfaced, the Jana Sangh and Vajpayee insisted that the government should not yield an inch of land. When the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, came to New Delhi for negotiations in April 1960, the Jana Sangh staged a massive demonstration outside Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s residence.

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The talks failed. Zhou suggested that if India accepted their claims to de facto control in the western sector, he would be open to considering India’s claimed boundary in the eastern sector. Nehru refused to accept such a “package deal”. He knew that the domestic political opinion was strongly opposed to making any concessions. Nehru’s senior colleagues including G.B. Pant and Morarji Desai voiced these sentiments within the cabinet and precluded the possibility of any compromise. The failure of these talks set the stage for the subsequent downward slide in the bilateral relationship between India and China culminating in the war of 1962.

In an ironic turn of history, the relationship did not thaw until the advent of the Janata government in 1977 with Desai at the helm and Vajpayee as his foreign minister. Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in February 1979 was a crucial moment. To assuage public opinion in India, the Desai government had stated that the relationship could not progress until the boundary dispute was resolved. In their meetings with Vajpayee, however, the Chinese leaders evinced no urgency on this matter. They wanted to put the boundary issue on the backburner and improve exchanges in other areas, especially economic ties. Deng Xiaoping said that if the problem could not be solved by this generation it should be set aside for the next generation.

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Vajpayee came up with a subtle formulation that bridged both sides’ positions. As he told foreign minister Huang Hua in his final meeting on 15 February, “It will be much better to say that pending a solution on the border question it was decided to increase functional exchanges which have been taking place and which should be increased. However, no impression should be given that the border question has been set aside because this will not be acceptable to our people or Parliament. Of course, the solution of the border question is not a pre-condition for improvements in other areas.”

On the border, Deng reiterated China’s desire for an “over-all deal”. He advanced a “very tentative proposal…where China compromises on her stand in the Eastern Sector and India could compromise on the rest.” This was, of course, the basis of Zhou Enlai’s proposal in 1960. Vajpayee replied that this proposal “was really implicitly made long ago and India’s reply was also given.” He suggested that the two sides first resolve the “few pockets of differences” in the middle and eastern sectors. But Deng claimed that the eastern sector was actually the “biggest dispute” and that “the Chinese people feel very strongly about this since there is an affinity between the Tibetan people and the people in this region”.

In June 1980, Deng repeated this suggestion of a package deal in an interview to an Indian journalist. By this time, Indira Gandhi was back in power. Her foreign minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, stated in Parliament that “India has never accepted the premise…that the Chinese side are making a concession in the eastern sector”. Indira agreed to resume boundary talks – but sector by sector starting with the east where India had the strongest legal, historical and de facto claims. The Chinese, for their part, began strongly pushing their claims on Tawang. Several rounds of talks yielded nothing.

In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi agreed to Deng’s suggestion of placing the border dispute on ice. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao carried this forward by signing agreements on maintaining peace along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The agreement of 1996 also called for a clarification of the LAC—an exercise that was emphasised by the Vajpayee government. The two sides exchange maps depicting their notion of the LAC in the western sector, but the gap between their perceptions was so wide that the Chinese refused to continue with the other sectors. Bilateral relations also took a serious hit following India’s nuclear tests of 1998 and Vajpayee’s leaked letter to US President Bill Clinton pointing to the security threats posed by China.

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In the wake of these developments, Vajpayee chose to make yet another effort to place relations with China on an even keel. In a carefully prepared visit in June 2003, he pressed the Chinese to resume serious efforts to settle the boundary dispute in the interests of the overall relationship. Vajpayee suggested that both sides appoint special representatives to conduct political negotiations and report directly to the principals.

This was a breakthrough. Unlike previous negotiations, these would not be caught in legal-historical tangles but aim at a political settlement in stages. The special representatives’ process—led on the Indian side by Brajesh Mishra, an old China hand—paved the way for the Indian government to accept the idea of a “package settlement” involving all sectors. This, in turn, led to the landmark agreement of 2005 on political parameters for settling the boundary dispute. The progress since has then been slow, but the framework put in place by Vajpayee holds out the best possibility of an eventual agreement.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research.

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  1. The history of the relationship – and of the subcontinent – would have been very different if the Chinese offer of 1960 had been accepted. Even today, nothing better is on offer, with asymmetry having grown so wide. The opposition always has the luxury of taking intransigent positions, sometimes at the cost of the national interest.

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