Will China accept a land swap – Aksai Chin for Arunachal?

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Bittersweet relations Though pragmatism supports a land-swap deal, the heightened sense of nationalism on both sides of the border prevent such a compromise
Bittersweet relations Though pragmatism supports a land-swap deal, the heightened sense of nationalism on both sides of the border prevent such a compromise Photo: AFP

Last week, a reputed national daily, citing documents from the Ministry of External Affairs, reported that India has signalled its readiness to give up its claim on Aksai Chin in lieu of China forsaking its claim on Arunachal Pradesh. The MEA was quick to trash the news report. When reached for comments, Syed Akbaruddin, MEA spokesperson said, “We have seen the article. It is speculative and factually incorrect.”

Though this is not the first time a swap of territories — Aksai Chin for Arunachal — has been suggested, the likelihood of such a solution is very bleak.

India’s first ever claim to Aksai Chin came in 1863. WH Johnson, a British- Indian explorer and civil servant with the Survey of India, claimed it belonged to the Maharaja of Kashmir. Though Johnson’s claims were severely criticised, and his maps redrawn, the British assigned a huge area to the Maharaja — unilaterally claiming territory on maps in the face of a growing territorial threat from Russia.

The area was completely devoid of jurisdictional boundaries and administrative authorities; none among the Kashmiris, the Tibetans and the British had ever shown interest in controlling it. However, after the British exited, India unilaterally decided that the farthest boundaries the British had put forward were final, rather than discussing them with China, despite varying British interpretation of the borders.

China, on the other hand, after invading Tibet, turned its gaze on Aksai Chin and the disputed McMahon Line. As the story goes, Sir Henry McMahon, a British diplomat who had also served with the Indian Army, used a thick pen and drew a line on a map (the line correlates to approximately 14 km on ground). Though the Chinese representative reluctantly initialled the map, his leadership back home rejected it. Till date, the Chinese have not recognised it as the international border.

Add to that India’s move to provide refuge to the Dalai Lama and expatriate Tibetan population, and you have a complex and emotional boundary dispute. History aside, ground realities would support a swap. China, not India, has had a presence in Aksai Chin, since it built a highway in the flat, barren, unpopulated terrain in 1951.

On the eastern front, India has controlled Arunachal Pradesh since Independence. “Partially speaking, the swap is a good idea. The Chinese have infrastructure in Aksai Chin and India has infrastructural and elected representative in Arunachal; the swap would suit the ground realities,” explains Srikanth Kondapalli, who teaches Chinese Studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Harsh Pant, author and an expert on China, agrees with Kondapalli: “The fundamental argument has always been an exchange of territory in the eastern and western sectors. However, the problem is that of how do you go about it?” No government in India is in a position to take a stand where they are seen giving up territory, however logical it may be.

“The offer of a swap was first made in 1957 by the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and repeated in 1980 by Deng Xiaoping. However, on both occasions, India did not accept the Chinese offer or its claims to territory. I am not very sure if a swap is politically viable. A Parliamentary resolution can only be nullified by another resolution, and to give up land, you need a two-thirds of the total MPs to support an amendment of the Constitution. Is that possible in today’s political environment?” asks Kondapalli. He fears that because land is an emotional issue, if any government was to take such a stand, ultra-nationalist parties would capture power.

China faces a similar dilemma. In 2008-09, at a special representatives’ meeting, the Chinese had proposed that a few kilometres in Tawang be given to China in lieu of some land in Aksai Chin to India in an attempt to settle one of the many contentious border disputes. However, ultra-national groups in China leaked the information to a Hong Kong-based newspaper, which scuttled the entire deal.

Though pragmatism supports a land-swap deal, the heightened sense of nationalism on both sides of the border prevent such a compromise from being accepted domestically, both in China and in India. “There has been a shift in the Chinese stand since the 1980s. They want a part of Arunachal, and they are not willing to settle for anything less,” explains Kondapalli.

There are a few factors responsible for this. Firstly, given the political environment in India, the Chinese know that it is very difficult for India to deliver on such a deal. Secondly, there has been a shift in power. China feels that it has the upper hand, both geopolitically and on the ground, so it would like to extract as large a concession from India as possible. And given that Tibet remains China’s Achilles heel, keeping the border issue alive gives China the option to flex its muscle on the Tibetan movement.

“If we were to let go of Aksai Chin, we would not lose any strategic or defensive edge. It makes complete logical sense,” explains a senior government official. “We need to look at what we are offering and where we stand. I think if we were to make such an offer, China, which has been more aggressive since the late 1980s, would want more concessions.”

Having missed the opportunity in the past to settle the 3,000-km border dispute with China, it seems unlikely in the short to medium term that governments on either side can afford to accept such a compromise.

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