Professor Zhang Li, from Sichuan University, is an expert on China-India-Pakistan strategic relations. He is based in Chengdu, which is also headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) army group that is responsible for the Sino-India border. Ajai Shukla spoke to him in Chengdu last week.
Question: Do you see any shift in the way India and China view the boundary question after Mr Modi and Xi Jingping came to power?
Zhang Li: Yes. India has becoming increasingly more important for China in the last 3-4 years especially with the new generation of Chinese leaders under Xi Jingping and Li Keqiang. They have launched a new diplomatic thrust on issues that China and India share, such as infrastructure, investment and energy.
Question: Can strong new leaders like Xi and Modi approach the border issue is new ways?
Zhang Li: Under these strong leaders, one has reason to expect much more to be done for an early settlement of the border issue. I think China could develop some new thinking, but obstacles remain as we have seen in the 18 rounds of dialogue between the special representatives [of India and China].
Question: It seems the matter is stuck on China’s claim on Tawang?
Zhang Li: China has never given up its claim to Southern Tibet as we call it, and Arunachal Pradesh as India calls it. Beijing thinks it is the major part of the territorial dispute. The Chinese people basically understand that there is a dispute between China and India only in the eastern sector. In the western sector only the specialists understand that India claims certain parts and believes China has occupied some parts of Aksai Chin. But in the eastern sector the understanding is quite different and so the Chinese leadership continue this territorial claim.
Question: Why is Tawang so important for China?
Zhang Li: In the last ten years I think the Chinese government has tried to link the border issue with Tibet, especially Tawang. A core concern for China is to stabilize Tibet, and they realise the strong historical and cultural linkages between Tibet proper and the disputed areas, especially Tawang. There are historical accounts of linkage that were political in nature and issues of jurisdiction for centuries.
Question: So Tawang remains a sticking point, even for an eastern border based on the McMahon Line?
Zhang Li: The Chinese government has never accepted the McMahon Line. Since the 1950s, when Nehru and Zhou Enlai discussed, China said lets swap eastern sector and western, just exchange [Aksai Chin to China for Arunachal to India]. But now China says we have to make a “minor but not insignificant” adjustment [within each sector]. Basically this is a reference to Tawang, which is not just part of the territorial issue but also part of the Tibet issue. When Chinese think of Tawang issue they also have to think about Tibet. Perhaps China associates the stability of Tibet with Tawang. This is something new.
Question: What thinking has driven this change?
In 2005 at the time of signing the “Political Parameters” [Agreement for a border settlement], and maybe soon afterwards, the Chinese government thought they have to change their position, especially on the Tawang issue. There was instability in Tibet and around, especially at the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and 2009. That is a partial reason, not the whole reason, that Tawang and other factors play on Chinese thinking for Tibet stability. China believes that instability in Tibet is not just from inside but it also gets lots of influence from the outside. A lot of negative influences come from the west, places like America and Europe but also from within India. So the status of Tawang is a sensitive issue. The very factor that the Dalai Lama stays in India, changes everything radically.
Question: So China will not settle the Sino-Indian border until it resolves the Tibet situation internally?
Zhang Li: Like I said, there is some connection between Tibet and the settlement of the border issue. That there is a direct linkage is something new in the last 10 years. Perhaps China has some misgivings about the situation in Tibet. According to Chinese thinking, in 1959 India played a role in the Lhasa uprising.
In 1954 China and India signed an important agreement defining relations with Tibet [Panchasheel Agreement], and five years later we had the Tibetan uprising. This time after the 2005 agreement, we saw the 2008 protests in Tibet. But this time, I personally think there is some misunderstanding, and that there is quite a complicated linkage with India. Naturally, the Chinese government thinks there are outside negative influences in Tibet from two sources, one is from America and Europe and the other from the Tibetan government in exile in India. It is complicated because New Delhi says it does not allow the Tibetan government to do any political activity against China.
Question: So the border settlement must await the Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa?
Zhang Li: I think the settlement is indirectly linked with the Dalai Lama. We can guess that if Tibet is more stable then the Chinese government will be more flexible in discussing the border issue with India. For the Chinese government it is much more important to stabilize Tibet than it is to settle the border issue early as India has expected.
Question: Does Beijing believe the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is feasible, given the turmoil in Pakistan?
Zhang Li: Since General Musharraf came to China in 2006, Beijing and Islamabad have proposed to develop this strategic linkage from Gwadar in the Arabian Sea to Xinjiang. Surely China has formidable problems to overcome before making it a success. But Pakistan remains extremely important for China strategically, given the regional situation. Of course I have to recognize that it has something to do with India. In Chinese perception India is strategically getting closer to United States and some Chinese analysts fear perhaps one day it may become a part of American arrangements against China. There seems no assurance for Beijing to judge India’s role choice.
Question: Is China going to put pressure on Pakistan to stop radicalism spilling over into Xinjiang?
Zhang Li: There have been actual terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, and also through internet propaganda and sharing terrorist techniques and ideology. We discuss terrorism with Pakistan and keep channels open. But we don’t press too hard because the partnership is very important for China. We understand there are limits to what they can do.
In Gwadar, China has no plans for a military base, only for civilian and commercial purposes. The security situation is not good and the project itself, so far, hasn’t proven attractive and lucrative . Both China and Pakistan think highly of the prospects of Gwadar in the long run and Pakistan, understandably, is trying to overplay this for effect.