Panchsheel Pragmatism

How does it matter; it isn’t a treaty or anything, it is a preface to this Tibetan business.

–              Jawaharlal Nehru

When Hamid Ansari visited Beijing last week to mark 60 years of the historic Panchsheel Agreement between the two countries, one couldn’t help but wonder why China insisted on a grand commemorative event, considering the fact that the treaty has been cited more for its breach than observance over the years, and has also remained largely irrelevant in practice despite being the ideal tool for diplomatic rhetoric.

The Panchsheel entails Five Principles of Co-Existence, as agreed to between India and the Tibet Region of China in April 1954 which ensure mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. This was interestingly the first time India had actually recognised the Tibet Region as being a part of China, after the Simla Agreement of 1914 between British India, China and Tibet recognising Tibet as a self governing autonomous region, and also recognising the Tawang Region of Southern Tibet as Indian territory by drawing the McMahon Line between India and Tibet. As China had walked out of the agreement over autonomy to Tibet, India’s recognition was instrumental in the takeover of Lhasa.

It is necessary to put into perspective the concept of the ‘Century of Humiliation’, which the Chinese recount as the time till independence in 1949 when European Powers appropriated land, territory and resources from China through military and strategic advances, and stole the rich economic and cultural  prosperity China had had for the preceding millennia. The Communist Party of China had vowed to avenge the ‘Century of Humiliation’ by showcasing ‘Comprehensive National Power’, the result of which we see Chinese dominance on the world stage, and taking back territories lost through humiliating defeats. The territorial aspect is best seen in the Diaoyu Senkaku dispute in the East China Sea, the Paracel Spratlys in the South China Sea and even Tawang, Aksai Chin and Tibetan Autonomous Region in the south.

As a precursor to the military takeover of Tibet by China, such a treaty was essential to counter the diplomatic furore over the annexation, and to pre-empt Indian opposition, as the Simla Treaty was proof of Tibetan independence and autonomy, something the Chinese had conceded in principle. The treaty was to last eight years, which ended with the 1962 War with India, which saw Nehru diminishing both as a public figure and as an individual, and cast a huge shadow over his foreign policy and legacy.

It is seen that this Nehruvian idealism had contributed a great deal to world politics, starting from the Non Aligned Movement to self reliance, non interference and regional autonomy. The danger lied, however in his blind trust of China, and the principle of ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ which would catapult both the nations back into their lost glory together, as they shared a great history and rich cultures with a mutual respect and historical non aggression(owing to the intimidating Himalayas).

Once we put all of this into view, the question of the Panchsheel’s relevance crops up almost immediately, and one wonders why the seemingly hawkish pragmatists in Beijing would hark back to the Panchsheel with such emphasis sixty years and countless more agreements later.

The answer lies in the larger geopolitical picture and the increasingly bipolar power structure of international relations, where China has played a masterstroke to remind India of the letter and spirit of the Panchsheel, which would restrict India from opposing or condemning actions in the East and South China Seas, as the islands China claims are a part of the territory it claims. At the same time, it restricts a similar hardline stance from India on Tibet’s autonomy. Just as it was 60 years ago for Zhou Enlai, the Panchsheel Agreement remains an Indian endorsement on Chinese sovereignty on Tibet. China has successfully been leveraging the Panchsheel Agreement in its favour, and successive Indian Prime Ministers(barring Vajpayee) have endorsed the mutual endorsement of the treaty, and its success in practice.

Also, at a time when US dependence on the Middle East for oil steadily declines owing to its newfound shale gas extraction technologies, the focus shifts to the Indian Ocean and the East and South China Seas, where Chinese muscle flexing and naval expansions have compromised traditional US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, and successive attempts to forge a new anti-China grand economic alliance, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and the shift of US foreign policy focus to the Far East and South East Asia through the ‘Pivot to Asia’ programme, China cannot afford to let India tilt decisively into the grand alliances, and has used the Panchsheel as additional leverage over and above its ‘String of Pearls’ establishments across the Indian Ocean encircling India, and its successive military intrusions into Ladakh, and the issuance of stapled visas to Arunachal Pradesh residents, along with geopolitical manoeuvres in Maldives, and increasing pressures in Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Chinese believe that such a holistic strategy will work to leverage its interests in the regions, and remains far sighted with regard to its foreign policy outlook as a future superpower. Such a policy might even succeed, unless India can leverage its interests against such diplomatic checkmates.

Firstly, the mutual respect for territorial integrity clause has to be asserted in the issuance of stapled visas in Arunachal Pradesh, while showing a no nonsense policy on military incursions, and citing both the Panchsheel and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreements at every such incursion. At the same time, India can also obtain a more pragmatic stand on Tibet, by avoiding the ‘magnanimous’ approach of Nehru in inviting the Dalai Lama, and leveraging the Tibetan right to self determination both overtly and covertly, much like the Chinese have done with Naga, Mizo and ULFA militants for more than three decades.  This would give Indian interests much needed primacy in Beijing, as China will be stressed to handle such a mobilisation(with international support), given that it has already expended much energy and resources in stifling Uighur dissent in the Xinjiand Province, along with an increasingly restless population showing passive dissent in the polity over the absence of political choice and freedoms. Also, external conflicts with Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea have already reached unprecedented proportions, and an additional field of conflict could increase political dissent, while diverting energies and resources away from infrastructural development and export growth. Having said this, the leverage must only be used sparingly and as  a deterrent to unilateral declarations.

Secondly, mutual non-aggression and non interference can be exploited to reduce China’s increased role in the Indian Ocean, the increased military and infrastructural development and the political takeover of the Maldivian establishment. This clause becomes very essential, as it can either be deterrent, or can be used to legitimise assertion in the ‘backyard’ of India.  Another option India will have is to reconsider the ’One China’ policy, which currently recognises the Peoples Republic of China over Taiwan(Republic of China) on the PRC’s insistence to recognise it. India takes pride in the fact that it has upheld the ‘One China’ policy over the past sixty years, but the question which needs to be asked is, what results it has yielded to India. A thorough reconsideration was articulated by Sushma Swaraj to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yei when the counter question of a ‘One India’ policy was proposed. We need to enquire whether a duplicitous policy on India’s territorial integrity should not be a cause for concern where Chinese interests (even as the Kuomintang’s claims were legally legitimate) have been given primacy through Nehruvian idealistic posturing towards the Middle Kingdom.

Thirdly, the ‘equality and mutual benefit’ clause has the potential to be used to catalyse industry and growth in India, with China playing an instrumental part in it. The various facets to this start with the North East, which faces myriad and multifaceted challenges today. In the first case, a proposal of a BCIM(Bangladesh China India Myanmar) Corridor had been proposed by the participant nations, and India has been the only one dragging its feet on the matter. We need to expidite this proposal to deliver much needed resources to the North East through Hong Kong or Chittagong, and also help augment its export potential by providing a transport channel. The Trade Highway through Indo China which has been proposed down to Malaysia also needs to be fast forwarded for the same. Chinese expertise in farming on montane soil can also be instrumental in increasing agricultural growth in the North East, and catalyse a transition from the current slash and burn method, which is detrimental both to the environment and the economy.

The second facet is security based, where the Siliguri Channel is the only channel connecting India with the North East, and in a situation where a military advance in carried out on this ‘chicken neck’, the supply of food and fuel, or even reinforcements would be near impossible to the North East, irrespective of the establishment of a new Mountain Strike Corps. Thirdly, we need to apply the historical prism to realise the effect of trade relations on diplomatic and cultural relations, as it builds higher stakes against the prospect of sour relations as that would affect supplies of essential commodities, and domestic export of goods and services to the nation.

The best example of this is China and Taiwan themselves, who have established a robust $170 Billion, and the same holds true for Japan, South Korea and Philippines. Lastly, India needs to put its domestic constraints into perspective and see that it needs $1 Trillion of investment by the end of the 12th Plan Period(2012-17) to only sustain its growth momentum, if not supplement it further. As the same does not seem to be trickling in in substantial numbers from the domestic sphere or the West, an eager China should be initiated into India on a case by case basis after a security analysis, and help further the mutual benefit the Panchsheel talks about.

Finally, as the Panchsheel had a special provision regarding the trade and intercourse between Tibet and India, the same should be exploited by a free movement of Indians and Tibetans in the zone, promote tourism and increase Indian exports in the landlocked plateau, as the Indian plains are the closest and cheapest source of material there, if allowed.

To put it in a few words, India needs to be cunning in its approach to the changing geopolitical realities of Asia if it has to even maintain its stature in world politics. Every aspiring superpower first has to tame its immediate neighbourhood and become a regional hegemon if it has to acquire the status of a global leader and hegemon. The same holds true for China and it realises this adequately well.

If India needs to hold its ground, while using Chinese expertise in manufacturing, infrastructure development and technology development to its advantage, it needs to reevaluate the Nehruvian Consensus towards China, which is tilted much in China’s favour and needs to augment trade relations while repairing the embarrassing trade deficit with China. For all of these reasons, we need to continue with the Panchsheel, and even exploit it to the fullest, as China is doing right now. By making the Panchsheel as the bedrock of Indo-China relations, we can catch the West’s bluff to use India’s geostrategic advantage to exploit China, while maintaining healthier and mutually beneficial relations with our powerful neighbour.


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