How a 1983 Discussion Between Beijing and Delhi Informs Indo-China Relations

14 September 2017

Shyam Saran is a diplomat who joined the Indian Foreign Services in 1970, and has served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar, Nepal and Indonesia, as well as a foreign secretary to the Indian government. Saran spent several years in China, during which time he was involved in India’s negotiations with China over the border disputes between the two nations. Negotiations regarding the issue have been ongoing for decades, and were held most recently during a weeks-long standoff between Indian and Chinese forces in Doklam that ended in late August.

In the following extract from his book, How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century, Saran recalls an incident from his posting in Beijing in 1983. He recounts how he, along with the ambassador AP Venkateswaran and foreign-relations scholars in China, brought about a discussion between the Chinese leadership and Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister at the time. Saran notes that the outcome of these talks—or lack thereof—continues to be relevant to China’s stance on border disputes with India in the present day.

In 1983, I was back in Beijing on my second assignment. AP Venkateswaran was the ambassador. I had become friendly with a Chinese scholar, Zhao Weiwen, a senior researcher and a specialist on India with the newly established think tank China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. During one of our many conversations, she suggested that Ambassador Venkateswaran meet with the head of her institute, Professor Ma, who she claimed had direct access to the senior leadership, in particular to Zhao Ziyang, then the Chinese premier. Through her good offices a series of informal and confidential meetings were held through 1984 between Venkateswaran and Ma, at which Zhao Weiwen and I were the only others present.

At these meetings, Ma argued that there was a shift taking place in Chinese foreign policy. From too close a relationship with the US and a virtual alliance against the Soviet Union, China was moving towards a more centrist position. A decision had been taken to improve relations with Moscow. China would also lay greater stress on its third-world credentials.

In this context, Ma said relations with India were of particular importance because China, too, in effect, was becoming more “non-aligned.” These conversations led eventually to a query as to whether Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi would respond to an invitation to visit China in her capacity as India’s leader and also as chairman of the NAM [Non-Aligned Movement]. Venkateswaran pointed out that she could hardly contemplate such a visit with the border dispute still unresolved and with the painful memories of what had happened in 1962. In response, Ma referred to Deng’s “package proposal” [a 1960 proposal in which China offered to accede to India’s demand to adhere to the McMahon Line on the eastern sector of the border, in exchange for India’s concession for Aksai Chin on the western front] and said the border issue could be settled on that basis. Venkateswaran rejected the “package proposal,” saying it would legitimise the territorial gains achieved by China through force of arms. A deal could only be politically saleable in India if it was status quo-plus. This meant that India would retain the territory it claimed in the eastern sector while China would concede some additional territory in the western sector.

Shyam Saran  has served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar, Nepal and Indonesia, and as a foreign secretary to the Indian government.

Keywords: china foreign policy indo-china foreign relations