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On the margins of the ASEAN (plus 3 plus India) Summit in Bali in October, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao informed Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee that Beijing had excised Sikkim as a ‘country’ from its official web site. The tweak in cyberspace was yet another marker in the thawing Sino-Indian relations.
Sikkim has long been an intractable issue in bilateral territorial tensions. The tiny Himalayan kingdom was brought under British administrative control in the 1890s. It became an Indian protectorate in 1950, retaining autonomy over internal affairs, but ceding control of external relations. Following a referendum in 1975, the Chogyal (monarch) was deposed and the Kingdom merged with India.
China has never accepted ‘India’s illegal annexation of Sikkim’, its maps consistently showed an international boundary between the two. Sikkim’s exclusion from the sensitive Sino-Indian border dispute effectively distinguished it as a political, not military, disagreement – and, theoretically at least, as more amenable to resolution. However, several rounds of talks over the years on Sikkim’s status have ended in stalemates with India seeking an immediate recognition of the status quo and China willing only to take a step-by-step approach towards an overall package.
The breakthrough emerged in the Joint Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation signed after hard-nosed negotiations during Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in June. It had all the hallmarks of nuanced trade-offs on Sikkim.
According to the Declaration, both sides were ‘desirous of opening another pass on India-China border’. It specified a trading centre and the all-weather Nathu La Pass as the entry and exit points for trade. Since both are in Sikkim, this implied China’s de facto acceptance of the state being within the Indian border.
India, in turn, conceded that the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the Territory of the People’s Republic of China’. This can be compared to its position formulated in 1954, when Nehru acquiesced to Chinese ‘suzerainty’ over Tibet (without a quid pro quo), indicating simply that ‘Tibet is an integral part of China’. In the recent declaration, India added a sweetener, reiterating its commitment not to permit anti-China political activities by Tibetans on its soil.
Predictably, both sides denied shifting ground. The Chinese Foreign Ministry noted that ‘this question cannot be solved overnight, but we hope it can be resolved gradually’, adding that Sikkim is ‘a question left over from history and is an enduring one’. Indian Foreign Minister Sinha stressed that India’s position on Tibet had been consistent and ‘continues to be the same today’.
Beijing saw it differently. It described the Tibet-related formulation as an ‘important and positive expression’, interpreting India’s acceptance of its preferred terminology as an unequivocal recognition of China’s sovereignty over Tibet. As for India, it played it last card on Tibet, calculating that it had secured Chinese movement on Sikkim while conceding no more than others have under the ‘one China’ formula.
China has moved a long way from rejecting India’s ‘annexation’ of Sikkim, to accepting it as part of the Sino-Indian border, to de-listing it as a country. This approach is entirely consistent with a classic Chinese negotiating technique, which Kissinger characterised as cutting the salami as thinly as possible, while holding the end piece in reserve until the contours of the final package are evident. Notably, there was no acknowledgement domestically of the removal of Sikkim’s electronic ‘footprint’.
Sikkim remains a bargaining chip for another time in another context in Sino-Indian relations.
WATCHPOINT: The progress of talks between the newly appointed Special Representatives to develop a political framework for a final settlement of the boundary dispute will indicate just how far Sino-Indian relations have come.
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