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Moving beyond the Panchsheel deception

India and China must develop a new framework for bilateral relations, unshackled by empty rituals and symbols.

India and China can cooperate with each other on the principles of sovereign equality and mutual sensitivity. India and China can cooperate with each other on the principles of sovereign equality and mutual sensitivity.

The biggest problem in Sino-Indian relations is the utter lack of ingenuity and innovativeness. Six decades after the formal engagement through Panchsheel and five decades after the bloody disengagement due to the 1962 War, leaders of both the countries struggle to come up with new and out-of-the-box answers to the problems plaguing their relationship.

When there are no new ideas, one resorts to symbolism and rituals. These are projected as the great new ideas to kickstart a new relationship. However, there is nothing great or new about them. They are the very same worn out and tried-tested-and-failed actions of the last several decades.

The Panchsheel itself is one ritual that successive Indian governments have unfailingly performed. Vice President Hamid Ansari will be visiting Beijing today to uphold India’s commitment to the ritual. The occasion is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Panchsheel Agreement.

It was exactly six decades ago, on June 28, 1954, roughly two months after the formal signing of the Panchsheel, that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited India. He and then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had issued a historic statement, reaffirming their commitment to the five principles enshrined in the Panchsheel to “lessen the tensions that exist in the world today and help in creating a climate of peace”.

Contrary to public perception or propaganda, Panchsheel was actually an agreement between the “Tibetan region of China and India” on “trade and intercourse”. It did include five principles, like mutual respect, mutual non-aggression, mutual benefit, peaceful coexistence, etc, but the very title of the agreement was a defeat for India.

The British had, at least from the Simla Accord of 1912 until they left India, not conceded that Tibet was a part of China. Unfortunately, one of the first foreign policy deviations of the Nehru government was the signing of the Panchsheel, wherein India had formally called the Tibetan region as “of China”. Thus the Panchsheel was signed as a treaty of peaceful coexistence over the obituary of Tibetan independence. That was why parliamentarian Acharya Kripalani called the agreement as “born in sin”.

The Panchsheel met its end just three months after its signing, when the Chinese were found violating Indian borders in Ladakh in late-1954. A formal death note was written by Mao Zedong a few months before the 1962 war, when he told Zhou that what India and China should practice is not “peaceful coexistence” but “armed coexistence”. The war followed and ended in humiliation and loss of territory for India. It left behind a massive border dispute that continues to haunt both the countries.

However, this didn’t seem to deter the Indian and, to some extent, the Chinese leadership in continuing with the deception of the Panchsheel. The history of Sino-Indian relations in the last five decades is replete with instances of violations of sovereignty, mutual animosity, attempts to upstage each other and general ill-will. Mostly the Chinese have been on the wrong side of the so-called Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

Yet, the ritual continued through the decades and changing governments in India. Nehru to P.V. Narasimha Rao to Atal Bihari Vajpayee continued paying lip service to the Panchsheel during bilateral visits.

“Only with coexistence can there be any existence,” declared Indira Gandhi in 1983. The next prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, expressed confidence in 1988 that “the five principles of peaceful coexistence provide the best way to handle relations between nations”. Rao as prime minister declared in 1993 that “these principles remain as valid today as they were when they were drafted”. While Vajpayee too was forced to continue this ritual, he made a significant departure by refusing to falsely credit China for following the Panchsheel. He put extra emphasis on “mutual sensitivity to the concerns of each other” and “respect for equality”.

At a time when Beijing is celebrating six decades of the Panchsheel, it is important to look at a new framework for Sino-Indian relations beyond Panchsheel. Vajpayee laid the foundation for a renewed outlook by emphasising on sensitivity and equality. That can form the basis for the new framework.

The Chinese have a clever way of promoting their superiority and exclusivism. Sinologists describe it as the Middle Kingdom syndrome. While Nehru wanted to take credit for the Panchsheel, Zhou told Richard Nixon in 1973 that “actually, the five principles were put forward by us, and Nehru agreed. But later on he didn’t implement them”. The Chinese also entered into a similar agreement with Myanmar (then Burma) in 1954, thus ensuring that the Panchsheel wasn’t exclusive to their relationship with India.

For the Beijing event, the Chinese government has invited the president of India as well as the president of Myanmar, General Thein Sein, who will be present. Ansari will lead the Indian delegation. Without any malice towards Ansari, one would notice the downgrading of India’s participation in the Beijing event. Beijing was keen on having the president or prime minister at the event. But for once, the South Block mandarins seem to have done their homework, advising the Indian government against sending either of them. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj too decided to skip the event and chose to visit Dhaka around the same time, sending a rather strong signal.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is expected to visit India in September, decide to depart from the Panchsheel framework and embark on a new relationship, both countries will benefit. Both leaders have that ability. Both enjoy the trust and confidence of their countries. Most importantly, both are seen to be out-of-the-box leaders.

India and China can cooperate with each other on the principles of sovereign equality and mutual sensitivity. China has emerged as an economic superpower, but is exposed to serious internal and external threats. It is facing problems with almost all of its 13 neighbours. The fact that China spends more money on internal security than on external security speaks volumes about its internal vulnerability. So, while India is not as big economically as China, its security apparatus is better-placed.

Modi and Xi can chart a new course in Sino-Indian relations if they are prepared to unshackle themselves from ritualism and symbolism. Both have the ability and the support to do it.

Madhav is a member of the Central Executive, RSS, and the author of ‘Uneasy Neighbours: India and China after Fifty Years of the War’

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