During his visit to Beijing last week,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed with Chinese leaders to appropriately celebrate next year as the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel declaration signed in 1954. The Panchsheel is often held up in New Delhi as a great contribution of Indias first PM,Jawaharlal Nehru,to the evolution of modern international relations. A closer look,however,suggests that its significance is overrated. The fact that Panchsheel is repeatedly invoked reveals Indias habit of worshipping words,elevating written text above political context and refusing to see what these words mean for China. Diplomatic history says Nehru did not invent Panchsheel. It was Zhou Enlai who wanted the five principles of peaceful coexistence put into the preamble of an agreement on trade relations between India and Tibet in 1954. Nehru simply went along.
The rather anodyne principles call for mutual respect for each others territorial integrity and sovereignty,non-aggression,non-interference in each others internal affairs,equality and mutual benefit,and peaceful coexistence. When Krishna Menon,who was a close associate of Nehru and a formidable wordsmith,complained about the poor drafting of the preamble,Nehru downplayed the significance of the text. Menon later recollected that Nehru told him,How does it matter; it isnt a treaty or anything,it is a preface to this Tibetan business.
Nehrus advice not to read too much into Panchsheel might surprise contemporary Nehruvians. Menon was irritated by the efforts,after Nehrus death,to elevate Panchsheel into some kind of a diplomatic doctrine. He insisted that Panchsheel was not a revelation. It was not a creed or part of a formulation of our foreign policy. The tragedy,of course,was that China and India would respect Panchsheel more in breach rather than observance in the decades of tension after 1954. Beijing accused Delhi of intervening in Tibet. Delhi was angry at Maos support to Indian insurgents in the Northeast and the Naxalite movement in the heartland.
As they prepare to mark,yet again,the signing of Panchsheel,Delhi and Beijing are nowhere near separating their territorial sovereignties in the Great Himalayas. If your territorial claims overlap,how do you respect each others sovereignty and integrity?
India is angry that China issues stapled visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh and does not recognise Indias sovereignty in Jammu and Kashmir. Beijing in turn is bitter about India giving shelter to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. For China,Panchsheel was and is all about affirming Beijings sovereignty over Tibet. When the Chinese emphasised respect for territorial sovereignty and non-intervention,they were asking India to lay its hands off Tibet.
As the successor to the British Raj,India enjoyed many privileges in Tibet. For Zhou in 1954,Panchsheel was about getting Nehru to recognise,unambiguously,Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Six decades later,the Chinese focus on the theme remains unchanged. It is about ending Indias presumed special relationship with Tibet. For all its rhetorical commitment to Panchsheel,Delhi is yet to acknowledge that Tibet is an inalienable part of China. The charade,then,goes on.
Beyond Tibet,the propaganda on Panchsheel serves two important political purposes for China. For one,the Panchsheel rhetoric puts India on the Chinese side in Beijings ideological battles with the United States and the West on issues ranging from democracy and human rights to internet governance. For another,it helps China to steadily chip away at Indias regional primacy in the subcontinent.
Consider the Indian and Chinese attitudes to the deepening political crisis in the Maldives. India wants the current regime in Male to stop its brazen efforts to prevent former president Mohamed Nasheed from being re-elected. As Delhi tries to nudge Male,some would call it intervention in the internal affairs of the Maldives to restore the democratic process. Beijing is happy affirming the principle of non-intervention.
Given its large stakes in South Asian stability,Delhi cant ever be a bystander in the internal crises of its neighbours. By talking up Panchsheel,Beijing supports all regimes in the subcontinent that want to stand up against pressures from Delhi. Why then does Delhi encourage the prattle on Panchsheel? Cynics might suggest Panchsheel is a mere verbal prop in the Sino-Indian theatre and cite Nehru to say dont take it too seriously.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for The Indian Express