NEW DELHI — It seems absurd that almost 53 years after India became a free country that it should remain without recognized borders with its most powerful neighbor, China.

Although the Chinese foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, said recently that he was confident of solving the problem, 11 rounds of discussions between New Delhi and Beijing since 1989 have been more or less in vain.

India alleges that China is illegally occupying an area a little over 43,000 sq. km in Kashmir. This includes about 5,000 sq. km unlawfully ceded to Beijing under a Sino-Pakistani pact of 1963. On the other hand, China charges India with holding 90,000 sq. km of Dragon territory.

Beijing has erred, but New Delhi is also guilty of missing excellent opportunities to set right the issue. New evidence on this is now available from a few sources made public some weeks ago. One of them is a valuable book, “The Fate of Tibet,” by the French scholar Claude Arpi.

China made several attempts at having a stable border with India in the aftermath of the Tibetan crisis. Involved dangerously with Tibet and Korea, with America-backed Chiang Kai-shek’s threat looming large, Beijing was desperate for peace with New Delhi.

But the late Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister — despite an army with a brilliant record in World War II and in Kashmir — concentrated on the issue of Korea in the early 1950s, and lost a wonderful chance to get to the bottom of the boundary question. A decade later, in 1962, a militarily mightier China invaded India and humiliated it.

Somewhere, Nehru got his priorities wrong. As Tibet lay shattered after the Chinese overran the plateau, Nehru seemed the least perturbed over the fact that a great power was virtually at his nation’s doorstep.

He went as far to say that the presence of Beijing’s soldiers in Tibet could not be confirmed. “Our primary consideration is maintenance of world peace. Recent developments have not strengthened China’s position, which will be further weakened by any aggressive action in Tibet,” he argued.

Having firmly convinced himself that what was happening in Tibet was none of his business, Nehru spent his time and energy in getting Beijing admitted to the U.N. Security Council.

The man, who saw himself as some kind of a bridge between the West and the Socialist bloc (which included the then Soviet Union), did not realize how foolish he was in pursuing this goal: China was then at war with the United Nations forces in Korea!

Obviously, Nehru’s move invited the West’s displeasure. New Delhi’s later leaning toward Moscow, coupled with its sponsorship of Mao Zedong’s policies and neglect of Tibet, also soured its relationship with Washington. The Kennedy era salvaged something out of these strained ties, but the U.S. president, despite his great admiration for Nehru, had far too many strategic concerns to deal with, and India had to be pushed to the background.

And Beijing was not being helpful either. There was enough to reveal that China respected strength, and not specific pronouncements like India’s Pancha Sheel (Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence).

Arpi writes in his tome: “Over the years, the myth of Indo-Chinese friendship grew larger and larger, becoming a brotherhood, until that day in October 1962, when Lin Biao and his People’s Liberation Army were in Arunachal Pradesh (a state in northeastern India).”

For Nehru, it was a terrible stab in the back. It unnerved and shocked him so much that he fell ill reportedly because of it. He never regained his former vibrancy, and died a couple of years later.

Beijing can never be condoned for what it did to a man who implicitly believed in that country’s leadership. However, Nehru was a trifle too naive in his assessment of China’s designs and needs. Even when he was informed of the incursions, he withheld this piece of news from his countrymen, all in the fond hope of keeping alive his Pancha Sheel.

Nonetheless the indisputable fact is, he ignored what was then vital to Beijing. It was keen on a firm demarcation of its border. Then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited New Delhi several times, and was prepared to accept the McMahon Line as the boundary in the east (with some minor adjustments) and negotiate the unmarked terrain between Ladakh and Tibet in the West.

Zhou suggested a phased settlement, beginning with the east. Nehru wanted the whole thing to be tied up at one stroke. China could not agree, and every time its premier was in India, all that he heard was the goodness of Pancha Sheel.

There came a point when Beijing interpreted this as intransigence on New Delhi’s part. Now, decades later, there is a move to actively mend fences with China. Congratulating it on 50 years of its diplomatic relations with India, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said this earlier this week: ‘We attach importance to the development of friendly, cooperative, good-neighborly and mutually beneficial ties with China. . . . With the joint efforts of the two sides, we can build a stable relationship of constructive cooperation in the 21st century, and, thereby, contribute to peace and stability in the Asian region.”

Incidentally, India was the first country to accord diplomatic recognition to China’s Communist government. Indian President K.R. Narayanan’s visit to China in the coming weeks will, one hopes, lead to a better understanding between the two neighbors, both powerful in their own ways.

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