Although the Chinese project the Panchsheel as the cornerstone of their foreign policy, many in India are questioning the relevance of the five principles.
Indian analysts are questioning the relevance of the five principles of mutual coexistence.
On June 28, 2014, India and China, being signatories of the Panchsheel Agreement, celebrated its 60th anniversary, exchanging greetings and pledging to promote its aims. The concept of the Five Principles (Panchsheel) – mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, noninterference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence – has special significance for the Chinese as they project it as the cornerstone of their foreign policy.
For India, it is more a matter of ritualism. Therefore, many critics question its relevance. The majority of Indians consider the Panchsheel as unfavorable while only a few think that it can improve the equation between India and China – two fast-emerging powers that share long physical borders but conflicting geostrategic interests.
For the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel, India and China decided to set the year 2014 as the India-China Friendship and Exchange Year. Both countries will hold a series of events to commemorate this important milestone. The Vice President of India, M. Hamid Ansari, while addressing the Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of Panchsheel in the Great Hall of People in Beijing, said that it was a very special occasion.
While Ansari expressed optimism about the future of the Panchsheel, a large majority of Indian analysts are rather skeptic and have reservations about what they call ‘the real intentions of China’. Some have already asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reconsider his scheduled visit to China in September 2014. A section of the Indian media has alleged that “while the Indian VP was in Beijing, a new map showing Arunachal Pradesh as part of China was released along with the Chinese Army’s incursions in Ladakh.”
In a hard-hitting article, R. N. Ravi, a former special director of the Intelligence Bureau with 20 years of experience of China, asserted that “the Panchsheel Agreement is damnosa heredatas, a dark legacy bequeathed by Nehru to India.”
Similarly, Ram Madhav, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the RSS and author of ‘Uneasy Neighbours: India and China after Fifty Years of the War’, observed that “the biggest problem in Sino-Indian relations is the utter lack of ingenuity and innovativeness.” He said that even after six decades of the Panchsheel and five decades after the bloody disengagement due to the 1962 War, leaders of both countries could not find “new and out-of-the-box answers to the problems plaguing their relationship.”
Ram Madhav says that the Panchsheel was signed as a treaty of peaceful coexistence over the obituary of Tibetan independence. That was why parliamentarian Acharya Kripalani said that the agreement was “born in sin.” According to him, the Panchsheel met its end when the Chinese were found violating Indian borders in Ladakh. 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 that followed ended with humiliation and loss of territory for India, leaving behind a massive border dispute that continues to haunt the two countries. However, this did not deter
the Indian and, to some extent, the Chinese leadership in continuing with what Madhav called “the deception of the Panchsheel.” The history of Sino-Indian relations in the last five decades, he says, is replete with instances of violations of sovereignty, mutual animosity, attempts to upstage each other and a general ill-will. The Chinese have mostly been on the wrong side of the so-called Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.
Though expressing his disillusionment with the Panchsheel, Ram Madhav still believes that India and China can cooperate with each other on the principles of sovereign equality and mutual sensitivity and 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.”
Seema Sengupta, a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist, observed that “perhaps no other Sino-Indian treaty had such a significant impact in evolving an environment of mutual trust, security and confidence than the Panchsheel Agreement of 1954.” However, she said it was not conceptualized as a confidence building measure in terms of security given the fact that the treaty was all about streamlining Sino-Indian trade cooperation in Tibet. It entailed movements across the border by local traders and pilgrims without passports and visas. In reality, the agreement effectively put an end to Tibet’s existence as a distinct nation state. She says that skeptics argue that the Panchsheel left the door ajar for China to militarily dominate the strategic Tibetan plateau and, in fact, the Chinese military establishment wasted no time in building a vast network of roads and airstrips that stretched up to India’s northeastern frontier. This is what India perceives as Beijing’s continued ‘aggressive posture’.
One may safely conclude that commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel Agreement seems to be nothing more than an attempt by the Chinese to refute theories associated with the so-called China threat and convince India and other countries of its ‘peaceful development’. It is still doubtful whether the Panchsheel can help resolve long-standing differences – in this context it has certainly lost its relevance. However, Delhi and Beijing can agree to modernize the infrastructure at the Nathu La Pass connecting Tibet and Sikkim and initiate full-fledged trade along with finding ways to expand the current limited opportunities for Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who want to visit places of worship on both sides of the border. The writers, partners in law firm Huzaima & Ikram, are adjunct faculty members at the Lahore University of Management Science.