Relevance of ‘Panchsheel’ in India-China Relations

IITM CSC Article #69
20 January 2014
Relevance of ‘Panchsheel’ in India-China Relations

The year gone by, 2013 was rather momentous vis-à-vis India-China relations. For instance, events like exchange of high-level visit in the same calendar year after almost 60 years, intense boundary stand-offs, reinvigorating a number of confidence building measures (CBMs) and mutual efforts to address the issue of trade deficit marked the year 2013 in the context of India-China relations. Significant among all the positive developments was the decision of the leadership of both countries to mark the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel agreement in 2014 and designate year as the “Year of Friendly Exchanges”.

Sixty years ago, in 1954, India and China laid down the foundation of their bilateral relations on the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” which are popularly known as Panchsheel in India. These principles cover mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual noninterference in each other’s internal matters, equality and mutual benefits and peaceful coexistence under its gamut. Intriguingly, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was the pioneer of these five principles; however, these rules of conduct were duly accepted by many newly independent Asian countries namely India, Myanmar, Indonesia so as to append a righteous approach to their respective foreign policies.

These were the guiding principles for negotiations on the Tibet issue in early 1950s. For the first time in 1953 during his meeting with Indian Government delegation, Zhou Enlai put forth these principles. Later, these were incorporated into the “Agreement between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and Republic of India” which was inked on April 29, 1954. The agreement was signed mainly to revoke special privileges and extraterritorial rights inherited by India in Tibet by British. In addition to this, signing of the agreement demonstrated that India recognises Tibet as a legitimate part of China.

In retrospect, the violation of the principles of Panchsheel has been a common phenomenon. In the words of prominent strategic analyst, K. Subrahmanyam, “Panchsheel has been practised more in breach than in observance and that China never took the doctrine of peaceful coexistence seriously was, however, never indoubt”. The military stand-off at Longju in 1959 and the subsequent 1962 India China War were the first two major setbacks in the relations and put Panchsheel on the backburner. Later, China’s supply of arms to India’s archrival, Pakistan and its alleged support to Naga rebels in 1960s further violated these principles.

Though both sides are, yet again, upbeat about celebrating 60th anniversary of Panchsheel, the shadow of more than half-a-century old border dispute continues to loom large over India-China bonhomie. In such a situation, the very credibility of the first principle, mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, is put to test. Second principle mutual non-aggression was also violated in 1962. In fact, proposal for signing a formal non- aggression pact between India and China had been put forth but it is yet to be formulated. Nevertheless, during Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in October 2013, Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) was signed to avoid military face- offs along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). To say the least, signing of the BDCA can be perceived as a way of strengthening Panchsheel and improving relations in general but Chinese incursions in Depsang Valley in April-May 2013 and December 2013 incident of Chumar Valley, when five Indian citizens were detained by Chinese troops and taken to the Chinese side of LAC, raised severe doubts on the viability of peaceful coexistence of India and China.

One may argue that commemorating 60th anniversary of Panchsheel seems to be nothing more than an attempt by Chinese to refute theories associated with so-called ‘China threat’ and convince India and other countries of China’s ‘peaceful development’. Seemingly, while commemorating the 60th anniversary of Panchsheel may be seen as another step towards resolving differences, it is important to note that Panchsheel, to some extent, has lost its essence. Conceivably, the time has come to explore the new vistas of cooperation by reviewing the principles of Panchsheel.


Sana Hashmi,
Associate Fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi
Article PDF: