Border Talks and After


Srikanth Kondapalli understands how India and China can "properly manage and control conflicts" in the border areas and strengthen bilateral relations

On March 23, 2015, the 18th Special Representative meeting between the Indian and Chinese officials led by Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi was held in New Delhi to discuss the territorial dispute. Predictably, after the meeting, both sides made comments suggesting that they reviewed the “positive progress achieved” during the last 17 such meetings, in addition to 13 meetings at different levels before. Meanwhile, India and China also called to “properly manage and control conflicts” in the border areas and strengthen bilateral relations.

Further, a Chinese foreign ministry statement suggested that both these representatives had “exchanged in-depth views on the boundary question and had strategic communication on bilateral relations and international and regional issues of common concern.” This suggested – as had been the recent practice – that the Special Representative mechanism is meant not only for resolving territorial disputes (the main objective for its creation in the first place in 2005) but also delving into bilateral issues (a line which came into being since PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988).

Different Dimensions of the Dispute

Nevertheless, no deadline for such talks in resolving the vexed issue has been outlined, indicating possibly to the long period required for resolving the territorial dispute between the two simultaneously rising countries in Asia. Indeed, without even knowing and legitimising the borders between the two sides through a formal process of defining, delimiting and demarcation, both are drifting for the past three decades into unchartered terrains.

The above Chinese statement also suggested that both are at this moment focusing on other bilateral issues such as trade, investment and market exploration, besides new initiatives such as in the multilateral fields.

Part of this lack of urgency in resolving the dispute lay in the realisation that this dispute cannot be resolved at this moment given the claims of each other and preparations that both are making in recent times.

While the Chinese leaders would express their helplessness on the coalition-era of Indian politics since 1984 till the recent government formation with simple majority in the Lok Sabha last year, the Chinese are constrained recently with the upsurge in nationalism which has been calling not only the “entire area of Arunachal Pradesh” as disputed, but this whole area as an extension of southern Tibet. This is naturally rejected by any elected government in India, although Indian leaders noticed the subtle revisions in China’s territorial claims.

China had also become more vocal on the visits of Indian political leaders to Arunachal Pradesh, as has been the case when the previous Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh visited Itanagar in January 2008 and again October 2009, or as recently as this February, when PM Modi visited the state to inaugurate a new railway line. On one occasion, China had also vetoed a decision of the Asian Development Bank funding of $60 million for flood control in Arunachal Pradesh.

Border Transgressions

Another dimension of the dispute which has tested bilateral relations time and again is the issue of border patrols’ transgression of each other’s perceived line of actual control. On an average, more than a transgression a day is reported from the border areas and sometimes even leading to the build-up of troops as had happened in Depsang Plains in April 2013 or at Chumar in September 2014 – both in the western sector of the border.

The Depsang Plains incident, which lasted for more than three weeks when over 200 Chinese troops pitched five tents, resulted in testing the confidence building mechanisms institutions when six flag meetings were frantically organised in the border areas to douse the situation from getting out of control. The Chumar incident likewise – coinciding with the state visit of President Xi Jinping last year – nearly ruined his visit and bilateral relations. PM Modi, on the occasion, suggested that the special representative mechanism had not progressed well in defining the line of actual control and its attendant destabilisation of the bilateral relations.

CBM’s: Preventing Conflict, but not Building Trust

To avoid such incidents, which to some extent affected President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September last year, both sides proposed and implemented some confidence building measures since 1996. A border defence cooperation agreement was also signed in 2013 to avoid “tailing” each other’s patrols. In early 2015, China also proposed a Code of Conduct, although India was sceptical on that approach given the South China Sea situation where a Declaration of Conduct since 2002 had not yielded positive security results.

Indeed, since the Declaration in the South China Sea does not have any enforceable provisions, it had only led to further Chinese expansion and assertiveness in the region. In the India-China border context, it is not lost on the Indian side that while India demobilised over 36,000 troops from the China front and re-deployed them in the Kashmir region in the 1990s, no such withdrawals were made by China on the Indian front, or any verifications process implemented by the Chinese side. It dawned on the Indian side that while the confidence building measures on the border areas are welcome between the two armed forces, they remained conflict preventive measures and not trust building measures. In other words, while a semblance of peace and tranquillity – interspersed with intentional transgressions – prevailed on the border areas, no lasting solution could be arrived at in the short to medium term. The resulting uncertainty then needs to be addressed with conventional and strategic deterrent capabilities build-up.

Nevertheless, foreign minister Wang Yi said to the Press Trust of India correspondent on March 8 that the “dispute has been contained. At the moment, the boundary negotiations are in the process of building up small positive developments. It is like climbing a mountain and the going is tough because we are on the way up.” The bilateral situation as well as the “peace and tranquillity” in the border areas need to be seen in the next one-two years to verify Wang’s optimism.

To be on the safer side, India has already sanctioned raising a Strike Corps on the border areas, in addition to acquiring newer military platforms. Besides, the Ministry of Home Affairs initiated resettlement of people who migrated from areas closer to the Line of Actual Control in the last few decades. In addition, the border roads construction was also given top priority by the new government.

Taking Relations to a New Level

More significantly, the agenda of Yang during this visit included preparations for Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China. The Chinese side’s announcements suggest that both leaders are trying to make short-to-medium term preparations for bilateral relations – for the next “five to ten years”. While Modi is no stranger to China, having visited that country four times as the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, the Chinese side nevertheless, had invited him to visit China last year.

A formal invitation in this regard was made by president Xi Jinping to PM Modi at Fortaleza, Brazil the venue for the BRICS leaders Six summit meeting in July last year. Xi invited Modi to attend the APEC summit meeting in November 2014 at Beijing, although India is not a member of this multilateral organisation.

Predictably, Modi did not visit Beijing to attend this meeting following his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh’s famous observation, when asked to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2009, that a billion people’s representative will not be waiting outside the venue of the meeting sipping coffee when decisions are being arrived at the venue.

The other suggestion of Xi – that of joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member – was of course accepted by India last year.

Subsequently, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September last year, 12 agreements were signed – mainly on economic and technical issues and cultural exchanges. China also agreed to invest $20 billion in the next five years in India’s manufacturing centres in lieu of burgeoning trade deficit in favour of China to the tune of more than $212 billion since 2007.

In 2014, the trade imbalance between the two, for instance, was more than $37 billion in favour of China, even though successive Indian leaders’ prodding China to observe market economy status and let Indian products compete in the Chinese market were in vain.

In the last few months, some positive measures were undertaken to implement the above agreements, including, as stated by China’s Ambassador to India Le Yucheng, about the “Visit India Year” campaign, six trade promotion delegations to India since 2008, training Indian railway personnel in heavy haulage and feasibility studies on railway lines.

Yet, as PM Modi told visiting Yang Jiechi that he expected, during his visit to China in May this year “concrete outcomes and [that he would like] take the relationship to a new level”. Whether China initiates measures to allow Indian software and pharmaceutical companies to enter China’s market – as World Trade Organisation rules suggest – needs to be watched and assessed. Also, any fresh troop deployment on the borders by the Chinese side will also be carefully monitored during and after Modi’s visit to Beijing.

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