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18th Round Of Special Representative Talks Show Glimpses Of China-India Relations

Updated: April 25, 2015 12:43 pm

The SR level talks not only address the boundary issue but facilitate exchange of views on subjects of common interest in regional and international developments. The core of this arrangement is to seek ways and means to advance towards a final resolution of the boundary issue

Neither the Indian side nor the Chinese gave any details of the Special Representative (SR) level talks between the two countries held in New Delhi recently (March 23).  According to Xinhua, the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi “exchanged in depth their opinions on the boundary issue”, and made “strategic communications” on bilateral ties as well as international and regional issues of common interest.

The SR level talks not only address the boundary issue but facilitate exchange of views on subjects of common interest in regional and international developments. The core of this arrangement is to seek ways and means to advance towards a final resolution of the boundary issue. At this meeting, preparatory talks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forthcoming visit to China was expected to be on the agenda.  His visit, as prime minister, is expected to enhance bilateral relations.

Irked by the Chinese troop build-up in Chumar in the disputed western sector during President Xi Jinping’s visit to India last year (September 2014), Mr Modi openly stated that bilateral relations depended on the stability of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The talks, aimed at keeping the border stable and ensuring that Modi’s visit goes smoothly, have not resulted in any forward movement.

While no shots have been fired by troops on either side of the border since the Peace and Tranquillity Treaty of 1993, the situation has not been as stable as made out to be.

In April-May 2013, Chinese troops transgressed in Depsang plains (western sector) across the Indian perceived LAC and remained there for three weeks—just before Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India.  It is significant that both these major incursions happened during or around the time of the visit of two of their most important leaders to India.  There was a distinct message from the Chinese—there was no room for negotiations over the Chinese occupation of areas (Aksai Chin) during the short 1962 war.  In fact China has been expanding its hold on this area through what is known as “salami slicing”, a creeping expansion, almost invisible.

The theatre of Chinese hard-line position appears to be shifting to the eastern sector, where the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is viewed as disputed territory by China.  China does not issue visas to people from Arunachal Pradesh.

A Chinese position not necessarily brought to the table was—if India “made concessions in the East, China would consider making concessions in the West”.  This position appears to have been quietly shelved.

China’s position in the eastern sector appears to have shifted and hardened recently.  Reacting to Mr. Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh on February 20, to inaugurate a railway line, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin called in Indian Ambassador Ashok Kanth and stated that Mr. Modi’s visit “infringes on China’s territorial sovereignty and interests, magnifies the dispute of the border issue, and violates the consensus on appropriately handling the border issue”.

The Chinese reaction to Mr. Modi’s Arunachal Pradesh visit was unusually sharp.  While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the state in 2009 was sharply criticized by the Chinese, it was not at the vice ministerial level.  Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had smoothened the situation when he met Manmohan Singh soon after, at the Hua Hin meeting of the ARF in Thailand.  This time also, at a briefing on the side-lines of the National People’s Congress (NPC), foreign minister Wang Yi stated (March 8) that the border dispute had been “contained”.  He informed observers that the acrimony was now behind.  They had made their point, and it was time to prepare for Mr. Modi’s visit.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had suggested an “out-of-the-box” solution to the border issue when she was in Beijing recently for the China-India-Russia trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting.  She had also stated to the Chinese that the issue not be passed to the next generation.  President Xi Jinping remarked to Swaraj, when she called on him, to “patiently manage differences”.

First, what is an “out-of-the-box” solution?  In such a case, the two sides would have to give up their stated positions.  Can their domestic political opinion be contained?  The Chinese had indirectly proposed approaches like “package deal” (all three sectors of dispute be taken up together) and sector-by-sector approach.  In the eastern sector, they made a demand on Tawang, one of the grounds being the fourth Dalai Lama had been born there, and the Tibetan people had strong attachment to the place.  The historical process of finding the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, however, does not allude to his place of birth.

The modalities for resolution of the border issue agreed on by the two sides in 2005 state clearly that areas with settled population will not be exchanged.  Are the Chinese trying to renege on that?

The Chinese appear to have expanded their claim, stalled identification of the LAC by exchanging maps, and are not willing to discuss or negotiate on Aksai Chin.

India, on the other hand, has been remiss by not insisting that the disputed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) which India claims as its sovereign territory, be taken into account.  Pakistan has transferred more than 5000 sq kms of PoK to China in a 1963 agreement.  Further, China is building infrastructure in PoK.  It may be recalled that China opposed and scuttled an Asian Development Bank (ADB) assistance for infrastructure projects in Arunachal Pradesh on grounds that it was disputed territory.

New Delhi must also demand that China clearly and unequivocally clarify whether it recognizes Sikkim as a sovereign territory of India.  India needs to take up these subjects forcefully with the Chinese interlocutors.  China is using the border issue as a pressure instrument against India.  China was almost convinced that as prime minister, Narendra Modi would downgrade relations with USA.  But President Obama’s India visit, that too as chief guest at the Republic Day Parade, led to the perception that India was a potential partner, if not a hidden accomplice, in USA’s plan to encircle China, along with Japan, a US ally.  Recent amendments in the Japanese Constitution, especially in the ambit of action of its armed forces, the Self Defence Force (SDF) is perceived by Beijing as incremental steps towards constricting China even in the South China Sea.  India’s Malabar naval exercises with the USA in which Japan is likely to participate this year are viewed with suspicion by the Chinese.  Although China accepts India’s position on Tibet, and has no evidence of India-US collusion on using the Tibetan issue against it, the suspicion lingers strongly.

Mr. Modi needs to disabuse the Chinese leaders on these two issues in his forthcoming visit.  There is a sense among the Chinese that Mr. Modi and his government are desperately looking for Chinese investment in India to drive the government’s urgent development programme.  Mr. Modi will have to address this issue too.

These challenges do not indicate that bilateral relations need to be frozen and suspicions allowed to grow.  But caution is the key—there is no need to rush into the unknown and uninvestigated.  There exists a wide range in the bilateral, regional and international fora where the two countries can work together, addressing each other’s needs and concerns.  For instance, bilateral trade and confidence building measures, the Afghanistan peace initiative and international terrorism can be addressed, to start with.

Returning to the border question—unfortunately, China has been pushing it to territorial dimensions, at least for negotiations.  It is generally believed that Xi Jinping is even stronger than Deng Xiaoping, with no peer group to challenge him.  But this is not entirely true.  There are both internal and external challenges.

Traditionally, nationalism has been invoked and fanned by the Chinese communist party to divert people.  Currently, territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, conflict with Japan in the East China Sea and movements in Tibet and Xinjiang are connected with territorial integrity.  China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh and India’s on Aksai Chin fall in this category.  In India’s case no withdrawal is possible from territory claimed by Beijing.

The greatest pessimists in India will believe that real forward movement on the ground has been achieved, if exchange of maps of territorial control (to identify the LAC) takes place during Mr. Modi’s visit.

By Bhaskar Roy

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