India-China Border Talks Shift From Resolving Disputes to Managing Them

Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon meeting with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi.

The 17th round of India-China Special Representative Talks (SR Talks) on boundary disputes between the two countries concluded in New Delhi on February 11. China was represented by State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and India by National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. An anodyne press release issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said that the talks were candid and constructive ( https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/22861/ ). It further said the Special Representatives continued their discussions on a framework intended to achieve resolution of the boundary question, the second stage of a three-step process agreed to previously by both sides.

The latest round of the SR Talks between the two countries took place against the backdrop of a major border incursion by China on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on April 15 last year (See China Brief, July 14, 2013). Although the three-week standoff was peacefully resolved on May 5, it exacerbated mistrust between the two countries and exposed the weaknesses of the existing institutional mechanisms and Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) intended to prevent and defuse border incursions.  It is no wonder, therefore, that the focus and thrust of the border talks in recent times have shifted to effective border management rather than seeking resolution of the issue.

Sino-Indian economic ties and border have grown simultaneously in recent years, prompting both sides to make managing tensions a priority. During Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India in May last year, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh very directly stated, “The basis for continued growth and expansion of our ties [with China] is peace and tranquility on our borders” (The Times of India, May 21, 2013). Later the two countries signed the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) during the visit of Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to China in October last year. It was yet another CBM between the two countries, which attempted to address the lacunae of the earlier CBMs, including the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, which the two countries had signed in January 2012 ( http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/17963/ ).

In order to address the issue of border incursions, the two sides agreed in the BCDA that they shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the Line of Actual Control.  It further urged both sides to open additional meeting points for flag meetings and border personnel meetings to respond to and defuse incidents. It also proposed establishing telephone and telecommunication links at mutually agreed locations along the Line of Actual Control, and a hotline between the military headquarters of the two countries.

When the recent SR Talks took place, the fifth meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs also took place earlier in the day on February 10. While the two institutional mechanisms complement each other, the SR Talks also addressed a wide range of non-border issues. The two top diplomats discussed at length other issues such as the Chinese concept of the New Silk Road, trans-border river management, the stapled visa issue, Chinese support to Indian insurgent groups in the North-East region of India, and other regional issues (The Hindustan Times, February 15, 2014). This suggests that neither side expects to reach agreement on the border; the inclusion of other issues dilutes the urgency and primacy of the settlement of territorial issue between the two countries.

Paradoxically, Beijing is more proactive in initiating the CBMs with India, while most of the border incidents are also initiated by the Chinese side. Frequent border incursions and at times standoffs between the two armies, and their reportage in the media, hardens Indian popular perceptions of China, which in turn casts a shadow on the relationship between the two countries. It is also a matter of speculation whether the border incursions by the PLA on the Indian side of the LAC is part of a wider strategy, or is closer to “freelancing” by local border commanders.  Be that as it may, China cannot afford to strain its relationship with India in view of the growing bilateral trade and economic engagement between the two countries and their people, and in the context of overall relationship between the two countries. In spite of the claims by both sides that the LAC is peaceful and tranquil, the incidence of border incursions continues and the frequency and duration of standoffs have increased. Thus, the situation makes resolution ever less likely, and demands effective border management.

There has been little progress on resolving the border since 2005, when the two countries signed Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question. The two countries exchanged maps showing their respective positions in the relatively less complex middle sector in March 2000. Later, in June 2002, maps on the Western sector were shown but not exchanged, due to both sides claiming maximalist territorial positions (The Hindustan Times, June 14, 2013). The current Chinese leadership appears resigned to managing a lingering boundary question, as President Xi Jinping expressed in an interview last year. He said that the boundary dispute between the two sides “won’t be easy. Pending the final settlement of the boundary question, the two sides should work together and maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas and prevent the border question from affecting the overall development of bilateral relations” (Times of India, March 19, 2013).

The two sides may, however, be able to accept a permanent settlement using the status quo as defined by the LAC, but that would require strong political will from both sides. While India has to develop a national political consensus, China also has to muster up strong political will to overcome deep-seated nationalism on the same issue. The position on the progress of the border dispute from the Indian side can be summed up in the words of the official spokesperson: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed (The Hindu, February 12).