Border Talks: What Does Future Hold for India and China?
The Year of Friendly Exchanges between India and the People’s Republic of China kicked off with the 17th Special Representatives’ Meeting on the Boundary Question in New Delhi on 10-11 February, 2014, to forge closer and stronger ties between the two neighbours. India’s National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon discussed the issue with the Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi to come up with viable means to settle face-offs in the disputed border territories of India and China.
Growth in the relationship between the two rising Asian powers has been stunted since the inception of border issues dating back to as early as the 1830s when the Sikh Confederacy had annexed Ladakh into the state of Jammu and invaded Tibet, where they met with defeat. After the British Raj crumbled, the problem escalated and the Chinese have claimed ownership of some regions like the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin in Ladakh, part of which was captured by Pakistan and handed over to the Chinese illegally. India recognizes the McMahon line, which was signed back in 1914, to be the official boundary between the two countries. However, China now rejects these claims on the argument that Tibet was not sovereign and therefore lacked power to conclude such treaties. This has been a bone of contention between the two powerful neighbours ever since.
Now with steadily increasing economic might in Asia and the world, China has become evidently more assertive, militarily mightier, and blatantly vocal in its claims of the regions important to it. Like the case in India, similar claims of ownership of territories in the disputed waters of the South China Sea have recently been widely discussed in the international media. China is seen to be playing with fire by upsetting not one, but plenty of its maritime neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. On the Indian front, a few tiffs have been reported at the border yet again. Bonding over a shared history of ancient civilization and religion, the strategic partners have been regularly conducting such talks since a little over three decades now. The last one was held in Beijing in June 2013.
A few good conclusions did come out of the talks. The major agenda of the meeting was to implement the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, which aims to reduce the use of force along the disputed region. This was agreed during the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in 2013. Special focus was also given to the western sector of the Sino-Indian border and recent developments were reviewed. Steps to maintain peace and tranquillity were contemplated upon. National Security Adviser Menon has proved to be an incredible negotiator standing up strongly against the Chinese suggestions for concessions.
Despite the continued stand-offs at the Sino-Indian border for years, it is commendable that the borders remain essentially non-violent and relatively peaceful since the Indo-China War of 1962 that ended with defeat of the Indian defence forces. Since diplomatic relations have been resumed since with China, the border issue has been wisely sidelined by both nations in order to maintain healthy trade and commerce and to build upon their strengths together. Minor events at the border are a fairly common feature, but the two nations have stepped up to allow open border trade.
Negotiations over this issue in the past have been slow moving and the two sides have been unable to come up with a solid framework. India and China have discussed putting in place additional confidence-building measures (CBMs) and strengthening mechanisms for communication along the border previously, yet instances of military face-offs have been reported. The most recent was the alleged incursion into the eastern region of Ladakh by People’s Liberation Amy a day ahead of the talks, which China has smoothly denied on account of “routine patrolling”.
The talks now having reached the final stage of negotiations, the future of the dispute seems dismal. The first two steps focused on preparing a set of guidelines for the nations to stick to at the disputed border and preparing a plan on doing so effectively. It is yet to be seen how power play will unfold between the two rising economies along the border. Critics feel that if the border issue needs to be resolved in the near future, more significant outcome is necessary at the end of such talks.
To initiate healthy peace building, it is important to first clarify what perceptions both countries hold of the demarcated territories to prevent further possibility of future disputes. How much of the talks will translate into action is also important to see. The 17th round of talks will be significant because it is the last round of talks the Indian government will have with China before it goes to the polls this year. Amidst heightened excitement in the international community and the media, it is believed that the talks, like most past border talks, could be merely ceremonial in nature. Whether or not they will successfully be able to curb border transgression in the near future or not, is a big question.