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India-China: Protracted talks, contested sovereignties

January 19, 2012 14:24 IST

In addition to the legal claims of territories, the political signals from Beijing also need to be deciphered and considered before a territorial dispute resolution can be made by India, says Srikanth Kondapalli.

When China's State Councilor Dai Bingguo stated at Delhi this week that bilateral relations with India have a chance to "face a golden period", he was dangling the carrot to India to work together in the international system that is witnessing fast changes due to the "return to Asia" of the United States.

However, Dai's basic mission to Delhi was to discuss a "framework" for the resolution of the boundary dispute between the two countries. While Dai stated that both sides have "scaled much height" in working out such a framework, as he is stepping down this year as the State Councilor and the Special Representative on border talks, he has little to show to his own people on the subject, having engaged with four Indian counterparts since 2003.

Although peaceful, the India-China border and China-Bhutan border are the only territorial disputes that China was unable to resolve so far despite three decades of discussions.

Rescheduled from the November 28-29 slot last year, the 15th Special Representative meeting between Dai and National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon was termed officially as "wide ranging, productive, forward-looking and marked by a commonality of views on many issues". While no specific announcement was made on the progress of talks, one concrete outcome of the visit is the creation of a "Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs" at the level of joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs, for exploring cooperation in the border areas, stabilising the Line of Actual Control areas and enhancing confidence building measures. This mechanism is to meet once or twice every year alternately in India and China.

Yet similar mechanisms existed since 1996 when the CBMs agreement was signed. Not only are border personnel meetings taking place regularly, both countries are also discussing transgressions and CBMs between the two militaries. Indeed, the joint secretary was also the head of the delegations that discussed the boundary dispute in the eight talks between 1981 and1987, while these talks were elevated to the foreign secretary level in the15 Joint Working Group meetings between 1988 and 2005 when such talks were further elevated to the current Special Representative levels. It appears then that the joint working mechanism on border stability is created to bring back the foreign ministry as talks were handled to the Special Representatives.

The 15 Special Representative talks are conducted with more rapidity than compared to the JWG meetings. While Brajesh Mishra conducted the first two rounds of discussion with his Chinese counter-part Dai, after the United Progressive Alliance came to power, J N Dixit conducted discussions till his untimely death. Subsequently, all talks were conducted by the new National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, and then by Shiv Shankar Menon. The above indicates that the Chinese special representative Dai remained constant in talks on the border dispute whereas on the Indian side, four different individuals conducted such talks.

Two phases of the Special Representative meetings were identified with the early five discussions from 2003 to 2005 as knowing each others positions on the border dispute, while the meetings from sixth through ninth as more intensive in nature. After five meetings between the SRs both countries, in a joint statement in April 2005 between the two premiers, decided to solve the border dispute based on "political parameters and guiding principles". One such political parameter is not to disturb settled populations in the border areas.

The second phase from the sixth meeting in September 2005 explored possibilities for initiating an "agreed framework" on the boundary dispute settlement.  During the August 2009 13th Special Representative meeting between Narayanan and Dai, the Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao reported that China is prepared to settle for 28 percent of the disputed territory between the two countries. This was denied by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman subsequently.

The Special Representatives, as with the previous talks since 1981, were tasked with defining each others' perceptions about the LAC. For this exercise, both sides need to exchange their respective positions on maps. This was done only on the middle sector in mid-2000. Assuming that the LAC is defined in the next few years, then delimiting and demarcation work on the border has to be made -- a task generally consuming nearly a decade. Fortunately, unlike the Sino-Vietnamese border which is mined, the India-China border requires less time in this process, although politically complicated given the Chinese intransigence to resolve the issue.

In the boundary dispute resolution with Russia and Central Asian Republics, China had insisted on "mutual understanding" on global and regional issues as a precondition for the final settlement of territories with these countries. Hence, in addition to the legal or otherwise claims of territories, the political signals from Beijing also need to be deciphered and considered before a territorial dispute resolution can be made by India.

This issue will have a potential impact on the Indian sovereign decision-making in international affairs.

In the light of the bilateral preparations on the military front and general mobilisation of forces and equipment of both conventional and strategic in nature, the comments of Dai this week are re-assuring, although they need to be verified. He stated that "There does not exist such a thing as China's attempt to "attack India" or "suppress India's development".

Srikanth Kondapalli is professor in Chinese studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Srikanth Kondapalli