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India-China: Long haul ahead
Srikanth Kondapalli
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October 25, 2005

The recent talks between India and China on the border dispute indicate that the process is likely to be long drawn out one.

Despite the formulation of political guidelines on solving the dispute, it appears that China is hardening its position on the Arunachal Pradesh section of the border, which it says is under the 'illegal' occupation of India.

While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] has categorically stated that populated areas will not be disturbed � implying non-negotiability of Tawang tract- the Chinese side, nevertheless, appears to be zeroing on this section.

With border infrastructure projects in full swing in Tibet [Images], especially the near completion of the 1,118- km Tibetan railway, new dynamics are bound to set in bilateral relations.

India-China: historic high 

Overall, the Chinese intransigence in solving the border dispute implies that full normalisation of relations between the two countries may not be achieved in near future.

The sixth round of talks between the Special Representatives of India and China were held in Beijing [Images] on September 26 and 27. The Indian team was led by National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, while Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo led the Chinese side.

Five such meetings have taken place after the border talks were elevated from foreign secretary level to that of special representatives after the two premiers of India and China met in June 2003.

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The elevation in the level of talks, rather than concrete solutions, has marred the more than two-decade long efforts and indicate a certain pattern on the part of China to not spell out clearly a mutually acceptable formula for this dispute.

During their meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly some 10 days before the sixth round of talks began, Dr Singh urged Chinese President Hu Jintao to find a 'pragmatic' solution to the border dispute.

This was perhaps in response to the Chinese rigidity in its positions from 1981, when the first border talks were held, till 1987. Subsequently, 15 rounds of talks were held under the Joint Working Group mechanism initiated after Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988.

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A week before the latest talks were held, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman hoped for arriving at a 'just' solution to the border dispute. Similar phrases were used by the Chinese side in resolving the border dispute with Russia [Images], which some in the affected Khabarovsk region of Russia view as a compromise on the part of Russia.

The use of this word also implies the long-held Chinese view that McMahon line is 'illegal' and 'imperialist'. It is surprising, however, to note that China has almost agreed to such a line when solving its border dispute with Burma in August 1960.

''We believe the two sides will be able to find a solution which is fair and reasonable and acceptable to both sides through equal consultation and mutual understanding and accommodation in the spirit of the political guiding principles.'' Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said just before the talks commenced on September 26.

While the joint statement of June 2003 between the two premiers clearly mentioned that the solution to the dispute has to be 'fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable', the Chinese side in subsequent announcements has insisted on adding 'mutual understanding and mutual accommodation' as necessary components in resolving the dispute.

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This phrase may turn out to be inimical for Indian security, since the Chinese insistence on the MUMA principle is not the procedure to follow according to established international legal procedures in solving border disputes. It actually places some of the crucial sovereignty aspects of a country as part of the border dispute resolution. That is, extraneous aspects have been tagged to the border dispute resolution.

In concrete terms, 'mutual understanding' in Chinese parlance refer to possible compromises on the part of India in deciding the extent of its relations with other countries, specifically with the then Soviet Union or now with the United States.

In those circumstances, many a powerful country or transnational institution may also impose conditions or restrictions on exercising sovereignty. For any flowering of independent foreign policy, principles like MUMA need to be carefully examined by New Delhi. China did insist on this principle in solving its border disputes with some of its neighbours in the past.

A PTI dispatch from Beijing on September 26 noted that the two sides were attempting to conclude a 'package' deal on the border dispute.

'The talks are farcical' 

This has been an old formula suggested by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1959 and reiterated by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. What the package deal proposes is to legitimise, more or less, the current status quo prevailing on the line of actual control.

An announcement at the end of the sixth round indicated that the talks were held in 'friendly, cooperative and constructive atmosphere'. While no specific information is available on what transpired between the two sides in these talks, it may be surmised that that the special representatives may have discussed issues that are not exclusively related to the border dispute.

Probable areas of discussion could have been the overall security environment. The meeting with Mr Jia Qinglin, who is not only a Politburo member but also the head of the 'united front' institution in China, points in this direction.

One way to judge how the border talks have progressed is to survey the situation at the ground level. An important aspect is the level of transgression by patrols on the line of actual control. Overall, the situation is peaceful and far more conducive for better relations than that prevailed in May-July 1998.

Transgressions have relatively declined between the two countries this year, though there was a substantial increase in 2004 when compared to 2003. Incidents of Chinese frontier guards violating the line of actual control almost doubled by 2004 at Trig Heights, Pan Gong Tso lake, Bara Hoti and at Asaphila areas in all the three sectors of the border.

'India, China are partners, not rivals' 

Chinese transgressions at Bara Hoti are surprising, as the Middle Sector is considered to be the least controversial of all the three sectors. Indeed, it appeared that both sides had reached a deal on this sector in June 2001.

The Eastern and Western Sectors are traditionally prone to such transgression. In fact, one major incident happened at Asaphila in Arunachal Pradesh even as the Indian prime minister was talking with Chinese leaders in Beijing in June 2003.

Overall, the transgression occurred despite the relatively stable relations achieved at the highest political levels between the two countries after the June 2003 meeting.

At one level, this may indicate opposition of the local Chinese military/frontier guards to the normalisation process between the two countries. Periodic occurrences of such incidents may also mean that the confidence building measures are at a very low level between the two sides- at the preventive level rather than in advanced cooperative level.

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There has been some progress between the two sides in this regard -- specifically the joint naval operations at Shanghai in November 2003, mutual high level military visits by Generals Liang Guanglie, NC Vij, Cao Gangchuan and others, besides the participation of Indian Army Officers as observers in the Henan military exercise in 2004 and in the just concluded Sino-Russian 'Peace Mission 2005' exercise in August.   

Cooperation between the two countries in counter-terrorism efforts is also noticeable. Nevertheless, these are sparse in nature and spread.

A related aspect of the border talks is the level of border trade between the two sides.

Nothing spectacular is visible in this regard when we compare it with the overall trade between the two sides which has reached nearly $14 billion and rising. An estimated $100 million border trade (with probably $1 billion in smuggling across the borders) does not really match the potential for border trade that exists between the two large neighbours in Asia.

Some reports indicate that China is planning to propose a free trade area between the two countries with part of the impact on the border areas. Nevertheless, the bilateral momentum in this regard has been slow.

India & China: Seeking common ground

All these indicate that the border talks are bound to be a long-drawn out process.

Indeed, both sides appeared to be resigned to this fact. The 1993 and 1996 agreements on peace and tranquility on the line of actual control and confidence building measures in military field respectively have provided the necessary cushions between the two countries.

More reports from China

Additionally, with the provisions of June 2003 and April 2005 joint statements/declarations between the two premiers, the urgency to resolve the border dispute has been removed, even though leaders of both nations have officially expressed concern over the long drawn out process.

Dr Srikanth Kondapalli is a Delhi-based expert on China.

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