19 February 2015

Chinese Whispers on Frontier

17th February 2015

Prior to the 18th round of talks between the Chinese and Indian special representatives, there are indications that the border issue is poised to be central to prime minister Modi’s visit to China. The 4,057km-long undemarcated and disputed border is the single important obstacle to the development of normal good relations between India and China. The absence of trust between the two nations is heightened by the qualitatively changed nature and duration of the repeated intrusions by Chinese troops across the Line of Actual Control. Meanwhile, especially since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, there has been a steady and palpable hardening of the Chinese state on issues of domestic politics, sovereignty and territory. Beijing’s assessment is also that the Modi government has shown “a tougher attitude” by beefing up border patrols and giving a massive push to improving infrastructure.

China continues to retain ambiguity regarding its desire to settle the border issue early and send out mixed messages. At a press conference during his visit to Delhi in July 2014, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi glossed over the issue of border intrusions by Chinese troops, but unmistakably affirmed China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh and J&K by portraying the issue of “stapled visas” as a “flexible” “gesture of goodwill” by China. Most recently, Xinhua quoted Xi Jinping as telling India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in Beijing on February 2 that “the two sides should patiently control and manage disputes to prevent them from affecting the overall relationship” and as calling for “sincerity and willingness to pursue a gradual and appropriate resolution of disputes”.

Pertinent in this context is the report of Xinhua, on Ajit Doval’s appointment as India’s new special representative, on November 25, 2014. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “We are willing to hold a new round of special representatives’ talks on border issues at an appropriate time, and push forward the settlement of the problem based on the principles and consensus reached by both sides in previous talks.” Xinhua, in contrast, quoted her as saying that “China vows joint efforts with India to push forward border negotiation, in a bid to seek a solution that is fair, reasonable and acceptable to both sides”. It pointedly reiterated China’s stand saying “China and India share a 2,000km-long border that has not been formally delineated. The two countries had a border conflict in 1962”.

Arriving in Beijing on February 1, coincidentally a day after India successfully tested its 5000km-range Agni-V missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, Swaraj said her main purpose was to lay the groundwork for Modi’s trip to China in May. Apparently signalling India’s desire for early resolution of the border dispute, she told Xi Jinping: “I feel that your India visit was about creativity and innovations.” An unnamed Indian government official seemed to underscore this desire for an early resolution, reportedly hinting that India’s national security adviser would have to tackle the “next big diplomatic target for the government” and try to secure agreement on a “Framework for a Resolution of the Boundary Question”.

In the midst of these comments, China’s official state-run newspaper Global Times on February 10 quoted Swaraj as saying both leaders “are committed to exploring an early settlement on the India-China border issue” and are “keen on an out-of-box solution”. It interpreted her remarks to imply that despite a “tougher” posture on the border, the Modi government “will narrow down areas of differences” to resolve the border dispute. It said, “India is making efforts in showing flexibility and creating a favourable atmosphere on resolving the issue.”

On September 18, 2014, during Xi Jinping’s visit to India, Global Times had described New Delhi’s stance on the issue as “superficially” getting tougher. Significantly, it urged attention as to why India had referred only to the eastern part when talking about “one India” and if this signalled that the Modi administration is considering “more strategic adjustments” on the issue.

On February 10, the Global Times fixed the spotlight on the “eastern sector”, put the onus for achieving a breakthrough on India and spelt out China’s official position. It quoted Lan Jianxue, a former third secretary and deputy head of the political section in the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, as saying, “If there is an ‘out-of-box solution’, it is likely a breakthrough over the eastern part of the border, which contains the most controversial area between China and India. Take the illegal McMahon Line, which is at the heart of the boundary dispute. The line running through the eastern Himalayas is a unilateral boundary created by Henry McMahon, a colonial official of British India at the time.” He was emphatic that this “is a line that China has never accepted. If India won’t make adjustments over the line, there will be no suggestion whatsoever that the two sides are any closer to agreeing”. Firmly placing the responsibility for a breakthrough on India, he said that “to this day, the Indian government has not given us a reply or any signal of goodwill for adjustment over this issue. In the light of this, the ball is in India’s court to adopt a more proactive approach”.

The article made a significant reference to the “package proposal” offered by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. Stressing that if India wanted progress it would have to make concessions, it said, “China has been always committed to resolve the border dispute with great sincerity, and the Chinese government used to offer a ‘package proposal’ for settling the issue, which requires each side to make a compromise, yet it was turned down by India. Therefore, we have brought forward the idea of working hard together and moving toward the same direction... We hope that the two parties can reach a consensus based on not only mutual understanding and accommodation, but also a strong will of showing flexibility as well as innovation in the near future. Now that Swaraj has put forward the potential ‘out-of-box solution’ this time, we have every reason to expect that the logjam could be broken and a new beginning could be made. But it remains to be seen what dedication Modi will put into a practical settlement for the bitter territorial dispute.”

The newspaper concluded on a realistic note when it said, “it might be too soon to anticipate that this solution will be reached in May during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to China since assuming office.”

The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.

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