Sino-India boundary talks mere tokenism

By Monika Chansoria Jan 1 2018, 00:57 IST
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The just-concluded meeting between Indias National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi in their respective official positions as Special Representatives (SRs) to lead discussions on the boundary question, has ended predictably, without any tangible breakthrough.

Speculation and reportage were rife that a potential new confidence-building measure, aimed at reducing border tension around the contentious Sino-Indian boundary might be put in place. The talk of creating additional mechanisms primarily stemmed from the time when President Xi Jinping met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Xiamen earlier this year, in which a new hands-on mechanism and fresh channel of regular communication were proposed.

Why has China chosen to decline additional mechanisms at this stage, stating that it was not required as the existing channels of communication were operating very well? The latest round of talks has been dubbed by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson as a platform to conduct strategic communication. While on the face of it, the exultant tenor adopted by the ministry appears reassuring, deeper rummaging showcases Chinas characteristic guile.

The border settlement negotiations between India and China began in 1981 and remains the longest such continuing process between any two nations in post-World War II history. In fact, India and China remain the only countries in the world which are not separated by a mutually defined and accepted frontline. For China to state that tremendous efforts to settle the border issues have been made, it would only be apposite for it to showcase the magnitude of progress made from its end in substantial terms.

More importantly, how have Chinese efforts and resolve in disentangling this dispute prog-
ressed in real terms during the past decades until now? By calibrating to violate Indias sovereignty on multiple fronts and occasions, China is only complicating the labyrinth far more - its sanctioned CPEC corridor through the territory of Jammu & Kashmir is the latest pointer.

Announcing that the scope of the existing boundary talks mechanism has been extended and that the talks covered extensive ground and were not confined to discussions on the borders alone, it appears that the pointed focus and spotlight has been taken away from the now interminable boundary dispute that lingers between India and China.

It simultaneously underscores that post-Doklam, resuming dialogue on the boundary question has been challenging. As a consequence, an expanded ambit of discussions to cover extensive ground by not remaining confined to discussions on the borders alone has been announced as per the Chinese foreign ministrys statement.

The Sino-Indian interactions between 1988 and 1996 were considered significant since they became the platform on which CBMs in the military field was set up between Beijing and New Delhi. The negotiations were rechristened in 1988 as that of a Joint Working Group and then again repackaged in 2003 as talks between SRs - having held 20 rounds of talks (including the latest one). Moving into its 37th year, both sides have failed to agree even for a bare minimum, mutually defined frontline, that is, the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

While delivering the annual K.F. Rustamji lecture in May 2015, Doval highlighted Indias 3,488-km long border and acknowledged that the border is a critical and vital issue in bilateral relations with China.

Grim reality

In the backdrop of the rather grim reality of Sino-Indian relations, Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohuis idea of the two sides "turning to a new page" to sign a "treaty of good neighborliness and friendly cooperation" are utopian, very far from the precarious realities that grip contemporary Sino-Indian relations.

While on the face if it, China, diplomatically, is attempting to hit all the right notes, how does it explain the ongoing military build-up in the Doklam region? Chinas military has defended its sizeable troop presence around the area asserting, "Donglong (Doklam) is Chinese territory" and refuses to clarify whether the PLA shall vacate the area during the winter.

Beijing remains ardently intent on keeping alive the border dispute as a tactical pressure point against India. Be it the Depsang incident earlier or the recent Doklam standoff, the writing on the wall is clear. China holds the political and military will, as well as capability, to covertly notch up tensions in the Himalayas with India, at the time and place of its choosing.

With the LAC not being physically demarcated on the ground or in military maps, coupled with the continuing reluctance and official refusals by China to show its version of the LAC to India, Beijings larger ploy of progressively building up a case for its claims in eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh stands out distinctly.

India needs to rethink its overall policy approach towards China before the strategic leverage in Beijings favour becomes too acute to handle. Official handshakes, textual banalities of successive joint statements, though appear ostensibly promising, the flaccid motion of actual progress vis-Ã -vis deliverables on the boundary question for nearly 37 years now, remains the besmirched reality of Sino-Indian relations.

(The writer is Tokyo-based Senior Visiting Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs)

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