After a year-long hiatus, boundary negotiations between India and China are set to resume this week in Beijing. The latest round of talks, the twelfth since Special Representatives were appointed in 2003 to hammer out a solution to the almost half-century-old dispute at a political level, takes place against a geo-political tapestry of burgeoning complexity.
On the one hand, booming bilateral trade, increasing people-to-people contact, and a sustained exchange of high-level visits indicate a maturing of ties. India-China trade for the first six months of the year was worth $29 billion, a 69 percent increase over the figure for the same time period in 2007. Earlier this year Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Beijing. The leaders of the two countries have also had ample opportunities to meet on the sidelines of multilateral forums. In addition, the second in a series of joint military exercises is currently being planned, a development that is rich in symbolism.
The last two years have also seen some resurgent suspicions emerge in the cross-Himalayan diplomatic dance the neighbouring countries are engaged in. In India, the sincerity of China’s intentions has been called into question following alleged incursions across the eastern sector of the border by Chinese troops and a perceived hardening of Beijing’s stance on Arunachal Pradesh. These have now been compounded by the claims of some senior Indian officials about Beijing’s allegedly obstructionist stance at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in Vienna earlier in the month.
China denies these charges. In turn, strategists in Beijing are concerned about the implications of New Delhi’s increasing closeness to Washington. The worry is that India might ultimately become part of an alliance of like-minded democracies aimed at containing China. There are also concerns over Tibet. Despite India’s official stance on the matter, according to which the Tibet Autonomous Region is explicitly recognised by New Delhi as part of the territory of China, there are those within the strategic establishment in Beijing who remain less than convinced regarding India’s intentions towards the region.
But it is the unsettled boundary that continues to cast a shadow over bilateral relations. “The border issue remains the most important one in China-India ties,” says veteran India watcher Ma Jia Li of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. “If it cannot be settled by this generation of leaders, then the whole relationship is negatively influenced.”
Despite the acknowledged centrality by all sides of the boundary negotiations, expectations regarding any substantial progress are minimal. India says China is illegally occupying 43,180 square kilometres of Jammu and Kashmir, including 5,180 square kilometres ceded to Beijing by Islamabad under the Sino-Pakistan boundary agreement of 1963. China, in turn, contends that India is in possession of some 90,000 square kilometres of Chinese territory, mostly in Arunachal Pradesh.
The neighbours have spent more than a quarter of a century discussing the dispute. Before the Special Representatives were appointed to give a political touch to the negotiations, eight rounds of border talks (between 1981 and 1987) and 14 Joint Working Group meetings (between 1988 and 2003) were held. It is acknowledged on both sides that these negotiations have not produced the results hoped for.
What is being discussed between the Special Representatives is far from a resolution of the border. At issue is the devising of an agreed framework for a settlement of the boundary on the basis of the “political parameters and guiding principles” that were finalised during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2005.
The idea that has long been doing the rounds as the basis for a border settlement is that of a territorial ‘swap,’ with New Delhi recognising Aksai Chin in the west as part of China and Beijing doing the same for India and Arunachal Pradesh in the east. While this solution was put forward by China in the 1950s and reiterated later by Deng Xiaoping, New Delhi rejected it at the time.
There are some indications today that India is finally ready to consider the swap solution. Beijing, however, no longer seems as keen on the idea, with the area of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh emerging as a sticking point. The Chinese now say that given Tawang’s centrality to Tibetan Buddhism — the sixth Dalai Lama was born there — it is impossible for them to give up claims to the region. New Delhi has firmly ruled out any concessions on Tawang, since this is an area with a settled population. “Tawang is an area with substantial settled populations. Not a small number. It flies in the face of guiding principles and political parameters,” Mr. M. K. Narayanan said in an interview in August this year.
According to the parameters for the settlement of the dispute established in 2005, any final agreement needs to take account of the “interests of the settled populations” of the two countries. This was widely interpreted in India as a Chinese concession on Tawang. However, “from China’s point of view,” notes Professor Ma, “the issue of population is an important one but it is not the sole criterion for deciding anything.” The South Asia expert believes that while China does not want the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, the border will remain an intractable problem in the absence of genuine give and take. Overall, he remains optimistic about the talks between the Special Representatives: “We are both keen to find solutions, we just need to be creative.”
Professor Ma points to the fact that this year China has put behind it a longstanding boundary dispute with Russia, on the basis of some give and take. While Moscow ceded 174 square kilometres of territory to China, Beijing gave up around half of its claims on Russian-controlled land in order to reach a settlement. Professor Ma points out that within the Chinese establishment there is doubt about the will and ability of Indian authorities to negotiate a border deal and then successfully sell it to the public.
The consensus seems to be that India and China will have to find ways of living with an unsettled border for the foreseeable future. The current challenge for the foreign policy establishments in Beijing and New Delhi is the smooth and efficient management of relations in the absence of a border agreement as much as it is to try and find a solution to the dispute.