Is there a chill in India’s relations with China? While actions such as denying a visa to an officer from Arunachal Pradesh, an area claimed in its entirety by China, seem to suggest so, Indian leaders say there is nothing new about this. But what are we to make of a statement by Chinese foreign ministerYang Jiechi to his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee at the Asia-Europe meeting in Hamburg in May that the presence of settled populations in regions under dispute would not affect China’s claims on those regions?
In other words, bringing into question a key agreement of 2005 that observers have believed would be the basis of a Sino-Indian settlement of their vexed border dispute.
Speaking in Jakarta on Tuesday, Mukherjee said that “outstanding differences” with China on the boundary issue could not define the agenda of the bilateral relations. He reiterated New Delhi’s belief “that there is enough space and opportunity in the region and beyond for both India and China to grow together”. New Delhi has been firm in reiterating its own claims, even while refusing to get rattled by Chinese remarks. Officials, speaking on the background, have said that the recent meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Heiligindamm was a routine event with no evidence of any special tension between the two countries.
There is a certain value in taking some remarks and actions at face value. In this category would be Singh’s comment in Heiligindamm, declaring that China was India’s “greatest neighbour” and that New Delhi would do everything to improve ties with it. As a statement of fact, it is unexceptional. It should be possible to view China’s claims on Arunachal in the same way. Like it or not, the Chinese dispute India’s ownership of the state and have done so actively since the mid-1950s.
The two sides are involved in intense negotiations to resolve this dispute that led to a war between them in 1962. The situation there is no longer what it was at that time. India has strong defences along the entire 4,000km line of actual control (LAC) that constitutes the Sino-Indian border, and has adequate surveillance and other mechanisms to ensure that it will not be taken by surprise. Some Indian positions in Ladakh and North Sikkim are such that China worries more about an Indian surprise attack, than the other way round.
Yet there are legitimate questions about the pace of the Sino-Indian border negotiations. While the strategy of setting aside the border dispute and building ties on the trade and commerce front is sound, it has its limits. There are several points where India and China dispute even the location of LAC and these can be used to quickly ratchet up tension. We need not take too seriously a false claim made by a BJP MP from Arunachal that the Chinese have intruded 20km into the Indian side of LAC. While there are agreements of 1993 and 1996 to keep a lid on any potential conflict because of this, quiet borders are not the same thing as settled borders.
What appears disturbing is Yang’s statement to Mukherjee. In April 2005, the two sides signed an 11-point agreement on “political parameters and guiding principles” of a settlement, which indicated that they would resolve the dispute on an “as is, where is” basis—China would keep the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh and we would keep Arunachal Pradesh. Yang’s statement appears to undermine the crucial Article VII that says: “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard settled populations in border areas.” The area in question is the Tawang tract that contains the town of that name housing an important monastery.
So what is Beijing up to? The Chinese have always displayed an enormous sense of timing in dealing with foreign and security policy issues. They seem to be calculating the pros and cons of settling the border dispute. They will want to ensure that the settlement occurs when the balance of power remains in their favour, but not so soon that it aids India to become the regionally dominant country. What they see is a country that is slowly getting its act together in the South-Asian region, but is still some way away from being able to handle the complex compound of hard and soft power to assert itself, as the Chinese themselves have done. China will most certainly not help India achieve regional pre-eminence, but they do not want to be on the wrong side of an India that has done so either. Therefore, the complicated choreography.
Manoj Joshi was most recently the strategic affairs editor of Hindustan Times.
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