During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Beijing in May 2015, India and China issued a well-considered joint statement. The first section of the document, subtitled “Strengthening Political Dialogue And Strategic Communication", stated: “Full use will be made of the opportunities provided by the presence of their leaders at various multilateral fora to hold consultations on bilateral relations and issues of regional and global importance."

Yet when such an opportunity was presented last week in the G20 summit, both sides went out of their way to insist that they had not sought a meeting. Against the backdrop of a serious stand-off along the border, there could be no starker proof of the fraying of India-China ties over the past two years.

To consider why things have come to this pass, it is important to understand how this difficult relationship was managed over the past 25 years. The Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 was a decisive break from the pattern of Sino-Indian relations since the 1962 war. The agreement formalized the two sides’ commitment to maintaining status quo on the border until they arrived at a negotiated settlement. The agreement also enabled them to bracket the boundary issue and allow the bilateral relationship to develop in other areas.

The agreement was enabled by a particular domestic and international conjuncture. Having embarked on major economic reforms, prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was keen to ensure a stable relationship with China. This would help check defence expenditure and allow India to focus on its internal transformation.

In the wake of the Tiananmen massacre and the ensuing international opprobrium, China too was keen to avoid confrontation with its adversaries and create a suitable external environment to spur its economic growth. Both China and India were also reconciled to the fact of American unipolarity and sought to leverage it for their own power and purposes.

The peace and tranquillity agreements of 1993 and 1996 delivered their core promise. When certain aspects of them, such as clarification of the Line of Actual Control, proved difficult, the two sides responded not by restricting cooperation but expanding it. Think of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bold decision in 2003 to embark on political negotiations on the border. Over the following decade, the common refrain was: “There is enough room for the growth of both China and India".

The strategic and political context today is rather different. Having gained an upper hand on border infrastructure, the Chinese are keen to prevent India from catching up. Hence, the new forms of Chinese military activity along the border over the past five years.

More broadly, China’s relative power in the international system has risen since the global financial crisis. Not surprisingly, China’s definition of its core interests and its willingness to pursue them has also increased. India’s interests too have expanded with its growing power. Not only is it prepared to adopt a more assertive posture on the border, but it also harbours concerns about South China Sea and China’s rising footprint along India’s periphery.

Even as New Delhi attempts to resolve the current stand-off, it should think ahead. We now need a restraining pact with China. Diplomatic history is replete, as historian Paul Schroeder reminds us, with such examples of managing antagonistic relations by associative means—also known as pacta de contrahendo.

The Holy Alliance after the Napoleonic Wars stabilized Russia’s relations with Austria and Prussia—countries that had been its enemies recently and that continued to compete with Russia along its periphery. The Entente Cordiale, similarly, helped stabilize Britain’s ties with its historic enemy, France. Contrary to popular wisdom, the entente was aimed not at a rising Germany but at managing Britain’s rivalry with France over colonial possessions.

What could be the elements of an agreement on mutual restraint with China?

The 2015 statement spoke of “respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations". This should be narrowed down to primary concerns and core interests. For instance, Chinese military activism along the border is a primary concern for India. Not so the political cover they provide in the UN to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism. Yet India should make it clear that Pakistani terrorism jeopardizes regional security—especially in the context of Chinese projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Both sides should also set aside aspirational or status goals: be it India’s desire for Chinese support on Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, or China’s desire for Indian support on the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s leadership more generally.

As for the border, both sides could build on previous agreements. Former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon has observed that neither side has explored the reference in the 1993 agreement (and subsequent statements) to the need for “mutual and equal security" and for agreement on force levels. An accord based on these principles could help arrest the downward slide on the border and assure both sides of their core interests pending a boundary settlement.

It is easy to naysay the possibility of such a restraining pact. However, diplomacy is not about pessimism but realism—especially if the alternative is heading to hell in a handcart.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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