A view of the McMahon Line, courtesy Ajai Shukla
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th May 13
Is China’s apparent willingness to take meaningful steps towards resolving the Sino-Indian boundary dispute merely a ploy to ensure the success of Premier Li Keqiang’s visit on 19-20th May? Or is there new recognition in Beijing, reinforced perhaps by the recent border incident at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, that an unsettled border with many potential flashpoints is a recipe for serial tensions with New Delhi.
Or is Beijing dangling the carrot of an early boundary settlement to entice New Delhi to accept the “border defence cooperation agreement” that China has proposed? That proposal would effectively freeze troop levels and border infrastructure at current levels, making China’s current advantage permanent.
On Monday, Qin Gang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department chief briefed Indian journalists in Delhi. He indicated that --- with China and India having agreed in April 2005 on the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question” --- the two countries now needed to take the next step.
“We need to redouble efforts to push ‘Framework’ negotiations so that we can reach a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution at an early date,” said Qin.
The “Framework” that Qin refers to is the second stage of a boundary settlement, envisioned in the ongoing dialogue between Special Representatives of the two countries. This “Framework” will form the basis for the third and final stage of actually delineating a new Sino-Indian boundary.
India has consistently pushed for a “Framework” agreement to be finalized and the border delineated. But China has stonewalled for years, declaring that the border agreement was a “complicated issue” that was “left over from history” and best left for “future generations to resolve.”
Since President Xi Jinping’s election, however, Beijing has sent subtle signals of change. In March, Xi carefully said, “The boundary question is a complex issue left from history, and solving the issue won’t be easy.” Given Beijing’s careful semantics, China-watchers consider this a significant step forward from the earlier Chinese position that the boundary question, “will take time to resolve.”
And a gushing commentary in Xinhua on May 10, entitled “China, India capable of achieving win-win results, resolving disputes”, presented an unusually glowing summary of two friendly neighbours marching in lockstep towards a rosy future.
Why, analysts wonder, have Beijing --- and New Delhi --- changed their tune so dramatically just days after the resolution of a three-week-long mini-crisis over the occupation of Indian territory near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) by an armed Chinese patrol? At an off-the-record media briefing last week, a senior Indian official termed the Chinese incursion at DBO a “political signal,” apparently indicating that Beijing was signalling the need to move towards a settlement.
Sceptics hold that Beijing hardly needs a border incident to send such a signal. New Delhi has been keen to resolve the boundary issue, while Beijing has dragged its feet. Through 15 rounds of the Joint Working Group and Experts Group meetings, China has refused to exchange maps with India in which both sides mark their perceptions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along the Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh borders.
This has allowed China to extend its writ deeper and deeper into India. Since the 1962 war, China has extended its control over the entire Galwan River and Chip Chap River valleys in Ladakh.
Any Chinese offer to agree on a “Framework” for resolving the boundary dispute is to be welcomed, though it would still leave the contentious and painstaking task of actually defining --- sector by sector --- where the boundary runs. This would involve specifying each boundary landmark, marking those on a mutually agreed map, and then constructing hundreds of boundary markers on the ground, all along the border.
Only after completing this process should New Delhi accept Beijing’s proposal for a “border defence cooperation agreement.” India can accept constraints on its border build up only after the reason for such a build up is removed. With the border settled, it would suit New Delhi to freeze troop levels and border infrastructure at their current levels, or even to reduce deployment on the difficult Himalayan border. But a freeze on India’s military capability must follow a boundary settlement, not precede it.