India and China discuss resuming defence exchanges, suspended after stapled visa row

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said on Tuesday the fourteenth round of boundary negotiations between India and China had made “steady progress,” with both sides expressing willingness to arrive at a “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable” solution.

Officials from both countries also discussed resuming defence exchanges in wide-ranging talks here over the past two days. Exchanges have been suspended by India since July after China voiced objections to hosting the chief of the Army's Northern Command because the “sensitive” region of Kashmir was under his jurisdiction. India has also called on China to stop issuing stapled visas for Indian citizens from Jammu and Kashmir, a policy officials say violates India's sovereignty.

Sources on both sides said China had expressed interest to resume defence exchanges as soon as possible, particularly to send a positive signal ahead of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to New Delhi in mid-December.

Chinese officials have claimed that they viewed their visa policy as an administrative issue and not a political statement, but were taken aback by India's move to suspend exchanges and were now reconsidering their visa policy. But even if China withdrew its visa policy, sources said, it was likely to do so quietly without any public affirmation, given diplomatic sensitivities on the matter.

On Tuesday, Mr. Menon held discussions with State Councillor Dai Bingguo, China's designated special representative for the boundary negotiations. He also met Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao in 2012.

“We have had a series of high-level, good quality interactions with China,” Mr. Menon said. “We are satisfied that with this sort of interaction on all the issues, the Premier's visit will be a landmark visit for the relationship.”

On the border talks, Mr. Menon said negotiations were still in the second of three stages, focussing on arriving at a framework to settle the dispute in the western and eastern sections of the border. The first stage, which involved coming up with political parameters, concluded in 2005 with an agreement signed during Mr. Wen's last visit to India.

The third and final stage will involve the actual process of delineating the border on maps and on the ground.

“Since [2005] we have been working on a framework and we have made steady progress,” Mr. Menon said, declining to provide further details since talks were continuing and “a work in progress.”

The Foreign Ministry said China was “committed” to settling the issue through “friendly consultations.” It said in a statement both countries had made “a joint pledge to seek a fair and reasonable solution acceptable to both sides.”

Negotiations on a framework are likely to remain long, drawn-out, with both sides' positions, publicly at least, appearing far apart. Indian analysts say the recent hardening of China's claims on Arunachal Pradesh, which it refers to as “Southern Tibet,” is likely to rule out any narrowing of differences in the near-term.

Public opinion

Chinese analysts say public opinion on both sides is too polarised for either side to sell any settlement in the near future, which both countries agree will require mutual concessions.

Reflecting the prevailing opinion in the strategic community in Beijing, the Communist Party's Global Times newspaper quoted Zhao Gancheng, a leading strategist, as saying “the atmosphere for talks was damaged by Indian activities near the border” which had “harmed the chances” of resolving the dispute.

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