The Line of Actual Control is crossed many times each year as if to underline the fact that India and China do not agree fully on its contours, but the latest incursion by Chinese troops in Ladakh has cast a shadow on the new warmth in ties between New Delhi and the new leadership in Beijing because the troops have stayed put and not returned. Just a month ago, at their meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Durban, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the two countries must “broaden exchanges and cooperation between their armed forces and deepen mutual military and security trust.” President Xi also talked about both sides striving towards “a fair, rational solution” on the border issue “as soon as possible.” Further, he said both countries should “continue to safeguard peace in their border areas and prevent the issue from affecting bilateral relations.” The developments in Daulat Beg Oldie, 10 km inside Indian territory, near Burthe in eastern Ladakh, are contradictory to the spirit of the sentiments expressed by the Chinese President. A flag meeting between the two sides on Tuesday, the second in a week, failed to resolve the issue, and the PLA soldiers continue to camp on the Indian side. To their credit, both governments have seen the wisdom of not allowing the matter to escalate, and have been restrained in their statements.
In the last decade or so, both sides have tried to quarantine the border issue from the rest of the bilateral relationship, succeeding in large measure. India and China have held 15 rounds of talks on their border dispute since 2005; additionally, in 2012, a border management mechanism was set up to sort out potential threats to ‘peace and tranquillity’. Meanwhile, trade relations have grown to a point where they are routinely cited as a model in how nations with a border dispute can still have civil ties. Despite many other irritants, there have been high-level contacts to widen engagement to strategic and security related issues, including a bilateral dialogue on Afghanistan, and an agreement on maritime co-operation. On the military front too, there has been interaction. Army exercises are planned and there is greater coordination on anti-piracy measures. Unfortunately, incidents such as the one in Ladakh take away from these successes, feeding into unhelpful popular perceptions about India-China relations. The scheduled visit by Premier Li Keqiang next month, in itself significant as it is likely to be his first tour abroad after assuming office, is now likely to be dominated by the border issue. It is essential that both sides work swiftly to clear the air.