The tone, although not the substance, of India-China relations has recently been through a problematical phase, with misperceptions and motivated media campaigns creating the impression of some kind of crisis. That this is not so has been made clear by the governments of both countries; in their own ways, they have made the point that the positive overall trend of the “China-India Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity” remains unaffected. What then is the problem? The answer needs to be explored in historical perspective, against the background of the post-1962 bilateral relationship. The reality of the past two decades is that the parallel rise of the two giant neighbours, economically and politically, on the world stage and the various specific bilateral steps taken have helped mature, diversify, and deepen the relationship. China is India’s largest trading partner, high-level political visits and exchanges have now become the norm, people-to-people ties have grown, and common interests and positions have been identified on key international issues — notably trade, climate change, and the need to counter protectionism. But above all, the long and complicated boundary between India and China has remained peaceful and tranquil, free from any destabilising incidents.
It is worth recalling that the breakthrough that made all this possible was a high-level political accord forged with helmsman Deng Xiaoping by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his December 1988 visit to China. The historic accord, which was elaborated and firmed up in bilateral agreements and vision documents concluded in 1993, 1996, 2003, 2005, and 2008, and in a number of practical arrangements developed over the two decades, was this. While the two sides would do their best to arrive at a fair, reasonable, and mutually acceptable settlement of the boundary dispute, they would strictly maintain “peace and tranquillity” along the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) pending a settlement. Meanwhile, the differences would not be allowed to obstruct the all-round development of bilateral relations. Not surprisingly given the political sensitivities of both sides, the Special Representative talks on the boundary question have made only slow progress. The real problem is not the slow pace but the periodic public reiteration of maximal territorial claims, which guarantee tit-for-tat and have unintended negative effects for the bilateral relationship by stoking nationalistic sentiment in both countries. This practice goes against the spirit of Article VII of the April 2005 Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question. That Article stipulates that “in reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” Thus China needs to avoid airing public protests over the happenings, including prime ministerial visits, in the State of Arunachal Pradesh just as India needs to do more to restrain the anti-China political activities of the so-called ‘Tibetan-government-in-exile’ on Indian soil. The best way to do this is to forge a high-level political agreement — on the model of the Deng-Rajiv accord of December 1988 — that ensures that a sense of balance, sobriety, and tranquillity are maintained in the public posturing on boundary claims in keeping with the maturation and potential of the bilateral relationship. This Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao should certainly do when they meet on the sidelines of the October 23 Asean Summit in Thailand.