Pallavi Aiyar

India and China have their work cut out in ensuring that the negotiations on the boundary dispute make progress.

On Monday, a fresh round of boundary negotiations between India and China begins in Beijing, throwing into relief how much progress the bilateral relationship between Asia’s fastest growing economies has made, as well as the obdurate obstacles that remain on the route to the realisation of the “strategic and cooperative” partnership the two sides claim to desire.

This will be the 11th session of boundary talks in the four years since Special Representatives were appointed to find a political solution to the dispute in 2003. Despite repeated hopes for an “early resolution” having been expressed on both sides of the border however, there is little to show for progress on the ground. Instead, the in camera negotiations remain opaque with entrenched positions seemingly leaving little room for the flexibility and pragmatism without which a solution will remain elusive.

India says China is occupying 43,180 sq km of Jammu and Kashmir, including 5,180 sq km ceded to Beijing by Islamabad under the Sino-Pakistan boundary agreement of 1963. China, in turn, says India is in possession of some 90,000 sq km of Chinese territory, mostly in Arunachal Pradesh.

The neighbours have spent more than a quarter of a century discussing the dispute. Before the Special Representatives were appointed to give a political touch to the negotiations, eight rounds of border talks had already been held between 1981 and 1987 and an additional 14 Joint Working Group meetings between 1988 and 2003. Despite all this talking at varying levels over the last 25 years the two sides have not been able to agree on the Line of Actual Control or the verification of alignments of respective areas on mountain tops, rivers, and lakes. What is being discussed between the Special Representatives is in fact far from a resolution of the border. At issue instead is the devising of an agreed framework for a settlement of the boundary on the basis of the “political parameters and guiding principles” that were finalised during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2005.

The background against which the talks are unfolding is also increasingly complex. On the one hand bilateral relations have been steadily warming. Later this year the armies of the Himalayan neighbours are scheduled to conduct their first joint exercises since the 1962 war. Despite the unsettled border, a memorandum of understanding between the defence ministries of the two countries was signed last year. Bilateral trade is galloping forward and is expected to cross $30 billion before the end of this year. China is in fact set soon to overtake the United States as India’s largest trade partner.

Regular high-level exchanges

The countries have also developed a regular pattern of high-level exchanges and visits in diverse fields. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited India in 2006 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to make his first official trip to China later this year. Dr. Singh recently called China India’s “greatest neighbour” and Mr. Wen has said that an Asian century cannot be realised in the absence of the development of both China and India. It is thus patent that much water has flowed under the Yangtze and Ganga since 1998 when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in a letter to President Bill Clinton, pointed to China’s potential threat as the main justification for Pokhran-II.

On the other hand, developments in regional and global geo-politics coupled with what has commonly been perceived as a hardening of China’s stance on the border have recently posed some problems on the highway of the Sino-Indian engagement.

Beijing has been studiously ambiguous in its reaction to the Indo-U.S. deal on civilian nuclear energy cooperation. Sections of the Chinese media have criticised it, stating that the accord hurts the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. China continues to extend military cooperation, including major arms sales, and energy assistance to Pakistan. Suspicions have in turn been aroused in Beijing by India’s growing closeness to the United States and Japan. The quadrilateral initiative, a dialogue between India, Japan, the United States, and Australia, has raised the spectre in China of an attempt to squeeze and isolate it within an “arc of democracy.”

The border issue itself has been at the centre of some controversy with the Chinese Ambassador making a public statement reiterating China’s claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh only days before President Hu Jintao’s India visit last year. Although this was only a reiteration of China’s traditional claim to the State, government officials have refrained from restating historical positions in recent years, referring instead to the need to make “mutually acceptable adjustments.” While the Chinese government sought to play down the significance of the ambassador’s comment, the matter was back in the limelight when Beijing refused a visa to an IAS officer from Arunachal Pradesh.

As a result, the strategic community in India has erupted into paroxysms of guesswork, ascribing intentions and interpreting motives with furious intensity. The ancient wisdom of the celebrated Chinese general Sun Tzu has often been invoked with claims and counter claims of masterful deception being deployed by Beijing.

But as analysts strain to read the tea leaves, the only certainty to emerge from this game of incessant second-guessing is the persistence of a substratum of mutual distrust across the border despite the surface sweetening of ties.

Here is the problem. A settled boundary is necessary to fully redress the trust deficit but a lack of trust makes the compromises needed to solve the border dispute untenable.

Nonetheless it looks as if India and China will have to learn to continue to live with the ambiguities of an unsettled border since no early end to the dispute is in sight. According to a leading South Asia expert at a Chinese government think tank, the current phase of negotiations is likely to be the most protracted because evolving a framework requires a far more concrete articulation of claims and compromises than the previous step of devising the guiding principles and parameters for the framework. The expert, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Until now both sides have been holding their cards close to their chests. To arrive at the framework they will have to show their hand. So this is the most difficult phase and we are thus unlikely to see a breakthrough soon.”

Professor Ma Jiali, a veteran South Asia researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, agreed that for the moment neither country looks ready to make “substantive adjustments” to their historical positions, making the possibility of an early resolution to the issue unlikely. He denied that there has been any hardening of the Chinese position on the border, calling the Chinese ambassador’s remarks on Arunachal Pradesh a “mistake.” “The official Chinese position is very clear,” he said. “We do not want all of Arunachal Pradesh. We simply want mutual adjustments to be made.”

The source at the government think tank added that the developments in India’s domestic politics following the 123 agreement have also caused some members of China’s strategic community to question the Indian government’s ability to sell any future Sino-Indian border deal to its own people. “In China we feel that if even the 123 deal is in danger of being rejected, if a border deal in which China compromises on its territorial claims is similarly struck but rejected, it would be worrying for us,” he concluded.

Both experts concurred that more could be done by the Chinese and Indian governments to start educating and preparing the publics of the two nations for the eventuality of a border deal and the possibility of real “give and take” in the contested territory.

The need for confidentiality should not be a pretext for keeping the public completely in the dark about the negotiations on the boundary question. In the absence of any official information regarding the progress being made, the media and analysts tend to be misled by red herrings.

A slew of high level bilateral visits is in the offing with both Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh due to travel to China soon. Beijing and New Delhi would do well to take advantage of the opportunities thus created to clearly articulate their concerns, a first step towards redressing them. Consistency in policy and positions should further be insisted on, removing the basis for “misunderstandings.”

If good fences make good neighbours then India and China have their work cut out. Much will depend on the skill of the Special Representatives as they meet over the next few days.