India and China have discussed putting in place additional confidence-building measures (CBMs) and strengthening mechanisms for communication along the border, following two days of talks here between the Special Representatives (SRs) on the boundary question.
As both sides held the 16th round of talks on the border, they also attempted to push forward the slow-moving negotiations to agree to a framework to settle the boundary dispute.
The focus of this round of talks, however, shifted away from the actual process of negotiation to finding ways to strengthen mechanisms in place in order to ensure that incidents such as the April 15 incursion by Chinese troops in Depsang, in eastern Ladakh, do not recur.
In a statement following Saturday’s talks, India said the two SRs, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi, had discussed “ways and means of strengthening existing mechanisms for consultation and coordination on border affairs and methodology to enhance the efficiency of communications between the two sides”.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry added, in a statement, that both sides had agreed "to give full play to the existing mechanisms on border-related issues and maintain peace and tranquility in border areas before issues are resolved."
On Saturday, the two SRs also carried out a strategic review of bilateral ties. Mr. Yang said at the start of the talks the discussions would “help both sides take a strategic and long-term view and better push forward” the relationship.
The top Chinese diplomat said both countries were “in a joint march towards prosperity”, a development he described as “one of the most noticeable in the international landscape in the 21st century”.
The two days of talks have, however, taken place under a shadow of uncertainty following the the April 15 incursion by Chinese troops, who erected a tent in Depsang in an area in eastern Ladakh that is disputed by both sides. While officials did not see the Chinese incursion as threatening – it only involved four soldiers who were not heavily armed – the incident raised serious concerns because the move was seen as violating standard operating patrolling procedures that had been in place for decades, and the stand-off took as long as three weeks to be resolved.
Both sides have been carrying out patrols in disputed areas up to their claim lines, which are overlapping. As the Line of Actual Control has never been demarcated, patrols often encounter each other, but neither side had recently taken the step of erecting a tent in disputed territory.
Mr. Menon played down the incident, saying that the fact that it had been handled successfully and peacefully, with both sides returning to the status quo, indicated progress.
“We are making progress steadily. I think the proof is in the successful way we handled Depsang, and in the way we are discussing a new Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA),” he said, adding that both sides were now “strengthening this edifice of both the dialogue mechanisms and consultation mechanisms we have in place”.
Negotiations on the BDCA, which is aimed at improving border management and enhancing CBMs, are on-going, with China recently putting forward its suggestions in response to India’s comments on the draft, which was first suggested by Beijing in March. There was a broad measure of agreement on the draft but “a little bit of work on the text” that remained unfinished, Mr. Menon said.
As for the actual boundary negotiations, whether both sides have made any progress towards a framework resolution remains unclear considering the opacity with which the talks are held.
To begin with, both sides are even yet to clarify completely where their perceptions of the LAC are. Analysts warn that the failure to do so leaves open the possibility of a recurrence of incidents like the
Depsang stand-off, although officials hope that more robust mechanisms and a BDCA will mitigate those concerns.
The boundary talks are currently in the second of a three-stage process. Both sides signed an agreement on political parameters in 2005, and are now negotiating a framework to resolve the dispute in all sectors. The final stage involves delineating the border in maps and on the ground.
Mr. Menon said the current stage of agreeing the framework was "the most complex" as it was "what will actually translate into the line".
"At one stage people were wondering if this process is going anywhere," he said. "But as [George] Mitchell used to say about Northern Ireland," he added, "its not that I had 960 days of failure and one day of success, but I had 960 days of trying and making progress, but one day of public success. That is the state we are in actually."