The shadow of the latest bout of tensions on the Sino-Indian border has been lifted, setting the platform for focussed engagement between the two neighbours on a broad spectrum of issues. The breakthrough was announced in New York by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj following her talks with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. The forces from the two sides will now pull back to their September 1 positions before the crisis erupted in the Chumar sector in Ladakh, along the unclarified Line of Actual Control (LAC). The withdrawal by the two militaries to their original positions will provide an opportunity to re-visit what Ms. Swaraj correctly observed was a “very historical” visit to India by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Both sides deserve credit for resolving the flare-up with maturity and resolve. The resolution of the standoff confirmed the robustness of the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) reached last year, which, by setting the detailed protocol for addressing a border crisis, allowed the two militaries to conduct an uninterrupted and successful dialogue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves to be congratulated for stating publicly and plainly the necessity of settling the border, while showing great warmth in welcoming the visiting President. So does President Xi, for repeatedly pointing to the “big picture” during the visit, implying that the relationship that has the power to transform Asia cannot be held hostage to an unsettled border. While the crisis has been blown away, the time to rejoice has still not arrived, as the incident underscores the urgency of clarifying the LAC, and boldly striking a permanent deal on the Sino-Indian frontier. This will not be possible unless there is a decisive but carefully negotiated give-and-take process on territories along the border, requiring both sides, including public opinion in the two countries, to fully understand that historic accomplishments of this magnitude are never realised with a zero-sum mentality. Nevertheless, with the latest tensions defusing, the focus needs to shift to an interlocking agenda that has begun to emerge on the Sino-Indian horizon. Hemmed in by Washington’s doctrinal push for an “Asia Pivot”, the Chinese are looking for an Indian endorsement for the 21st century maritime Silk Road. Membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is also on offer. But Ms. Swaraj has pitched India’s aspirations higher by discussing the urgency of UN reforms, which includes India’s permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council. While they seek common ground, a typically Asian diplomatic dance, based on quid pro quo and powered by a common economic agenda may be just about to unfold.