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A closer look at the lines

China’s remarks on bilateral ties and the border issue lay the initiative for corrective measures at India’s door

 

Last week, ahead of the 20th round of the now moribund talks between the Special Representatives of India and China entrusted with finding an early settlement of the border question, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, after meeting External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, set out parameters that he implied needed to be bilaterally addressed with urgency. In sum, the remarks constitute quite a lecture. They lay the initiative for corrective measures comprehensively at New Delhi’s door and make it difficult to gloss over their implications. Whereas, the statements made by New Delhi appear, in contrast, to be conciliatory and more hopeful.

The set of remarks, therefore, broadly underpin the direction of ties with China in the near term. A course correction is being sought, months after the Doklam crisis has been perceived to have been set at rest.

The import

While it is not clear if it is a negotiating tactic, here is the listing, in no particular order of priority, so the import of the Wang Yi stipulations is not lost in translation: that India-China relations were at a crucial moment at present; he used the phrase “critical period” after he met Ms. Swaraj. That both countries needed to make the “correct choice regarding the future direction of bilateral relations”. That the results of the efforts made for “overall development momentum were unsatisfactory”. The most important thing to do was (emphasis added) “genuine cultivation of mutual trust”. So long as mutual trust continued to be absent, “some individual issues will keep fermenting and spilling over, thus eroding the overall situation of bilateral relations”. That the “Dong Lang incident caused by the Indian border troops’ illegal crossing of the China-India boundary into the Chinese territory was a severe test for bilateral relations… lessons should be learned to prevent similar incidents from happening again”. That the two countries “should properly control and handle problems left over from history and some specific issues in bilateral relations by putting them in the right place of China-India relations, without politicizing and complicating them to hamper the overall development of China-India relations”.

Mr. Wang also set out some tasks that needed to be undertaken: both sides should enhance strategic communications at all levels, restore established dialogue mechanisms (emphasis added), deepen practical co-operation in various fields “and meanwhile, well manage existing differences and well safeguard peace and tranquillity in border areas”. He also specifically alluded to the benefits that await India were it to come aboard the Belt and Road Initiative, which New Delhi has shown some reluctance towards. Thus some of the Chinese goals and the problems have been clearly set out in public.

This is the clearest confirmation yet that the “dialogue mechanism” —where the two Special Representatives (SR) meet, and set up with so much fanfare in 2003 — may have over the last decade-and-a-half or so, been more or less transformed into an exercise in general fatuity. Just like the Joint Working Group that looked at clarifying the border areas before the SRs came along. In the meanwhile, four Special Representatives have changed — Brajesh Mishra, J.N. Dixit, M.K. Narayanan, as well as Shivshankar Menon. Will Ajit Doval, or the one who follows him eventually, or the one afterwards, be able to make a difference?

A slide

It is also significant that Mr. Wang’s candid remarks should come days after the tenth round of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Co-ordination on India China Border Affairs, (WMCC) which concluded with a positive spin having been imparted to them as having been “constructive and forward looking”, but without firm dates for the next meeting.

What a slide it has been. The SR dialogue was set up after lengthy diplomatic negotiations had yielded the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary Question”. The hard-fought principles set out that the eventually delineated boundary would “be along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features” and that the due interest of the settled populations in the border areas would be taken care of. It was expected that the exploration for the framework for the boundary settlement would commence thereafter.

Clarity on the border

In the meanwhile, some of the expectations had rewritten themselves. The Joint Working Group — that had been clarifying the border areas with a view to leading up to exchange of maps on a mutually agreed scale on where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lay in each others’ perception — had run itself into the ground. This was after sample maps were exchanged in the Middle Sector without having been able to progress to the Western and Eastern Sectors. There was a time when as many as four lines ran across the border areas: one where we perceived the LAC to be, one where the Chinese perceived the LAC to be, one where we perceived the Chinese perceived the line to be and one where the Chinese perceived where we thought our line lay. The last two lines were somewhat guess-worked from the military graffiti, tell-tale traces that our armies leave behind when they foray into the border areas asserting perceptional rights through patrols, the same way as animals mark territory. It is not even clear whether we have spoken of each other’s perception of the LAC for the last decade.

This after China had till the middle of the 1980s seemed open to a process that would let India keep the areas in the East while they held on to those in the West. The fond hope was of an “LAC plus” solution. That changed as well. As did the pious intention to earnestly look for an early solution. Utterances of visiting Chinese premiers introduced new nuances into the diplomatic liturgy, emphasising the complexity of the issue, underlining the difficulty of its resolution, and, thereby, leaving it to future generations to grapple with. Instead of enlarging commonalities, what is being expanded instead are the divergences: whether it is China’s opposition to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or its steadfast support to Pakistan’s mollycoddling of terrorist groups that are inimical to India, or its pointed message to encourage Bhutan to settle its boundary dispute with China in a way that would make the Indian Army’s presence in Doklam eventually redundant. Just look at the Chinese penetration of the area we consider to be our backyard: whether it is Sri Lanka, Nepal, and now the Maldives. Can Bhutan be far behind?

To this day, even though a military hotline between the two army headquarters had been agreed upon years ago, it has not materialised. This is something that would be logical, even imperative, given that both countries have improved their border infrastructure in terms of roads and accessibility in such a way that increases the possibilities of troops chancing upon each other. Therefore, transgressions will increase in terms of frequency, duration, depth, and intensity. The aim should be to evolve a stronger mechanism to manage the border areas more effectively to ensure equilibrium. This must include a more robust code of military conduct, even though neither side has sought to alter border reality through use of force.

It is time New Delhi put more effort into strengthening India’s presence in those areas where we are present, where we consider to be them as our border, and live with it rather than to wait for Beijing to alter reality again. It is easier to make provisions to better live with it than to squander energies resolving it. If we don’t let the boundary question detain us, we will be in a better position to enlarge the areas where we can more fruitfully, in the Asian Century, engage the Chinese in line with the bilateral intentions that envisaged the simultaneous rise of both China and India.

sudarshan.v@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 1:16:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-closer-look-at-the-lines/article21726243.ece

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