Sino-Indian boundary talks

ALTHOUGH NEW Delhi and Beijing might be wary of raising expectations about the first round of talks this week on the boundary dispute between their special representatives, there can be no doubt about the historic significance of these negotiations. When the National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, and the Chinese Senior Vice-Minister, Dai Bingguo, meet today, they bring to the table the political commitment from both the capitals to explore the "framework" of a final settlement of the long-standing boundary dispute between the two nations. While such a commitment has often been expressed in the past at the highest political levels, conditions seem more propitious today than ever before to expect rapid progress in the border talks between the two Asian giants.

Cynics in both capitals would argue that the record of past negotiations offers little hope of a breakthrough now or in the near future. After all, New Delhi and Beijing have wasted more than two decades pretending to negotiate the boundary dispute. Settlement would require painful national compromises, and neither side may be prepared to undertake that political risk. The first round of the Mishra-Dai talks should reveal at once whether discussions in the current format will be any different from the past pattern of unproductive engagement. While scepticism may be in order when thinking about the Sino-Indian boundary dispute, there are enough reasons for a degree of optimism about the present negotiations.

One, the international environment has never been more favourable for a resolution than it is today. In the past, the Cold War between Washington and Moscow and their relationship with New Delhi and Beijing cast a long shadow on Sino-Indian ties. At different periods of time, either Washington or Moscow had a stake in keeping New Delhi and Beijing apart. For the first time in decades, both India and China are improving their relations simultaneously with the United States and Russia. Moscow is now a champion of improved Sino-Indian relations. Washington enjoys expanding ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. After its initial rhetoric about the China threat, the Bush administration has now gone back to the business of constructing a strategic partnership with China and is handing over special responsibilities to it for the maintenance of peace and security in North East Asia. Barring Pakistan, there is no country which may want to see Sino-Indian relations remain low key and uncertain.

Two, India and China finally have a real "relationship" today that goes beyond the range of "disputes" that defined bilateral ties in the previous decades. New Delhi and Beijing have begun to behave like normal neighbours — allowing trade and investment and promoting people-to-people contact. Bilateral trade flows are rising rapidly, they could touch $10 billion next year, and promising to double again in another five years. Taken together with Hong Kong and Taiwan, China is already among India's top three economic partners. With the SARS scare behind us, and direct flights available between the two nations, tourism between India and China is about to take off in a big way. In other words, there is more to Sino-Indian ties today than mere rhetoric about cooperation on global issues while harbouring deep mutual suspicions about regional questions. The reality of the rapidly expanding bilateral engagement provides a different template in which to address the boundary dispute. The resolution of the boundary dispute in turn could boost bilateral relations to an entirely new level.

Three, after the ups and downs of recent years, there appears to be a new level of political trust between the two leaderships and a willingness to experiment with problem-solving in bilateral relations. The intense and successful negotiations on resolving the Sikkim dispute on the eve of, and during, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to China last June have raised the confidence levels on both sides about doing political business with each other. The bargaining was hard. New Delhi's willingness to address Chinese concerns on Tibet was matched by Beijing's readiness to resolve the Sikkim question.

The promises made by the Chinese leadership to take steps on Sikkim in a gradual manner have been kept. The removal of Sikkim from the list of independent countries on the Chinese foreign office Website earlier this month was the first step. Last week, the Deputy Military Attache in the Chinese Embassy joined a group of foreign military attaches that the Ministry of Defence escorted around India's eastern borders, including Sikkim. This is the first time the Chinese Embassy here has accepted an official invitation to visit Sikkim and implicitly endorsed India's sovereignty over the State. The experience of negotiating on Sikkim has set the tone for addressing the far more complex boundary question.

While there are a large number of positive factors propelling the new round of talks on the boundary dispute, it will be unwise to underestimate the serious difficulties that lie ahead of Mr. Mishra and Mr. Dai. Negative reactions from key sections on both sides to the deal on Tibet and Sikkim revealed the depth of opposition to a pragmatic resolution of bilateral disputes. Besides the traditionalist opposition to Sino-Indian rapprochement on both sides, there is the rise of the "baby hawks" — a new generation of young nationalists who are opposed to any accommodation between the two nations. As the older generation on both sides, aware of the complexity of the boundary dispute and the shades of grey in their own national positions, begins to fade away, making serious compromises on past positions might become increasingly difficult. The imperative for the leadership on both sides, then, is to seize the present window of opportunity. To do that Mr. Mishra and Mr. Dai will have to quickly agree on a broad set of rules for the negotiations.

First, India and China should each be prepared to demonstrate the flexibility in negotiating positions to the same degree that they expect to see in the other. All indications are that the two sides have prepared thoroughly for the first round of talks. There is reason to believe both sides might be willing to move beyond their stated positions. For the talks to succeed, both India and China will have to make significant departures from the national mythologies that had been constructed about the boundary dispute. The negotiations cannot be built on expectations of unilateral concessions from one side alone. Neither side would want to put all its cards on the table in the first round of talks. But each side should be able to communicate in the very first round the seriousness of intent to negotiate purposefully.

Second, aim for a few quick decisive rounds of negotiations. Since the objective of the current exercise is to explore a framework for settlement, and not the delineation of a boundary line, it should not take too long. Diplomats are loath to negotiate on sensitive subjects against a deadline. The fact, however, is that if the two sides are prepared to negotiate on the basis of "give and take", the Mishra-Dai talks should not take too long. But if they cannot find a political basis for agreement, there is little point continuing with the exercise.

Third, the broad contours of settlement are widely understood in both the capitals — the so-called package deal requires China to give up its claims to Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Sector and India its claims to large parts of Aksai Chin. Within that broad framework, there are many wrinkles to be ironed out. Both sides may want minor but significant territorial adjustments in both the Eastern and Western sectors. Negotiating these will really test the diplomatic skill and political wisdom on both sides.

Fourth, while China has its own ways of managing domestic political dimensions of major foreign and territorial policy questions, India will have to consciously work at creating a national consensus not just on the outcomes of the negotiations with China but also the strategy and the potential concessions India will have to make. Keeping the Congress on board and preventing the extremists of the Sangh Parivar from scuttling a potential deal with China are key to a successful negotiation on the boundary with Beijing.

Fifth, the Government should resist the temptation to keep the boundary talks with China under wraps. Secrecy in such sensitive negotiations is indeed essential. But if it is not balanced by a conscious strategy to educate the media and opinion makers, the negotiations themselves might not be sustainable. Campaigns based on either ignorant nationalism or motivated leaks, could create an awful political climate under which a pragmatic settlement will become impossible.

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