After the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping at Wuhan in April this year, prospects for the resolution of the India-China territorial dispute have enhanced with officials on both sides alluding to a possible deal on the issue. The current visit by foreign minister Wang Yi needs to be seen in this context.
Today, India and China have an undefined, un-delimited, un-delineated and un-demarcated border spanning thousands of kilometres between them – with India suggesting 3,488 km, while China contending over 2,000 km in length. Area wise, the dispute is over nearly 130,000 square kilometres – about 90,000 in the eastern sector, nearly 45,000 in the western sector and the rest in the middle sector – although recent Doklam/Donglang incident had brought even the Sikkim sector into focus. Thus, the disagreement between the two begins on the length and area of the borders itself.
China’s leaders/officials tend to depict the dispute as one “left over from history”, complicated and hence cannot be easily resolved, while the Indian side tend to take this issue in a legalist manner, although since 2005 agreeing to a “political resolution”. Both however are Beijing-New Delhi focused with hardly any local indigenous communities’ initiatives.
The principle for the resolution of the dispute, according to the various joint statements between the two leaders is “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable”, although China would prefer it to be in the format of “mutual understanding and mutual accommodation”. A sector-by-sector approach in border talks is preferred by the Indian side while China has suggested a comprehensive “package” deal. A compromise was arrived at since 1986 for “sector-by-sector” approach within the framework of ‘comprehensive settlement.’ However, after a seeming consensus arrived over the least controversial Middle Sector in mid-2000, China refused to discuss the next in line Western sector given its links to its “all-weather” friend Pakistan. China also snubbed Prime Minister Vajpayee’s insistence on discussing the Sakshgam valley of Kashmir, transferred by Pakistan to China in March 1963.
India and China have addressed the territorial dispute resolution through a number of institutional mechanisms, after war efforts in 1962 failed to resolve this dispute. Initially, the Ministry of External Affairs, at the Joint Secretary level, began the border talks and eight such meetings were held from 1981-87, when after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in late 1988, such talks were upgraded to the Foreign Secretary level. Fifteen Joint Working Group meetings took place till 2005. The Special Representative Mechanism today is the main mechanism to discuss the dispute. Twenty one rounds of talks were held by November 2018. In addition to the Special Representatives Talks, 12 meetings of Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs established in 2012, regular border personnel meetings, flag meetings, and others as well contribute to such resolution efforts.
Both sides mentioned that “pending the final resolution” of the dispute, they shall strive to manage the borders through a series of confidence-building mechanisms (CBMs), viz., the September 7, 1993 Peace and Tranquillity Agreement; November 29, 1996 CBMs in the Military Field Agreement; April 11, 2005 Protocol on CBMs Modalities; January 17, 2012 Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs; October 23, 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement and others. However, conflict situations in the Depsang Plains (2013), Chumar (2015 and 2016), Dokhlam (2017) or at Tuting (2018) belied reliance on such CBMs.
The Special Representative (SR) mechanism is the most important arrangement for resolving the territorial dispute between the two countries. Three phases of the SR meetings were identified with the early five discussions from 2003 to 2005 as knowing each other’s positions on the border dispute, while the meetings from sixth through ninth as more intensive in nature. After five meetings between the SRs both countries, in a joint statement in April 2005 between the two premiers, decided to solve the border dispute based on “political parameters and guiding principles”, which included, for instance, not disturbing populated areas.
The second phase from the sixth meeting in September 2005 explored possibilities for initiating an “agreed framework” on the boundary dispute settlement. At the 15th SR meeting in New Delhi in January 2012, the framework was exchanged. Interestingly, during the August 2009 13th SR Meeting between M K Narayanan and Dai Bingguo, the Hong Kong based newspaper Ming Pao reported that China is prepared to settle for 28 percent of the disputed territory between the two countries, though denied by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. Overall, 28 percent of the disputed areas include Aksai China and Sakshgam valley and Arunachal Pradesh territories – in other words the 1950s “swap proposal” in a new bottle. The Indian side, however, is tight-lipped on the details of any deal, citing the in camera nature of the talks. Long-time SR, Dai Bingguo recently stated that the Tawang tract is crucial for a deal with India – a proposal that no political dispensation in India could agree. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, during her visit to Beijing in February 2015 suggested “out of the box thinking” to resolve the dispute, while China’s Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui in June 2018 referred to an “early harvest” – a suggestion repeated by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson recently. The SR talks are now entering the crucial third phase.
The above brief suggests that the adoption of the dominant institutional mechanism provided a modicum of “peace and tranquillity” and the much-needed stability on the borders – despite the border transgressions at Depsang Plains, Chumar, Barahoti, Doklam, Tuting and other areas- even as this process has been slow and open-ended. This suggests the prospects for the resolution of the territorial dispute can only be pitched at medium to long-term despite the euphoria generated periodically by both sides.
For, when both sides concretely began discussion on the dispute in 1981, and in the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Indian side insisted on an “immediate” resolution of the dispute. While the Chinese side agreed to this proposal, in the 1982 round of discussions Beijing dragged its feet and suggested the dispute could be resolved “ultimately” by the next generation of leaders. Nothing of that sort happened even after three years of talks. Recently, the Chinese side had suggested an “early settlement” or even an “early harvest” – thus lulling the Indian side. As China is seized by the United States in the emerging trade conflict between the two, we are likely to see more bonhomie statements in the coming months – with no concrete proposals nor having any fixed date to resolving the territorial dispute.
(The author is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU. Views are personal.)
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