Unsettling game of border settlement

Even before the hype over US President Barack Obama’s visit has died down, the Modi government is on the move to enhance its ties with China. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s ongoing visit is an important part of this effort, especially as she is accompanied by the new Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, who had done a full three-year term as ambassador to China till 2013.

Sushma Swaraj, in a first for an Indian leader, explicitly declared that ‘my government is committed to exploring an early settlement’. Pic/PTI
Sushma Swaraj, in a first for an Indian leader, explicitly declared that ‘my government is committed to exploring an early settlement’. Pic/PTI

Ms Swaraj was in China to work out the preliminaries of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 2015 visit, which is expected to even the keel of the Sino-Indian relations that have been tilted by US President Obama’s recent visit to India. In her remarks in Beijing, the EAM, for the first time for an Indian leader, explicitly declared that “my government is committed to exploring an early settlement”. She buttressed this with the remark that her government, “had the political will to think out of the box” on this issue. As part of this effort, the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who is also India’s Special Representative (SR) and pointsman for Sino-Indian border negotiations, would visit China between now and the PM’s planned visit for the 18th round of talks with his Chinese counterpart, State Councillor Yang Jichei.

The Chinese have been signalling that they want an early settlement ever since Xi Jinping said in a statement in March 2013 in Durban that “China and India should improve and make good use of the mechanism of Special Representatives to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible.”

Subsequently, Chinese leaders Li Keqiang in May 2013 in New Delhi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was in New Delhi in June 2014 have also emphasised the point that the Chinese are ready for a border settlement.

No one in the Indian side has made any public comment on the nature of the settlement, but the Chinese have not been so shy. In May 2013, in an oped in The Hindu, former Chinese ambassador Wei Wei noted that the two sides had arrived at an 18-point consensus document on the border settlement through the dialogue between their SRs who had been appointed in 2003. Wang Yi was more direct when he said during his June 2014 visit that “Through years of negotiation, we have come to an agreement on the basics of a boundary agreement, and we are prepared to reach a final settlement.”

Prime Minister Modi had initially held back in appointing his new NSA as the Special Representative for the border talks. This post had been held concurrently by previous NSAs beginning with the first, Brajesh Mishra. However, on November 26, Modi did nominate Doval, thus setting the stage for a resumed dialogue, which could yield results quickly, provided we can cut through the fog of changing Chinese positions.

At the time of Doval’s appointment, the Chinese official spokeswoman Hua Chunying had repeated the formulation that the Chinese were keen “to push forward the settlement of the problem based on the principles and consensus reached by both sides in previous talks.” However, she also referred to the border as being 2,000-km long, as the Chinese officials have been doing since 2010 when they started calling Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet”.

Given that the Indian border with China can be divided into roughly four segments 1700 km in the West, 640 km in the Central sector and 1,100 km in the east, and the 225-km border in Sikkim which has been settled, it is not clear where the 2,000-km figure comes from. It can either exclude the McMahon Line or the Sino-Indian border in J&K. Whatever be the case, the 2,000-km figure touted by the Chinese seriously undermines their claims of wanting to negotiate seriously.

In recent years, the Chinese have been making an emphatic demand for the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh during the SR talks. However, the Indian representatives have made it clear that this is simply not on the table and that they were willing to arrive at a fair and reasonable settlement within the bounds of the 2005 agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles of a Border Settlement, which more or less hinted that the two sides would swap their claims.

Besides the border, the two sides are eager to set the terms for enhancing their economic engagement. During Xi’s visit, the Chinese offered $20 billion worth of investment and expressed a desire to finance and participate in a high-speed rail project in India. They also said they wanted to be part of the smart cities initiative of the PM. In addition, they have sought to rope India into their Silk Route-related One-Belt One-Road initiative. However, while India is game for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BICM) corridor, it is a bit cautious about the One-Belt One-Road initiative, especially its maritime component, which has seen Chinese military forays into the Indian Ocean. During the last round of the SR talks, the Chinese had proposed a maritime dialogue. India would like to get a better understanding of the Maritime Silk Road plan before committing itself to it.

What the Modi government is signalling to the Chinese is that it does not view its relations with regard to the US and China as a zero-sum game. By raising the qualitative threshold of India’s relations with these and other powers, he is seeking to maximise India’s gains. Whether he can indeed do so depends vitally on his ability to get the Indian economy on a fast-growth track.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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