Can India and China get past their longstanding

border dispute?

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 7:00am, 21 December, 2019

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  • The 22nd round of talks between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was shrouded in secrecy amid a downward slide in bilateral ties

  • Besides the border issue, both sides are also managing ongoing sources of bilateral tension such as the trade deficit and the Kashmir issue

Chinese soldiers take part in a military exercise with Indian forces in Meghalaya. Photo: AFP

India and China held their 22nd meeting on their long-running border dispute on December 21, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting New Delhi for talks with India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.

The meeting came amid a steady downward slide in Sino-Indian relations, despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledging to overcome differences at an informal summit in Mamallapuram, a coastal town in southern India, in October.

But since then, China has spoken up again on the situation in the disputed Kashmir region. It recently proposed a United Nations Security Council meeting after Pakistan wrote to the council on possible escalation of tensions in the region. The meeting was later postponed but could have embarrassed India, which has consistently maintained that the dispute is a bilateral one between itself and Pakistan.

Narendra Modi with Xi Jinping at an informal summit in India in October. Photo: Reuters

Last month, a privately organised India-China business forum had to be called off as the Indian government refused to issue visas to the Chinese delegation, according to media reports.

What is this border dispute all about?

India and China have a seven-decade-old dispute on their borders that has cast a shadow on ties between the two countries and has been the cause of one full-blown war and a number of military skirmishes.

The two major disputes along the 3,488km India-China border are in the western and eastern sectors, over the Aksai Chin region that China controls and parts of the India-governed Arunachal Pradesh region, respectively.

Why is it leading to military conflicts?

The border dispute is complicated by the fact that the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the line dividing Indian and Chinese territories, has not even been clearly established so far, as admitted by the Indian government in Parliament last month.

In 1962, the two countries had a full-blown war after tensions over the border dispute. They have continued to have military skirmishes, such as the 2013 stand-off in Chumur region in India’s Himachal Pradesh state, along with a major face-off in 2017 in Doklam, located at a tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan.

The Indian government told the country’s parliament last month that there had been 1,025 instances of Chinese troops “transgressing” into Indian territory between 2016 and 2018.

What progress have both sides made so far?

After the Special Representatives (SR) met on December 21, both sides issued statements to say they had resolved to intensify efforts in boundary negotiations to arrive at a fair solution and build mutual trust to continue boosting bilateral ties.

India and China will mark their 70th anniversary of bilateral ties in 2020.

Ahead of the talks, Dr Geeta Kochhar, assistant professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian studies, said she expected both sides would “make some concrete progress to find some mutually agreeable paradigm to resolve the delineation of the border.

“This will surely include the drafting of maps,” she said, referring to the fact that the two countries are yet to exchange maps of the territories they claim as their own.

Beyond this, India and China are also likely to discuss measures to ensure their two militaries have communication mechanisms to avoid flare-ups.

Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and former advisory board member of India’s National Security Council, said the two countries might look for more incremental progress.

“It is most likely they could take up the issue arising from the 1993 agreement to resolve differences in the 14 points of the LAC where their perceptions differ,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photo: EPA-EFE

The talks have been going on since 2003 but since 2005, there has not seemed to be any substantial progress, resulting in doubts over what the SR talks could actually achieve, said Kochhar from JNU.

”It also depends on the will of the highest political leadership that guides the SR,” she said, pointing to how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s personal rapport and their standing in their respective countries could result in a positive outcome for the talks.

There are some who also believe that the border dispute cannot be resolved unless ties between the two countries improve – hence, they feel, these talks are aimed at improving trust rather than resolving the dispute right away.

Besides border tensions, there are other irritants in the bilateral relationships including New Delhi’s trade deficit with Beijing and China’s growing influence in the region. Last month, India pulled out of what would have been a 

16-member mega trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. China has pledged to see if there’s a way forward with India in the mix.

Is a resolution likely in the near future?

There are many who believe that solving the dispute will be a major challenge. Both leaders, having been elected on mandates of providing strong and unbending leadership, might not want to back down from their own claims.

On top of this, Joshi from the ORF believes that getting domestic acceptance for “compromises” the two countries would have to make in solving the dispute won’t be easy for either.

“In my view the only viable settlement is on an ‘as is, where is’ basis. But getting people in India to accept that Aksai Chin will go to China in a settlement will not be easy,” he said, adding that letting go the parts of Arunachal Pradesh that Beijing has claimed will also be a hard sell for the political leadership in China.

Kochhar, however, believes Modi and Xi’s profiles as strong leaders might actually help resolve the conflict, if they wished. “In both India and China, we see a surge of both kinds of nationalist sentiment. However, as the leaders are strong and enjoy enormous power, they can really reshape the narratives towards positive nationalism.”

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