16th Sino-Indian border talks : More hype, little substance

16th Sino-Indian border talks : More hype, little  substance

Shreya Upadhyay The 16th round of India-China border talks ran along familiar lines of hype and hustle and little substance. While India persisted...

Shreya Upadhyay The 16th round of India-China border talks ran along familiar lines of hype and hustle and little substance. While India persisted with the need for maintaining peace in the region, China responded with the obvious clich� of friendship and cooperation. In an attempt to convince New Delhi, the Chinese interlocutors stated that Beijing was ready to "break new ground" to resolve the dispute. However, to expect a speedy settlement on the issue would be na�ve, given the way the Sino-Indian border dispute has meshed over the years. Undeniably, the rapid expansion of Chinese military power, modernisation of its infrastructure in Tibet and the 'string of pearls' approach, aimed at includes encircling India, has tilted the balance on the frontier heavily in favour of Beijing. In contrast, New Delhi's border infrastructure looks primitive. Pertinently, by building new railroads, airports and highways in Tibet, China is now in a position to rapidly move additional forces and heavy weaponry to the border to strike at India at a time of its choosing. Needless to say, India is still years away from matching the current Chinese military build-up capability. True, lately New Delhi has started responding by modernising its military but it has only exacerbated tensions between the two neighbours. The Chinese Army is unlikely to end aggressive patrolling on the border. On its part, India will continue to match China's military capabilities on the ground but seems to have failed in defining a game-plan along with pursuing clearly laid out objectives. Significantly, the maximum New Delhi has been able to articulate on the vexatious border issue has been bringing into focus the need to maintain peace and tranquillity on the long and hotly contested frontier. In fact, this thought line prevailed in the current round of talks as well. On the face of it, the Summit was crucial for two reasons. Primarily, it was the first after the leadership transition in China. But, more importantly, the three-week-long standoff between the Chinese and Indian Army in the Ladakh region in May brought into sharp view the problems brewing on the disputed frontier. Interestingly, the Indian side still seems confused whether the Chinese incursion was a political decision or the People's Liberation Army of China acted on its own without consulting its Government. There are also indications that the adventurism was the brainchild of the local Chinese Army commanders. Notwithstanding, New Delhi continued to play down the incident, asserting that it involved only a few soldiers who were not heavily armed. Undoubtedly, the Chinese incursion amounted to violating the decades-old standard operating patrolling procedures. Both sides have been carrying out patrols in the disputed areas up to their claim lines which overlap. As the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has never been demarcated, patrols often encounter each other, but neither side had recently taken the step of erecting a tent in a disputed territory. Notably, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to India shortly after the incident injected a brief momentum to defuse the crisis. No matter, these incidents reflect how the Sino-India frontier has re-emerged as a major military flashpoint in Asia. The border issue is bedevilled by differences over the length and ambit of the boundary. New Delhi's position is that its border is 4,117km long, starting from the India-China-Myanmar junction in the Eastern sector to the North-Western end of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). But Beijing avers that its border is roughly 2000-km long and does not accept Arunachal, PoK and Jammu and Kashmir as sovereign Indian Territory. It claims the entire Arunachal as its land and Kashmir as disputed between India and Pakistan. Boundary negotiations began during former Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to China in 2003. This led to the appointment of Special Representatives on both sides to impart momentum to the talks. Currently National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Beijing's State Councillor Yang Jiechi are the special representatives. No immediate deliverables came out of the latest talks. However, on the brighter side, both neighbours seemed upbeat about the engagement being on the right track. An important positive statement made by Jiechi may well determine the next course of Sino-Indian engagement in the coming months. He said, "I stand ready to work with you to build on the work of our predecessors and break new ground to strive for the settlement of the China-India boundary question and to make greater progress in the China-India strategic and cooperative partnership in the new period," adding, that the two special representatives have a lofty mission and heavy responsibilities. China-watchers in the Foreign Ministry also appear optimistic. In its statement it underscored, "The Menon-Yang talks were held in a productive, constructive and forward-looking atmosphere and these discussions constitute the second step of a three- stage process." The Special Representatives from both sides highlighted points on including possible additional confidence building measures, ways and means of strengthening existing mechanisms for consultation and coordination on border affairs and methodology to enhance the efficiency of communications between the two, along with focusing on the proposed Border Defence Cooperation to avert episodes like the Depsang faceoff. However, as for the actual boundary negotiation, whether both sides made any progress towards a framework resolution remains unclear considering the secrecy in which the talks were held. New Delhi and Beijing still have to clarify where their perceptions of the LAC lie. The inability to do so leaves open the possibility of recurrence of incidents like Depsang. All in all, the boundary talks are currently in the second of a three-stage process. Both sides are now negotiating a framework to resolve the dispute in all sectors against the backdrop of the 2005 agreement on political parameters; specially, as over the years there has been looming scepticism across the border over boundary talks being deadlocked. Both sides are known to have serious differences in interpreting the LAC agreement, thereby making it virtually impossible for them to reach a final settlement. As the final stage involves delineating the border in maps and on the ground, National Security Advisor Menon confessed, "The present stage is the most complex as it is what will actually translate into the Line of Control." - INFA
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