Uneasy neighbours still

Look at it any way and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China appears to have been routine and business-like. It had its share of hype and glitter, but in essence it didn’t display any forward movement on the big issues such as our disputed border, or even in the confidence building measures to maintain peace and tranquility there. However, there has been forward movement in bilateral economic relations and people-to-people ties pointing to the untapped potential in Sino-Indian relations. But what has also emerged clearly in the visit is the distrust which prevents the two nations from achieving that potential.

Given the conventions of modern summitry, this was the sixth meeting between Mr Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping since the former took office in May 2014. The visit came within a year of Xi’s, reflecting the importance of the Sino-Indian agenda, and was the first by an Indian head of government since Manmohan Singh’s visit in October 2013.

There were several aspects to the visit: The continuing effort to resolve the border dispute, the effort to establish mechanisms to maintain peace and tranquility on the border and the seas, enhancing economic cooperation, as well as issues like river waters, Sino-Indian cooperation in multilateral issues relating to BRICS, the new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, WTO and UN issues, and strategic business-issues relating to US, Japan, Pakistan, Iran, West Asia, Afghanistan and so on.

It is clear from the outcome that there has been little movement on the border issue. The formulation in the Joint Statement was routine. It said the two sides were “determined to actively seek a political settlement of the boundary question.” And that they remained committed “to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution as early as possible.”

Even while the two said that they would continue to maintain peace and tranquility on the disputed border, there were no new CBMs announced. In October 2013 the two sides had signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) and have been discussing a Code of Conduct to further improve their border management, which continues to be roiled by reports in the Indian media of incursions by Chinese forces.

This is remarkable since both in September 2014 when President Xi came to New Delhi and in Beijing this time, Prime Minister Modi raised the issue of taking up an old thread of clarifying the Line of Actual Control in the several places where it is unclear, resulting in charges of incursions.

In his remarks to the media on Friday in Beijing Mr Modi noted, “I found … interest in further intensifying confidence building measures. I also reiterated the importance of clarification of Line of Actual Control in this regard.” Later, in his remarks to the students of Tsinghua University, he was more explicit. He pointed to the problems arising from the fact that “neither side knows where the Line of Actual Control is in these areas” and said he had “proposed resuming the process of clarifying it.”

Yet the issue does not figure in the Joint Statement, indicating that the Chinese side was not interested. Actually, the Chinese are committed to clarify the LAC as per the terms of the 1993 Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Tranquility on the Sino-Indian Border.

A process towards that end ran out of steam in 2000 because the Chinese thought that working out a commonly agreed upon LAC would be tantamount to encouraging a status quo settlement. Since 1985, the Chinese have been insisting that there can be no status quo and that India needs to make important concessions, perhaps hand over the Tawang tract to China as a condition for settlement.

The issue has reached a crucial phase. The two sides need to strike a political bargain. However, despite a great deal of consensus arrived at in the Special Representative process, there has been no forward movement since the two sides signed an agreement on the political parameters and agreed on guidelines for a border settlement in 2005. The border settlement has important implications for the future of the two countries and of the Asian region, on economic development and in climate change. These issues are as important and the two countries have identical interests.

Mr Modi is not hostage to past problems and is keen on unlocking the enormous economic potential of the relationship. He wants Chinese investment, technology and trade, and is also ready to cooperate with China on issues of global governance and climate change.

While the stand-off of sorts on the border issue continues, there has been important movement in other areas. People to people contact will be encouraged by the PM’s decision to offer e-visas to Chinese tourists and businessmen, cooperation through province-to-province relations and new consulates in Chennai and Chengdu. Progress was made on the economic front with MoUs worth $22 billion.

Despite all this, there is a disquiet in relations between the two countries. As Mr Modi observed in his remarks to the press in Beijing, in his talks with his Chinese counterparts he had “stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing full potential of our partnership.” It doesn’t take much to realize that he was probably referring to the border dispute and to China’s Pakistan connection. But that has been a given since the 1960s. What is worrisome are contemporary developments arising from China’s rising power. The gap between China and India is increasing in the economic and military fields. Since 2014, the PLA Navy has been making forays into the Indian Ocean. China’s opaque system makes it difficult to understand just what its motivations and goals are. India and China can co-exist peacefully, but can they become friends?

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

( Source : dc )
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