India-China Border issue and the Modi-Xi talks

Written by: Col R Hariharan
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[Here are the answers to two questions raised by an overseas newspaper on the future progress of India-China border issue after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping had formal talks for the first time on September 18, 2014.]

1. How is the momentum for the border talks going after the statements by the two leaders?

It is unreasonable to expect sudden momentum in the border talks after PM Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping had their first ever formal talks. The border issue is a complex one with variables on the basis on which both India and China have been putting forth their arguments .for the last half a century That is why even after 17 rounds of talks so far 'substantive progress' has not been made except for evolving some control mechanism acceptable to both sides which seems to work in fits and starts.

If we go through the statements of Modi and Xi, it is evident both are very clear in what they want and how to go about handling the issue. But there is a qualitative difference between their basic approach to the border issue. Modi considers it fundamental to building enduring win-win relations with China.

Xi would like to strengthen the bonds betwen the two countries on many other issues where their goals converge. Probably he expects the border issue to be resolved when the climate of confidence in each other is strengthened through bonding. This has apparently influenced the talks salient points of which are as follows.

Modi: The Indian PM was apparently irked by the PLA posing a confrontation with Indian troops in the Line of Actual Control (LAC) even while he was extending a red carpet welcome to the Chinese President. Apparently this made him not to mince words while bringing attention to the contentious issues faced by India in the strong statement he made at the end of his talks with Xi. Essential points he made indicate his thought process:

a. Border issue: There is no doubt that both India and China desire building close bonds with each other and benefit from it. However, resolution of border issue is fundamental to fostering closer relationship. So the issue needs to be resolved speedily.

b. On trade relations: India expects China to provide a level playing ground for Indian trade and investment. China has to remove existing restrictions on Indian business to facilitate closer trade relations with China. India would extend similar facilities to Chinese investment and trade. India welcomes Chinese investment and involvement in infrastructure building including railways and power (understanding nuclear issue probably relates to this).

c. Other issues: India was prepared to liberalise issue of visa to Chinese tourists and businessmen. However it would be help if China refrains from irksome actions like issuing stapled visas to Indian nationals hailing from disputed territory.

Xi Jinping: Prior to visiting India, Xi was probably irked by Modi's trip to Japan and showing the close personal rapport he had with PM Shinzo Abe. So Xi was probably trying to gauge Modi's style by allowing Chinese border troops to bring the border issue to a head even as he was meeting with Modi. China had been accustomed to doing this in the past. He probably expected Modi to soft pedal confrontational issue on the border during the talks and in the public as earlier Indian prime ministers, notably Dr Manmohan Singh, had done. But he realised Modi was clear headed on his approach to China and its leader.

Modi's assertive style did not allow him to mince his words on his strong feelings on the border question. This was probably acknowledged by Xi when he said that Indians were 'more confident now.' As Xi is equally assertive, he countered every point made by Modi giving his own perception. These are:

a. Border issue: Both China and India are keen to develop closer and cordial relations and except for 'small problems' along the 'undemarcated' border (what India refers as LAC in Ladakh region and China does not recognise the LAC) usually resolved by talking. There had been no military confrontation in the border between the two nations. He expects the issue to resolved through continued the talks on border issue (which had made substantive progress) paving the way for better understanding between the two countries.

b. On trade relations: Xi probably expected India to woo China all the way offering special concessions (as other smaller South Asian powers have done) to attract China's investment. But this did not happen as in addition to border issue, Modi focused on issues like reducing India's trade deficit as a key to the process and raised a number of problems India faced in trading with China.

Probably in a bid to achieve greater clarity till Modi introduces some improvements, Xi scaled down the much publicised expectation of China investing $ 100 billion in next five years (as against Japan's promised investment of $ 34 billion as stated by the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai) till China is convinced India would make it profitable for China to invest and trade in India.

On the other hand, Xi seems to recognise problems of Indian trade in China. So he said China would ease restrictions on Indian pharma imports and investment soon; on other trade issues he expected progress in the next five years.


c. On other issues: As relations progress Xi expected reciprocal improvement on issues like visa for each others nationals. Both nations desire for closer relations would help this process and find solutions to problems

2. Do you see the two governments are more determined to solve the border disputes, or that we should not expect anything substantial coming out soon?

Of course they are determine to solve the border dispute. But it is a complex one impinging upon strong national sentiments. Modi and his ruling BJP have strong nationalistic views on the border question. Xi has been emphasising territorial integrity and harmony in the border regions as China's "core principles" to realise the Chinese Dream.

Summary: The resolution of the border issue is going to be a long drawn process for the following reasons:

a. China claims Indian territories in Ladakh region (China has already occupied Aksai Chin area) and the whole of Arunachal Pradesh state (Southern Tibet as China calls it). The issues in the two claim areas are totally different and a blanket solution will not be acceptable to Indian people whose national identity would be affected. China does not have this problem.

b. China has not helped to speed up the process. For instance, years back both sides agreed to carry out a survey of approximate course of the Mc Mahon Line on which Indian border in Northeast is at present based.

Though both countries carried out the survey, China has not handed over its maps as India had done. This has stalled the process because it has nothing to lose by stalling the process of resolving border issue while India is likely to be the loser in any compromise solution.

c. So it requires a lot of political will and convergence between the two countries and the two assertive leaders to sell any solution to their people before they can implement it. There appears to be little chance of such a solution in the medium term in both the countries.

[Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: haridirect@gmail.com Blog: http://col.hariharan.info ]

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