Jabin T. Jacob
In the 50 years since the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict over their disputed boundary, relations between the two countries have been radically transformed.
Bilateral trade is booming, while China and India are equally concerned over regional and global issues such as energy security, climate change, the reform of international organizations, and the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Yet these new interactions and common interests have created their own set of problems, including a mounting Indian trade deficit and competition for energy resources. Meanwhile, the continued Sino-Indian boundary dispute ensures that relations have remained beset by mistrust and a sense of rivalry.
Against this background of expanding engagement and growing suspicion at the regional and global levels, the 15th round of Sino-Indian Special Representatives Talks was held in New Delhi this January. These talks were the latest in a process of bilateral boundary negotiations that have been taking place for the last three decades.
This round of talks was especially noteworthy because it was originally scheduled for November 2011 but had to be postponed because the Dalai Lama was addressing a Buddhist conclave in New Delhi at the same time. In early January, the Chinese denied a visa to an Indian Air Force officer from Arunachal Pradesh who was part of an official Indian military delegation to China.
This kind of interaction would have previously resulted in prolonged acrimony between the two sides. But in a sign of growing maturity in bilateral ties, the fourth India-China Annual Defense Dialogue took place as scheduled in New Delhi in early December. The SR talks were also rescheduled without further ado, amid efforts to set a positive tone for the talks.
What explains this willingness on both sides to stick with the talks despite various problems or provocations? For India, the ruling government coalition cannot afford any foreign policy fiascoes, as this would only feed severe domestic challenges to its legitimacy.
Meanwhile, China has its own reasons to support the SR talks, such as problems with its neighbors over the South China Sea, the so-called return of the United States to the Asia Pacific and the upcoming Chinese leadership transition. China and India also perhaps realize they cannot afford mutual hostility at a time of global economic uncertainty.
Instability around Afghanistan and Pakistan will also require at least some degree of coordination between the two sides, especially after the planned 2014 drawdown. So the global and regional context could be pushing China and India toward cooperation, given that, at present, neither side can make decisive moves by itself.
The boundary talks are now officially in the second stage of a three-step process involving agreements on principles, a framework and, finally, a boundary line. The latest SR talks resulted in a new Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. This mechanism aims to ensure real-time contact between the two foreign ministries should either side trespass the Line of Actual Control.
According to a recent Indian media report, more than 500 Chinese intrusions were recorded in the last two years in all three sectors of the disputed boundary, with more than 300 incursions in 2011 alone. But given the two sides disagree on the exact location of the LAC, such figures are not surprising, and incursions can be expected to continue.
Indian analysts have also raised doubts as to the usefulness of the proposed mechanism, questioning whether officials sitting in the two capitals will be able to react to a developing situation on the LAC promptly enough, and whether the new mechanism simply constitutes another layer of bureaucracy.
But a leadership transition on the Chinese side slated for late 2012 means the next SR-level talks are unlikely to be held for well over a year, and with LAC incursions showing an upward trend, the new mechanism is perhaps a necessary one.
There is yet another possible interpretation: could the new mechanism signal that the SR-level talks have reached a dead end? Despite declarations that boundary talks will continue to be held, it is possible that it is this new border mechanism that will be used instead to deal with the consequences of the current boundary situation.
Meanwhile, official statements have shown the SRs already discuss a range of issues besides the boundary dispute, suggesting that China and India could use the talks to ensure greater coordination on issues of global concern — an important political goal for both sides.
During the two-day talks, both countries also agreed to prepare a joint record on the progress made so far on the boundary issue. Beijing and New Delhi should ensure that any such record is freely available to the public.
This would be a significant step, indicating the two countries realize the importance of preparing their respective populations for the inevitable compromises any resolution of the boundary dispute will entail, including possible territorial concessions.
East Asia Forum
Jabin T. Jacob is assistant director at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, and assistant editor at the China Report. He is currently a visiting research fellow at the South Asia Program of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.