Beijing, Oct. 23: With uncharacteristic flourish, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today declared that “when India and China shake hands, the world takes notice”, minutes after the once hostile neighbours went beyond flowery rhetoric to reach substantive agreements on a range of issues of which the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) was the most significant.
Although there has been no firing along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China for decades (unlike the “hot” Line of Control between India and Pakistan), “incursions” of troops have been a recurring source of tension that has cast a shadow on efforts by the leadership of both countries to substantially improve relations.
Singh made this clear when he told the media at the majestic Great Hall of the People today that “we agreed that peace and tranquillity on our borders must remain the foundation for growth in the India-China relationship, even as we move forward the negotiations towards a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the India-China boundary question. This will be our strategic benchmark.”
Put simply, it means that while both sides know that the “boundary question” will take a long time to solve, they also realise that the “border” (or the LAC) needs to be insulated from tensions such as witnessed in Depsang in eastern Ladakh in April this year as much as possible.
Today’s BDCA takes several fresh strides in that direction with the two sides agreeing that “they shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding”; and that “both sides shall exercise maximum self-restraint, refrain from any provocative actions, not use force or threaten to use force against the other side, treat each other with courtesy and prevent exchange of fire or armed conflict.”
The agreement also envisages setting up more “Border Personnel Meeting” sites beyond the existing three BPMs and establishing a hotline between military headquarters of the two countries.
WHEN THEY SHAKE HANDS…
The hands of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (left) and
Li Keqiang as they reach out at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. (PTI)
While the nitty-gritty of the BDCA might take a while to be implemented on the ground, the bigger message from the bilateral discussions today was that “peace, tranquillity and predictability” on the border was a high political priority for both leaderships.
As India’s ambassador to China S. Jaishankar explained later, when the “highest levels of government” tell their armies to exercise maximum restraint in a face-to-face situation, “these become operational instructions to forces on the ground. It impinges on behaviour, creates a mindset”.
Apart from the BDCA, the Indian side seemed particularly pleased with the Memorandum of Understanding on “Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-border Rivers”. India and China already have a mechanism to exchange hydrological data during the flood season in the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers. Under today’s MoU, the two sides will discuss not just flood-season hydrological data but also “exchange views on other issues of mutual interest”. Though couched in diplomatic jargon, this clause will help India take up the question of dams being built on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra and other contentious water issues that have been an area of tension between the two countries, sources said.
To take forward “people-to-people” relations, agreements were also signed to establish “sister city” relationships between Delhi and Beijing, Bangalore and Chengdu, and Calcutta and Kunming. Of these, the Calcutta-Kunming relationship has much greater resonance in view of historical ties and physical connectivity, sources said.
The actual agreements apart, the two sides led by Singh and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held “extremely useful and constructive discussions” that covered the “entire gamut of issues” at the bilateral, regional and global level, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh later said.
Decoded, it means that India did not just focus on the positives but also mentioned all the issues that trouble the relationship — such as China issuing stapled visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh, China’s nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, its activities in PoK, and India’s concerns on Pakistan-based terror networks.
Without mentioning Pakistan by name, the Prime Minister had earlier said: “We agreed that, as large neighbours following independent foreign policies, the relationships pursued by India and China with other countries must not become a source of concern for each other. This will be our strategic reassurance.”
Foreign office sources underlined that the very fact that the two sides could openly discuss “contentious” issues at the highest level, even if they know there is no immediate resolution in sight, points to the “growing maturity” in India-China ties.
Over the last decade, and particularly since the 2008 economic meltdown in the US and Europe, India and China have worked closely together on numerous platforms. This has fostered a certain comfort level between the political leaders, which was evident in the way Singh and Li Keqiang kept up an easy banter while their officials signed various agreements in front of the media of both countries.
Beyond their personal equation, both leaders seemed to be aware that they were in the midst of a historic cusp — when two ancient civilisations, after centuries of suppression, were re-emerging as dynamic economies that could change the face of the 21st-century world.