The prime ministers of India and China decided to address the Sino-Indian boundary question in a separate category and in a substantive manner during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 2003. A Sino-Indian joint working group, established under the co-chairmanship of the foreign secretary of India and the vice-minister of the Chinese foreign office dealing with India, was responsible for discussions on the boundary issue after this decision was taken.
The brief to this latter working group was based on the exchange of views between Rajiv Gandhi and the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, in December 1988. The terms of reference in the brief said that the substance of the boundary question could be addressed satisfactorily only after an environment of mutual trust and cooperation was built up. The approach to resolve the problem should be gradual. Besides, the boundary question should not stand in the way of expanding the cooperative relationship between the two countries. In the first phase of the question relating to the boundary, India and China should agree to maintain stability, peace and the avoidance of confrontation on the line of actual control. The ultimate solution to the boundary question should be based on mutual adjustments, mutual understanding, mutual accommodation. The specifics in these regards could be discussed over a period of time.
During the period between 1988 and 2003, the successive governments of India and China acted on the above brief. A comprehensive agreement on maintenance of peace and tranquillity on the line of actual control was signed in September 1993. This agreement was followed up by another in November 1996, stipulating further confidence building measures to be implemented by both countries.
The decision by Vajpayee and his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, to designate their respective senior advisors to deal with the boundary question in separate negotiations (in June 2003) during Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing signified some important undercurrents of Sino-Indian relations. The decision implied that the mutual resentments and suspicions which emerged between India and China after the nuclear weaponization of India in 1998, have been removed. Nearly one and a half decades of interaction to evolve a working relationship had reached a stage where both sides felt that there was an atmosphere of sufficient trust and political will to move towards this most important problem affecting bilateral relations between the two countries.
Indian and Chinese leaders came to the assessment that the boundary question should be separated from issues related to interim stabilization of the line of actual control and that the boundary issue should be addressed with a higher sense of priority and with political will. Considerations of development and long-term security required that both countries insulate the boundary issue from possible misunderstandings or confrontation.
It is in this context that Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister, and Dai Bingguo, executive vice-minister of the Chinese foreign office, were designated to negotiate a solution to the boundary issue parallel with the work being done by the joint working group and its expert sub-committees on stabilizing the line of actual control and fashioning confidence-building measures.
Mishra and Dai have had two meetings, one in Delhi on October 23 and 24, 2003, and the second one in Beijing on the January 12 and 13, 2004. Two rounds of discussions within a short span of seven months after the decision in June indicates operational seriousness in dealing with the boundary issue. Details of these two rounds of discussions were not made public. It is, however, reasonable to speculate that there is parallelism in perceptions regarding regional stability and security between the two countries which have impelled them to address this historically burdened problem.
Indian priorities regarding China are clear, mainly structuring a stable and cooperative relationship, stabilizing bilateral relations in the context of India’s and China’s nuclear weapons and missile capacities, expansion of economic and technological cooperation wherever such cooperation is mutually beneficial, constructive engagement with China on political and strategic matters to balance off or remedy possible mutual competition or containment by one of the other detrimental to each other’s interests.
China’s views on the boundary question would be influenced by its attitudes to south Asia. These are rooted in Chinese perception about likely developments in regional politics and power equations. China has undergone profound transformation over the last two and half decades. It has undertaken extensive economic modernization and reforms successfully. Economic liberalization with political discipline is the governing principle of China’s domestic politics. The focus is on stability and growth, and a concern that external relations should have equilibrium, ensuring that they do not interfere with the domestic social and political agenda of the Chinese.
It is obvious that India has a similar approach and similar concerns. It is ironic that both India and China watch each other’s respective relations with the United States of America with alertness. The Chinese concern is that Indo-US cooperation should not have orientations antagonistic to Chinese interests. India is similarly concerned, that Sino-US cooperation does not result in the US accepting an over-arching role for China in managing the stability and security of the Asian region.
Resolving the boundary question would contribute to a practical relationship between India and China. That levels of mutual trust and reasonableness have increased is obvious. Factors which contribute to the process are a convergence of views between India and China on issues related to international terrorism, US-dominated unipolarity of international political equations, trends in the globalization of the world economy which discriminate against developing countries, and the interventionist trends in the foreign policies of the US and some Western democracies which have resulted in tension in the Asian region.
What are the prospects of resolving the boundary question and what are the policy orientations which could be adopted'
The issue is permeated by emotion and memories of negotiations between 1956 and 1961, and the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Both countries have vital security concerns regarding their states and provinces close to the boundary. There are Indian parliamentary resolutions affirming legitimacy of the boundary as it existed at least in theory during British rule in India. A way out has to be found from these resolutions (or 1962 and 1994-95), for flexibility in India’s negotiating stance.
Whatever solution is fashioned, it has to be responsive to the perceived interests of the two countries. There are some in the strategic community and experts in both countries who feel that given the present ground reality based on the line of actual control, there should be no hurry in resolving the boundary question. Indian commentators have a sceptical view that China may not really be interested in resolving the question. This assessment stands questioned by the joint decision of the two governments to have separate prioritized negotiations on the boundary issue.
What could be possible options regarding the negotiating stance to be adopted by the two countries'
Both India and China should discard the historical arguments related to boundary negotiations of the past. The boundary should be demarcated on the basis of recognized principles of international law. The latest cartographic methods should be used to discern and identify the geographical features stipulated by international law for demarcating the boundary. A geographical survey of the region should be undertaken jointly.
Once this basic work is completed, principles of mutual understanding, mutual adjustment and accommodation could be applied in the negotiations to find a solution which should conform as closely as possible to the existing realities in terms of jurisdiction, territorial and demographic affiliations. A solution should be responsive to the security and geo-strategic interests of both countries.
It is easier said than done, but the effort by Brajesh Mishra and Dai Bingguo is worth it for the wellbeing of the peoples of India and China.