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Home / Opinion / TALKS KNOW NO BOUNDARIES 

TALKS KNOW NO BOUNDARIES 

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BY J.N. DIXIT   |   Published 17.07.01, 12:00 AM

Amidst the focus and hype on the Pervez Musharraf-Atal Bihari Vajpayee summit, public opinion and media have not taken sufficient notice of an important discussion between India and China during the last days of June, early July, which might ultimately lead to discussions between the two countries on the substance of the boundary question. The reference is to the meeting of the expert level sub-group of the Sino-Indian joint working group on the boundary question. This has been entrusted with the responsibility of completing modalities and procedural details for the implementation of the provisions of the Sino-Indian agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity on the line of actual control of 1993 and confidence-building measures which were finalized in another agreement during President Jiang Zemin's visit to India in the winter of 1996. Before one proceeds to assess the significance of the expert level meeting between officials of the joint working group, it is pertinent to recall more recent contacts in which this expert group meeting took place. It is generally known that Sino-Indian relations took a nosedive for a period of nearly a year between May-June 1998 and the late summer of 1999. The structure of goodwill and mutual exchanges built up between 1989 and 1996, characterized by exchanges of visits at the presidential and prime ministerial levels and by senior defence personnel, developed cracks because of India's nuclear weaponization and the accompanying rationale which we gave for it, describing Chinese threat as an important factor. The downward slide was brought under control in discussions held between the Indian foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, and Tang Jiaxuan between July 1999 and the middle of the year 2000. The meetings of the joint working group on the boundary question and its experts group meetings also went into a limbo during the period of controversies and distances mentioned above. The joint working group revived meetings in 2000 and, on the basis of directives given by the two foreign ministers, the experts group entrusted with the task of removing differences of opinion about the delineation of the line of actual control re-commenced detailed discussions on the subject. A marginally important development was the Chinese side resiling from its initial reservations about exchanging maps on the alignment of the LAC with the Indian side along with details of the location of their posts on the LAC. There are about nine pockets all along the LAC where there are differences of opinion between India and China about the actual location of the line. The positioning of security posts along the line and the implementation of confidence-building measures envisaged in the agreements of 1993 and 1996, depend on both sides being clear and in agreement about the actual delineation of the LAC on the ground. India had suggested the exchange of maps on the basis of which discussions could be held to remove the differences of opinion with geographical and cartographic precision. The Chinese were reluctant to exchange maps in the mid-Nineties and till the beginning of year 2000 because the ambiguity about the LAC could have been conducive to their assuming jurisdictional control along the line perhaps to their incremental advantages, when compared to the position which they held since November, 1962. However, given their concerns about maintaining peace and stability in Tibet, and about resolving centrifugal pressures within China, they came to the conclusion that stabilizing the LAC would be in their interest in terms of not alienating India from the seriousness of the discussions envisaged in the 1993 agreement. They first agreed to exchange maps step by step, sectorwise. Both India and China agreed that maps may be exchanged in the central sector of the line of control, namely, the Barahoti sector between Uttaranchal and Tibet. This important decision was implemented in the eighth meeting of the experts working group in the second half of year 2000. The ninth meeting of the experts group was held in New Delhi just recently in the last week of June. The Chinese delegation was led by the secretary general of their Asia division, Sun Guoxiang. The Indian delegation was led by Vijay Gokhale, the director of the east Asia division of the ministry of external affairs. The two delegations utilized the opportunity to have their first detailed discussion on differences of opinion about the alignment and delineation of the LAC in the central sector of the line. Once the complex discussions are completed on the basis of clarifications given by both sides, an agreement would be reached on the precise alignment of LAC in this sector, after which details regarding location of posts, re-deployment of troops and so on, envisaged in the confidence-building measures, could be implanted. In particular, agreement has been reached that maps would be exchanged between the two sides sectorwise over a period of time to cover the entire stretch of LAC. Discussions would be particularly difficult about the differences of opinion on the LAC in the western sector and particularly so in the eastern sector where the Chinese still hold on to their territorial claims regarding Arunachal Pradesh and so on. But what is important is that a beginning has been made to discuss this complex facet of the agreements of 1993 and 1996. It is obvious that the Chinese side continues to have reluctance about exchanging maps because a precise and agreed delineation of the LAC will reduce the territorial and strategic advantages which they are interested in order to maintain the dominating position on the LAC. So the Indian side remains entrusted with the difficult and sensitive responsibility of ensuring an objective and precise delineation of the LAC. The long-term plan about which India and China are in general agreement is that, first, an agreement should be reached about the precise alignment of the LAC. Second, all the confidence-building measures agreed upon during the last decade should be fully implemented. Third, this should result in the stabilization of the LAC on the basis of undisturbed peace and tranquillity on it. Fourth, once this is achieved the joint working group on the boundary question should commence discussions on substantive issues of delineating the Sino-Indian boundary avoiding the controversies and irrelevant factors which influenced the negotiating stances of both sides resulting in the failure of the boundary talks in 1961 and the consequent military conflict between the two countries. The point to be kept in mind is that if the beginnings made in the eighth and ninth rounds of the experts group meetings progress smoothly it should lead to a substantive direction in Sino-Indian relations. While this positive development has taken place on a specific and technical issue, there also appears to be a general improvement in Sino-indian relations. The former prime minister and present chairman of the Chinese People's Congress, Li Peng, visited India for three weeks with a business delegation in December last year. The vice-chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Najma Heptullah, has visited China during the first week of July leading a composite delegation of members of parliament and representatives of the chambers of commerce and industry. She has had discussions not only with Li Peng but also with the prime minister, Zhu Rongji. Reports on the visit indicate that her delegation was treated with warmth and that it was given access by the Chinese, setting aside normal protocol stipulations. Other developments in the broader strategic and security environment are also contributing to the process of incremental normalization in Sino-Indian relations despite mutual concerns and doubts and some basic differences on some important issues. Given the Bush administration's highly assertive stance on strategic defence policies, China's criticism of India's nuclear weaponization is diminishing. China and India share concerns about cross-border terrorism and Islamic extremism which generate centrifugal forces within their respective state structures. There is a parallelism in Chinese and Indian policies on issues related to external stipulations regarding human rights and environment management. While remaining committed to their close relationship with Pakistan, China has moved back from totally supporting the Pakistani stance on Jammu and Kashmir. Chinese intercalation with India in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its security organization, the ASEAN Regional Forum, has been positive to the extent feasible, subject of course to the limitation of differences in security perceptions between India and China. There are general indications that the prime minister, Zhu Rongji, would visit India later this year, or early next year. It appears that India's foreign policy after a gap of time has commenced a process of constructive engagement with two of its most important neighbours with whom relations have been tenuous and prickly. One hopes the process will continue in the interest of peace and development in our region. The author is former foreign secretary of India    


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