‘India, China long way from border solution’

Shivshankar Menon
A joint status report of the 15 rounds of special representatives' talks to resolve the vexed India-China boundary dispute has concluded that both sides are far from their goal despite some stated accomplishments.

A bigger concern that has emerged is that there are serious differences in interpreting the 2005 agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the boundary question, which is so far the most important achievement of the three-stage process to arrive at a political solution. Significantly, sources said, these differences seem to wax and wane depending on the strategic climate at that point in time.

The proposal to prepare such a report card came at the last round in January from China's Special Representative (SR) Dai Bingguo, who has been Beijing's representative at all 15 rounds and is now expected to relinquish this responsibility. The speculation is that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi might be elevated to a state councillor and take this job up, but there is no information from Beijing on this yet.

India agreed to the idea of the report, but the process has been tough with India's SR, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, expected to hold last minute deliberations with Dai in Beijing this week to bridge some gaps so that the two interlocutors can, at least, present an agreed report to their respective political leadership. Dai and Menon had agreed that this exercise is important to ensure continuity with the interlocutor to be appointed by the new Chinese leadership.

However, the exercise has shown that differences dominate despite positive proclamations. To begin with, the Chinese side has claimed close to 60,000 sq km in Arunachal Pradesh, which may be lesser than its earlier claims but remains significant and includes Tawang.

The Chinese side believes this is in tune with Article III of the guiding principles, which states that both sides will "make meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments to their respective positions on the boundary question, so as to arrive at a package settlement to the boundary question".

The Indian understanding of meaningful adjustments is, however, different and does not involve large chunks of land. New Delhi believes that adjustments would mean minor territorial give-and-take in the border areas during the process of demarcating a common line.

These extreme interpretations on both sides have meant that China's emphasis on concessions from India in the eastern sector has only increased through the dialogue process, particularly in the rounds after 2005. This is when the SRs started working on a framework agreement - the second stage of what is a three-stage settlement process.

The political impossibility of any Indian government giving up large territory in the eastern sector to achieve this settlement has not been recognised by the Chinese side in all these rounds. Instead, China has thrown back the argument that Indian concessions in this sector is a political pre-requisite for any leadership in Beijing, pointing to Article V of the guiding principles that mentions taking into account "national sentiments".

New Delhi too has its own set of arguments, again based on the guiding principles, particularly Article VII that says the "two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas". India has interpreted to mean that settled populations will not be disturbed, which means Tawang and other populated areas of Arunachal Pradesh will not be touched.

Beijing, however, contests this and makes the point that "safeguarding due interests" of settled population can be achieved alongside any shift in territorial control. It argues that this principle does not translate into recognising status quo in Arunachal Pradesh.

As a result, the final nature of the agreed document will probably not look to elaborate on the interpretations of the guiding principles and instead keep the claims separate from the 2005 agreement. This may reflect lesser progress, but insiders feel it will not complicate future rounds with any new interlocutor. Incidentally, the first draft of the Chinese version of the joint report was a complete articulation of only Beijing's position and since then, it has been an exercise in calibration.

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