Keep talking

In boundary talks with China, India must not forget a hard-learnt lesson: strategic patience is key

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon is in Beijing this week, not just to hold another round of routine boundary talks with China. Menon, who is also India's Special Representative for the boundary negotiations, will have the last formal meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo, who is retiring. Menon's main task will be to consolidate the gains made over the last few years in the prolonged negotiations with Dai and get a sense of their prospects under the new political leadership in Beijing. At their last meeting in Delhi earlier this year, Menon and Dai had agreed to draft a joint record of negotiations and identify the road ahead. Menon's trip brings an important chapter in the long and unfinished story of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute to a close and marks a new start.

The current series of talks began in 2003 after Atal Bihari Vajpayee and China's President Hu Jintao agreed on a new framework to resolve the boundary dispute. Vajpayee and Hu ordered their special representatives to look beyond legal and historical claims, and negotiate a solution from the political perspective of building a productive bilateral partnership. The new approach produced a quick and substantive agreement, signed in April 2005, on the guiding principles for resolving the boundary dispute. This was to be followed by the identification of territorial give and take and a final demarcation of the compromise on the ground. Unsurprisingly, the question of trading of territorial concessions has been a difficult one to crack and talks have stalled since 2005. Delhi wants only minor adjustments, while Beijing wants significant modification of the current territorial disposition in China's favour, especially in Arunachal Pradesh.

As they look back, Menon and Dai can, however, pat themselves on the back for defusing the many crises that threatened to derail the boundary talks and moving the bilateral relationship forward across a broad front. In contrast to the deepening territorial conflicts in East Asia between China and its neighbours, the Sino-Indian border is indeed tranquil. As reported in this newspaper, differences remain on how to interpret some of the key principles of the April 2005 agreement. This is not unusual. As two experienced negotiators, Menon and Dai surely know the importance of preserving what has been achieved and preparing the ground for further progress. On its part, Delhi must not forget a hard-learnt lesson that strategic patience is the key to making progress with Beijing.

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