Not just sweet talk

Preparations for Li's visit must factor in the new dynamic on the Sino-Indian border, its impact on bilateral ties

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid travelled to Beijing last week amid visible relief in both capitals that the military stand-off in eastern Ladakh had been defused. Neither side was prepared to allow a major setback to the bilateral relationship at a moment when a new team had taken charge in Beijing and was signalling its commitment to elevate ties with India. Without an end to the crisis, Khurshid might not have visited Beijing, which in turn would have had no option but to cancel Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's planned sojourn in Delhi later this month. Understandably, Khurshid did not want to dwell too much in public about the Ladakh crisis. His focus was on preparing the agenda for Li's visit.

Khurshid, it can be presumed, did not yield to Delhi's long-standing political temptation to finesse the boundary issue in the name of building an expansive relationship with Beijing. The Ladakh stand-off is a painful reminder to Delhi of the new challenges on the China border. China's rapid military modernisation in recent years has tipped the power correlation in Beijing's favour. As Delhi struggles to catch up, Beijing is trying to limit India's room for military manoeuvre on the frontier. A rising China, conscious of the shifting balance of power, has become more assertive in its territorial disputes with all the neighbours, including India. Khurshid should know that this structural change on India's frontier can't be fixed with sweet talk, new boundary protocols or soaring but deceptive rhetoric about the "global significance" of Sino-Indian relations.

For nearly a quarter of a century, India has operated on the assumption that expanding bilateral cooperation with China and negotiating the boundary dispute could be kept separate. That may no longer be sustainable amid the changing military balance on the frontier. The preparations for Li's visit, therefore, must address head-on this new dynamic on the Sino-Indian border and its inevitable impact on bilateral relations. In the last few years, China has sent mixed signals on its commitment to an early resolution of the boundary dispute. On the face of it, the prospects for the expansion of economic and political bilateral cooperation look good. But without Chinese flexibility on settling the boundary dispute, Delhi might fall flat on its face, if it tries to construct an ambitious cooperative agenda with Beijing.

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