Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much hyped recent visit to China was not expected to deliver any unexpected outcome on boundary related issues, Modi certainly was able to drive home his point that boundary question remains the most important unresolved issue between the two Asian giants, which is hindering the further growth in bilateral relations .
Since the Chinese leaders were not ready to move an inch on the boundary both sides have decided to move on with the relationship in other areas while adopting new confidence building measures to manage the pain on the border. Both the countries have applied some balm on the festering wounds, which both sides hope would not grow cancerous.
Obviously even an inch of distance was not covered to reduce the deepening trust deficit between the two nations. Also on other strategic issues like the UNSC reform , membership of the export control regimes and One Belt One Road project , there was wide margin in the level of mistrust.
However, in spite of deepening suspicion on each other’s national desire and interests, the Chinese President Xi Jin Ping went out of the way to appease Indian Prime Minister to win his support in China specific projects like the One Belt One Road. But India remained non-committal on this issue, describing it as a Chinese project.
For the first time an Indian Prime Minister was received so warmly by Chinese leaders which was being described as wooing India. The visit was not focused on boundary issues but boundary issue came to the fore when Prime Minister Modi himself publicly referred to his talks with President Xi Jin Ping during which he told Xi the necessity of early resolution of boundary issues and especially the need to clarify the 4000 kms long Line of Actual Control from Arunachal Pradesh in the East to Aksai Chin in the Western sector. Significantly the Joint Statement did not mention the 2005 formulation of the Guiding Principles and Political parameters for the resolution of the boundary question. Instead the Joint Statement refers to the three stage formulation for arriving at a final resolution of the issue.
Certainly the visit was high on symbolics and pleasantries as President Xi crossed all protocol limits, which was described unprecedented for a Chinese leader , when he went out of the Capital Beijing to himself receive Prime Minister Modi in ancient imperial capital of China. The Presidential banquet in Xian even before the formal bilateral dialogue with the Chinese Prime Minister Li Ke Qiang in Beijing was much more significant as it helped air his grievances more forthrightly. Surprisingly Beijing kept quite over Indian concerns related to boundary and kept emphasizing on Asian solidarity, as official media compared Modi’s visit to Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Certainly the Home Town diplomacy and Cultural diplomacy was in full play during Modi’s visit. President Xi programmed Modi’s visit to China in such a manner that he began his tour with Xian said to be home town of the Chinese President. When President Xi had visited India last September, Prime Minister Modi had also insisted on his visit to begin from Ahmadabad.
However, these pleasantries did not prevent Modi from indulging in frank talk with his host. The Joint Statement released after the talks also mentioned the oft repeated paragraph, “The two sides affirmed that an early settlement of the boundary question serves the basic interests of the two countries and should be pursued as a strategic objective by the two governments. Bearing in mind the overall bilateral relations and the long-term interests of the two peoples, the two sides are determined to actively seek a political settlement of the boundary question. They made a positive assessment of the important progress made through the mechanism of the Special Representatives, and reaffirmed the commitment to abide by the three-stage process for the settlement of the boundary question, and continuously push forward negotiation on the framework for a boundary settlement based on the outcomes and common understanding achieved so far, in an effort to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution as early as possible.”
The unresolved boundary issue is forcing the two sides to spend more on the increased vigil on the long undemarcated Line of Actual Control . Because of the mountainous terrain Indian side has to face more difficulties and hence has grandiose plans to deploy more strike corps, though funds crunch has forced Indian Army to reduce by half the deployment plans.
It is to the credit of the two armies and two security establishments that they have not allowed the exchange of even a single bullet since many decades. For which both sides have to maintain strict vigil on the LAC and require additional confidence building measures. Hence the Joint Statement mentioned new measures like the two sides will endeavor to operationalize the hotline between the two military headquarters , expand the exchanges between the border commanders and establish border personnel meetings at all sectors of the India-China border areas. The two sides will also carry out annual visits and exchanges between the two military headquarters.
Significantly the joint statement elaborated in detail the significance of enhanced military ties, which will be “conducive to building mutual trust and confidence”. To resume the defence minister level interactions between the two nations also decided to exchange visits of Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of China to India and Indian defence minister’s visit to China later this year. The two governments also decided the resumption of exchange of visits of naval ships and hold PASSEX and SAR exercises.
However many of the contentious issues were not touched upon in the joint statement like the maintenance of peace and tranquility in South China Sea and China’s desire to seek Indian participation in its extremely ambitious multi billion dollar One belt One Road project , which will establish China in the new leadership role in promoting regional cooperation through better infrastructure and connectivity. India has deep apprehensions on this Chinese project.
The Joint Statement did take note of India’s desire to join the multilateral 45 member Nuclear Supplier Group, but fell short of expressing full support to India. The United Security Council reform issue was touched upon in old fashion without any significant improvement on Chinese positions.
The Joint Statement also failed to mention China’s One China policy which is an essential component of all Joint Statements issued by China after bilateral interactions with other heads of States. Diplomatic sources said that since China hesitated to mention Jammu and Kashmir as part of India , Indian foreign office mandarins refused to mention the One China Policy. Earlier Indian foreign minister Suhsma Swaraj had publicly commented that If China cannot mention One India Policy in the Joint Statement , why should India allow the joint statement to refer to the One China Policy.
However it is significant that the two governments have decided to maintain high level regular contacts, which will allow the two governments to manage the differences in a cordial manner and allow the relations in other fields to grow unhindered. In spite of concerns and objections from Indian security agencies the Prime Minister made an unexpected announcement in Shanghai that India will grant Electronic visa to the Chinese citizens visiting India. Though the Chinese government has not made any similar reciprocal gesture, it will put pressure on the Chinese government to open its borders for Indian citizens more liberally.
According to experts, this will promote people to people relations, which will clear misunderstandings among the public of both sides. This is why before embarking on historic three day visit to China Prime Minister Modi opened an account in Chinese twitter service Weibo and came in direct contact with the millions of Chinese twitter users. This has already yielded positive results and brought the Indian Prime Minister closer to the Chinese people.