Whether the visit of the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang will result in a new chapter or simply add a new page in Sino Indian relations only time will tell, but it can be said without doubt that his visit has sown the seeds of a new chapter which will flower only if India plays its cards well.
Though Li’s visit could also be termed as an exercise in Public Relations, India needs to cash in on the goodwill Li has tried to create between the two countries. The Depsang incursion in the western Ladakh and the three week military standoff from 15th April to 5th May, 2013 has in a way proved good for India as the issue helped India raise the issue of unresolved border dispute at a very high pitch and the issue hovered over the summit meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Li Keqiang and dominated the media discourse before and during the visit of the Chinese leader from 19th to 22nd May, 2013.
The Depsang issue helped India inject a sense of realism in ties and the Chinese Premier was defenceless and could not publicly offer an explanation.
Border issue resolution
The rising profile of India as an economic and military power and as a prominent player in world politics gave enough courage to Singh to talk to Li in a very frank and candid manner and successfully drove home the point to the Chinese leader that without forward movement on the issue of border resolution, no headway could be made in the strategic relationship between the two Asian giants.
In fact the repeated reference to the strategic partnership by the Chinese leader appeared only as a rhetorical statement without any substance. Li referred to the Chinese saying, which incidentally is an Indian saying also, that a neighbor is always available for help in need but a distant relative cannot.
But Indian observers also pointed out that if a neighbor is engaged in constant dispute on land and boundary issue, a distant friend or relative has to be called in to send a message that he is not alone.
It was USA, braving all international odds, which took immense diplomatic pain to push India into the international nuclear mainstream which the Chinese has not yet been able to digest. It was the US President Obama who declared from the hallowed podium of Indian Parliament that US would support India’s candidature for the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.
But China has not been able to improve its position on India’s desire to be on the high table of the UN and only said that China recognizes India’s growing role in world affairs and the country deserves a better role in United Nations. China has been discreetly avoiding any firm commitment on the issue of support to India’s membership in various nuclear and missile regimes like the NSG, Australia Group, Wassenar Arrangement and the MTCR.
If China continues to block India’s entry into these Clubs, what is the meaning of cooperation on world issues in international forums, being constantly espoused by China. Off course the cooperation could not be limited to climate issues, which incidentally helps China counter the developed world pressure on its reckless destruction of environment for its fast progressing economy.
The border talks began after the 1988 visit of Rajeev Gandhi and 25 years later, the Chinese are still repeating the same Mantra that the border issue is the left over of history and will need time and courage from both the sides.
To push the momentum of the border negotiations the two Prime Ministers in 2003 nominated their Special Representatives who have till now conducted 15 rounds of talks and the Singh-Li talks has resulted in fresh directives to the two SRs to resume dialogue to be held in June or early July in Beijing and the Indian SR Shivshankar Menon will visit Beijing for the dialogue and will also prepare the ground for the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh later this year, considered unprecedented in Sino-Indian relations.
But Li had to publicly concede before leaving India for Islamabad, whose characterization of the relationship has been changed from “all weather” relationship to “iron brother” relationship, that the leaders of India and China has enough wisdom to resolve amicably the border issue.
Probably the wisdom of the two countries does not match and the two armies continue to face each other on the 4000 kms long Line of Actual Control. Interestingly China has further upped the ante by describing the length of the LAC to be only 2000 kms as it does not consider the State of Jammu and Kashmir as part of India, hence the border region with China cannot be described as India-China LAC.
The two leaders displayed much bonhomie during the talks and the Chinese Prime Minister went overboard to please Indians by greeting Indians in Hindi and fondly remembering his visit to India 27 years ago, as a youth leader.
But this bonhomie did not reflect in the so called visionary joint statement, which does not refer to the need for urgent reforms in the United Nations Security Council and the need for expanding the membership of the nuclear regimes. The joint statement also does not mention the One China policy, which emphasizes Tibet and Taiwan as the part of China.
India did not agree for this reference as China did not reciprocate by agreeing to mention One India policy which emphasizes on Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as integral part of India.
So where is the convergence? Probably China overly appeared to be cozy with India to send messages across various regions of the world that India and China are now strategic partners and they should not expect Indian sympathy or support in their conflict or disputes with China.
There is a wide belief that US wants to draw India in its Pivot to Asia policy and Japan wants to partner India in its anti Chinese rhetoric and the ASEAN members Vietnam, Philippines or Brunei expects India to come to their rescue in its conflict with China. But the Chinese PM chose India as his first overseas destination to convey to all these China baiters that a powerful Asian ally has joined hands with the Chinese, over the Himalayas as Li referred to in his various deliberations.
The border issue, which needs urgent attention was relegated to the 24th Paragraph out of 35 but Indian interlocutors have managed to insert the core of the 2005 Manmohan-Wen Jia Bao agreement, which was titled, “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question” in the joint Statement released after 2013 Manmohan-Li talks.
The two Special Representatives of the Prime Ministers nominated after the 2003 meeting of Vajpayee and Wen were directed to resume the 16th round of talks and the Indian interlocutor, the National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon would be visiting Beijing in late June or early July for talks with the Chinese State Councilor Yang Jie Chi who was earlier the foreign minister of China.
If the two SRs proceed on the basic premise of the 2005 agreement, then they must come to early conclusion on preparing a broad framework of the boundary resolution.
After signing the 2005 agreement the Chinese appeared reneging from this very important concurrence and it would be surprising if the Chinese start afresh and discuss the territorial issues on that basis.
The article VII of the 2005 agreement clearly said, “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” And the article V stated, “The two sides will take into account, inter alia, historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas.”
Indian analysts concluded from the guiding principle that while considering the interests and sensitivities of the settled population, the population living in the Arunachal Pradesh and especially its Tawang areas would always side with India and hence these areas would naturally remain with India and the negotiations will focus on the barren Aksai Chin areas.
The Chinese later realized the implications of the Guiding Principles and over last eight years did not move an inch on coming to a conclusion by placing unrealistic demands of handing over the Tawang area without giving due considerations to the sentiments of the local people.
Now analysts wonder, if the 16th round of SR talks to be held before the visit of Indian Prime Minister to Beijing will achieve any forward movement without Chinese political will to drop its insistence on Tawang.
However, if the Chinese President Xi Jin Ping is serious about his statement that border issue should be resolved fast, one can expect progress on territorial issues, which will lead to demarcation of the LAC and finally its conversion into international border.
Only a high political level formula prescription can move the SR talks to the final resolution.
If the Chinese concurrence to revisit the 2005 agreement during the Manmohan-Li talks and the mention of this in the joint statement is any indication one can assume that the two SRs will proceed on the basis of the formula prescribed under the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles. If this happens the Li Keqiang visit to India will indeed write a new chapter in Sino-Indian relations.
The resolution of border issue will lead to reduced forces and military deployment on the 4000 kms long border and will remove a major issue of trust deficit, which will pave the way for meaningful strategic partnership between the two Asian giants.