In the weeks prior to Indian prime minister Modi’s visit to Beijing this May for a summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping, there has been quite an unusual number of articles in China’s official media discussing resolution of the 4,057km disputed border between the two nations. These appear in the backdrop of the growing warmth in Indo-US relations and US president Obama’s successful visit to India this January. The deft moves by the Modi government outlining India’s strategic neighbourhood and the growing warmth in Indo-US ties have obviously attracted notice and been a factor in Beijing arriving at the assessment that its policy of exerting pressure on India along the borders while at the same time trying to promote economic ties will not yield positive results.
In addition to stepping up the momentum of high-level visits, Beijing has begun taking steps to address the key issues publicly identified by Modi during Xi Jinping’s visit in mid-September 2014. Modi had averred that if bilateral relations were to improve then border intrusions by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops had to cease and that both nations must work towards an early resolution of the border issue. Xi Jinping had paid negligible attention then to the matter of intrusions and given low priority to early resolution of the outstanding border dispute. His focus was on securing India’s endorsement to his major economic initiatives of the New Economic Silk Road and Maritime Silk Route.
Reliable interlocutors recently disclosed that in addition to assessing that the Modi government has shown “a tougher attitude” by beefing up border patrols and giving a massive push to improving infrastructure, China has assessed that India’s military establishment has reverted to being “formal” and “stiff” in its interactions with the PLA unlike earlier. According to them, Beijing senses a similar formality in interactions with India’s political establishment and attributes this to its “nationalist” orientation. These interlocutors also disclose that the new defence attaché in the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, now of the rank of a major general, has been instructed to ensure that Sino-Indian relations do not deteriorate. To facilitate his task he has been brought into the loop with regard to flag meetings held between the commanders at the border. The Chinese defence attaché has additionally been tasked to ensure that communications between China’s ministry of national defence and India’s ministry of defence are conveyed quickly to avoid the possibility of tensions increasing due to misunderstanding.
There are other indicators that China’s position has shifted and it is agreeable to some forward movement on the issue of the unsettled border. In the process Beijing appears to have signalled that while it is not open to negotiating the western sector comprising Aksai Chin and Ladakh, it considers the eastern sector comprising Arunachal Pradesh as more important.
The first indication was when Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, on September 18, 2014, coinciding with the visit of president Xi Jinping to India, described New Delhi’s stance on the border issue as “superficially” getting tougher. Giving an idea of Beijing’s thinking on the subject, it significantly urged attention as to why India had referred only to the eastern part when talking about “one India” and whether this signalled that the Modi administration is considering “more strategic adjustments” on the issue. Other articles dilated on the subject.
China utilised Modi’s recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh to once again highlight its concern and interest in the eastern sector. In addition to the usual démarche and foreign ministry spokesperson’s comments, China’s vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin summoned India’s ambassador to lodge a “stern representation” on Modi’s visit to a “disputed border region”, which he said “was established largely on the three areas of China’s Tibet—Monyul, Loyul and Lower Tsayul currently under Indian illegal occupation”. In the course of his statement, Liu Zhenmin said the “Indian side undermined China’s territorial sovereignty, right and interests”. He also alleged the visit had “artificially amplified differences between the two countries on the border issue” and reiterated that China “has never recognised the so-called ‘Arunachal Pradesh’ unilaterally set up by the Indian side”. Of interest is the use of two phrases, perhaps for the first time, by Liu Zhenmin. The phrase “undermined China’s territorial sovereignty, right and interests” seems to imply that China already has some sort of sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh which was violated with Modi’s visit. The second accusation that the visit “artificially amplified differences between the two countries on the border issue” blames India for complicating a resolution.
The sentiments expressed by the vice foreign minister were expanded in a modulated Global Times article of February 26. It observed that despite the political compulsions of promoting his party’s interests, the prime minister should not have visited Arunachal Pradesh because of the strain it would impose on Sino-India ties. Observing that “as the new Indian government settles in, now is the best time to bring the border disputes to an end, because a solution requires not only strong will, but also strong political implementation capacity”, the article added that because of historical reasons “it is impossible to settle this issue just based on the present situation”.
Indicating a vital probable area that the Chinese government will focus on—underscored by the composition of the 12-member Chinese military delegation led by General Zhang Youxia that visited India between February 27 and March 3—the article declared “identifying the lines of control on each side will be a key step to facilitating the long-stalled process of bringing the disputes to a peaceful resolution. In that case, border standoffs between India and China, such as the one in September last year which started before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to India, should be avoided, helping create a friendly atmosphere to further deepen bilateral ties”.
This statement suggests China is willing to address the issue of curbing border intrusions, which are a serious irritant in bilateral relations, and identifying a “line of control”. This will be the likely focus of discussions at the next round of talks between the special representatives. The issue of Tawang’s status will also be raised and reinforcing this are the comments concerning the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation raised at the just-concluded session of the National People’s Congress—China’s version of a parliament.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.