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23 September, 2014

False steps in India-China tango

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Was it a coincidence that Indian and Chinese troops were involved in a standoff on the heights of Ladakh when President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were talking?

The appearance of discordant notes, when governmental leaders hold crucial meetings, are not unusual. They are often the result of calculated moves by state or non-state actors to create hurdles.    

According to Indian media reports, the confrontation on the disputed border began when Chinese troops moved forward at three places in Chumar in eastern Ladakh on September 10 just as Xi left on a nine-day tour of Tajikistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. They attributed it to renewed Chinese efforts to establish a presence in Chumar, which had been foiled earlier.

Chinese reports insinuated that the tension was engineered by India. They accused India of instigating border incidents as it wanted the talks, which are focused on trade and economic cooperation, to cover the border issue also. They recalled that there was a three-week standoff in the western part of the border ahead of Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India last year.

In the Chumar area, China is laying a track and India is constructing a canal. Each side considers the other’s activity prejudicial to its interests.

Indian media reported that Modi drew Xi’s attention to the border developments at their New Delhi meeting. Xi told him he was sad that they had cast a shadow on his visit and that he had passed on a message to the Chinese army to disengage. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said later that the situation had been “controlled and managed” through immediate and effective communication.

Before leaving India, Xi said the border dispute with India would be resolved early to promote peace and cooperation between the two countries. China had the determination to work with India and settle the boundary question through friendly consultation at an early date, he added.

However, after the Xi visit ended, Chinese soldiers entered the Chumar area again, although in smaller numbers than before.

Apart from being the President, Xi is the General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Military Control Commission. That his message for disengagement did not evoke a full response suggests that other players are also active.

The dispute over the 3,380-kilometre long India-China border had precipitated a brief war in 1962. Chinese troops poured down through the Himalayan passes, causing Indian soldiers to scatter in disarray. The Chinese then made a quick, unilateral withdrawal.

The Line of Actual Control, which resulted from the conflict remains undefined. Since 1996, the two sides have been holding talks to resolve the border dispute but all that has come out of the exercise so far is an agreement to maintain peace along the LAC.  

Xi’s commitment to early resolution of the dispute represents a big advance. After his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the BRICS summit at Durban last year, he had said the boundary question was a complex issue left over by history and since solving it won’t be easy the two countries should focus on boosting relations without being held back by it.

Significantly, Global Times, the English-language sister daily of the party organ, the People’s Daily, which published Xi’s statement that China was determined to work with India to settle the boundary issue at an early date, also carried a statement by an unnamed Chinese expert on South Asia that there wasn’t much chance of a settlement under the regimes of Xi and Modi.

Despite the border distractions, the Xi-Modi talks yielded some positive results. The two countries signed a dozen agreements providing for cooperation in a wide range of fields from manufacture of power equipment and automotive parts to joint  audiovisual production.

However, there was disappointment in India that China only committed itself to an investment of $20 billion in the next five years, as against a figure of $100 billion mentioned by one of its diplomats a few days earlier.

In a public speech in New Delhi, Xi reiterated his views on the importance of strategic coordination between India and China, which have a combined population of over 2.5 billion. “If we speak with one voice, the whole world will listen, and if we join hands the whole world will pay attention,” he said.

It takes two to tango. Clearly there is still a long way to go before India and China can move in step. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 23, 2014.

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