Will India-China border talks ever end?

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — For 25 years, India has been seeking to settle by negotiation with China the disputed Indo-Tibetan frontier. Yet, not only have the negotiations yielded no concrete progress on a settlement, but they also have failed so far to remove even the ambiguities plaguing the long line of control.

Beijing has been so loath to clearly define the 4,057-km frontline that it suspended the exchange of maps with India several years ago. Consequently, India and China remain the only countries in the world not separated by a mutually defined frontline. By contrast, the Indo-Pakistan frontier is an international border, except in Kashmir, where there is a line of control that has been both clearly defined and delineated.

The latest round of Sino-Indian border negotiations ended in Beijing last week in predictable fashion — with warm handshakes and a promise to meet again. But after a quarter century of unrewarding negotiations with Beijing, India ought to face up to the reality that it is being taken round and round the mulberry bush by an adversarial state that has little stake in an early border resolution.

The more the talks have dragged on, the less Beijing has appeared interested in resolving the border disputes other than on its terms. In the period since 1981, China has realized a tectonic shift in its favor by rapidly building up its economic and military power. While keeping India engaged in sterile border talks, China has strengthened its negotiating leverage through its illicit nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan and strategic penetration of Myanmar.

Today, Beijing gives the impression that an unresolved, partially indistinct border fits well with its interests. Indeed, it sees a strategic benefit in keeping hundreds of thousands of Indian troops pinned down along the Himalayas, thus ensuring that they will not be available against China’s “all-weather ally,” Pakistan. This is the “third party whose interests China cannot disregard,” as a Chinese official divulged at a “Track 2″ dialogue that this writer co-organized in Beijing a few years ago. An unsettled border also endows China with the option to turn on the military heat along the now-quiet frontier if India plays the Tibet card or enters into a military alliance with the United States.

More importantly, China is sitting pretty on the upper Himalayan heights, having got what it wanted — by furtive encroachment or by conquest. It definitely sees no reason to strategically assist a potential peer competitor by lifting pressure on the borders through an amicable settlement.

Given these realities, India’s top priority from 1981 to 2002 was to get the line of control fully clarified while remaining open to any Chinese proposal for a complete border settlement. The accompanying confidence-building measures (CBM) were premised on the elimination of frontline ambiguities to help stabilize the military situation on the ground. But the process of adopting CBMs has advanced much faster than the parallel process of defining and delineating the frontline, farcically called “the line of actual control.”

In 1996, the two countries, for example, signed a CBM prohibiting specific military activities at precise distances from a still-blurry frontline. That accord required the two countries, among other things, not to fly combat aircraft “within 10 kilometers of the line of actual control” (Article V.2) and not to “conduct blast operations within 2 kilometers of the line” (Article VI). The reality, though, is that there is no agreed frontline on maps, let alone on the ground.

It took two full decades of border talks before China agreed to exchange maps with India of even one border sector. In 2001, the Chinese and Indian sides exchanged maps showing each other’s military positions in the least-controversial middle sector. China then committed itself to an exchange of maps of the western sector in 2002 and the eastern sector in early 2003. The completion of an exchange of maps showing each other’s currently held military positions was intended — without prejudice to rival territorial claims — to define where actual control lay. Through such clarification of the frontline, the two sides intended to proceed toward mutual delineation on maps and perhaps even demarcation on the ground, pending a final settlement.

After the first exchange in 2001, however, China went back on its commitment, creating an impasse in the talks. Having broken its word, Beijing insisted that the two sides abandon years of laborious efforts to define the frontline and focus instead on finding an overall border settlement. That move clearly appeared to be a dilatory tactic intended to disguise its breach of promise.

If Beijing is not willing to take an elementary step of clarifying the frontline, why would it be willing to take far-bigger action to resolve the festering border problem through a package settlement? A final border settlement would be a complex process demanding not only a full resolution of the claims that involve large chunks of territory but also the demarcation of a clear-cut frontier.

The idea of a “package” settlement is not new. China began peddling that even before its 1962 invasion of India — as a red herring to divert attention from its aggressive designs. Since 1981, it has raised the same idea from time to time. But, to date, it has not once put forward a concrete proposal for consideration. If anything, the border talks have revealed that Beijing is not willing to settle on the basis of the status quo. This is manifest from its laughable claim to India’s Tawang region — as an extension of its annexation of Tibet.

Yet, during his 2003 Beijing visit, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought to propitiate China on two separate fronts: He formally recognized Tibet as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China,” completing the process of India sacrificing its northern buffer; and he gave in to the Chinese demand to switch the focus of the border talks from frontline clarification to the elusive search for a package settlement. His concession to the hosts not only stalled the process of clarifying the frontline but also has taken India back to square one — to discussing the “principles” and “basic framework” of a potential settlement.

The two negotiating teams are now engaged in giving meaning to and implementing the six abstract principles trumpeted as another “breakthrough” in April 2005 during the New Delhi visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The focus of the talks now, as admitted by both sides, is on applying the principles to devise a “basic framework” for negotiations. In other words, the two sides are still not close to actually discussing any package-settlement idea.

India needs to reflect on the wisdom of the course it has pursued. It not only rewarded Beijing in 2003 for an act of bad faith but also has played into its hands by switching from the practical task of clarifying the frontline to a conceptual enunciation of vacuous principles and a new framework for talks. A known strength of Chinese diplomacy is to discuss and lay out principles, and then interpret them to suit Beijing’s convenience, as India found out bitterly after signing the 1954 Panchsheel (Five Principles) agreement.

If New Delhi really believes in the maxim that good fences make good neighbors, it is time for it to draw the line, at least in the negotiations. But first it needs to re-evaluate the very utility of staying absorbed in a never-ending process that jibes well with Beijing’s India policy of engagement with containment.