Nice words no match for border dispute


HONG KONG — Forty-five years ago, China and India — the world’s two most populous countries — were at each other’s throats, fighting a bloody war along their common border. Ten years ago, when India conducted underground nuclear tests, its defense minister said the country needed to develop nuclear weapons to deter a possible China threat.

This month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited China and, on the surface at least, all was sweetness and light. It was the first visit by an Indian prime minister in five years and served to improve the atmospherics of a relationship that had been marked by an absence of trust for too long.

No major issues were resolved. The boundary dispute between the two countries remains intractable and it emerged at this visit that China and India have rather different approaches to the issue.

India took the position that areas with settled populations should be excluded from any exchange of territory. But China, which claims the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, made it clear that its primary interest is the town of Tawang, a pilgrimage site for Tibetans with a population of more than 20,000 people.

There was also little progress on two other issues: India’s desire for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council and cooperation on the development of nuclear energy for civilian purposes.

In a joint document signed by Singh and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, India “reiterates its aspirations for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.” While China indicated that it “understands and supports India’s aspirations,” there was no firm commitment to support Indian membership, although China created the impression that it was sympathetic to India’s position. In fact, it is likely that none of the current members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — are eager to share their veto power with new permanent members.

On nuclear cooperation, Singh proposed that India, which already has an agreement with the U.S. on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, should cooperate with China on the development of civilian nuclear energy. The problem is that India has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, under which signatories other than the five declared nuclear powers on the Security Council are granted access to civilian nuclear technology if they promise not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Although India has nuclear weapons, it is seeking an exception with the International Atomic Energy Agency under which it would be allowed to keep its nuclear weapons while placing civilian nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards.

In the statement signed by the two prime ministers, the two countries “pledge to promote bilateral cooperation in civil nuclear energy, consistent with their respective international commitments.” This suggests that China may be constrained in such cooperation as long as India does not get a waiver from the IAEA.

The biggest issue where China is concerned is whether India would join in a so-called coalition of democratic countries, proposed by Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and to include such countries as the U.S. and Australia. The unspoken idea behind such a grouping would be to contain the rise of China.

India has repeatedly, and publicly, declared that it would not play such a part. To allay Chinese concern, Singh emphasized India’s independent foreign policy, saying that this enables India to “pursue mutually beneficial cooperation with all major countries of the world.” He added, “There is enough space for both India and China to grow and prosper while strengthening our cooperative engagement.”

In fact, cooperation between China and India has also extended to the military sphere, with their troops holding their first joint exercise in Kunming, China, last month. Another exercise is scheduled to be held in India this year.

However, the Indian military has also held joint exercises with the U.S., and India is scheduled to join NATO forces in joint exercises soon. So while India insists that it will not take part in the containment of China, this is an option that New Delhi retains and Beijing no doubt is keenly aware of this. It is no coincidence that the joint statement declares: “The two sides are convinced it is time to look to the future in building a relationship of friendship and trust.”

Trust is of the essence and if the Singh visit helped to build trust it would have been worthwhile, even in the absence of concrete achievements. But, of course, nothing can replace accords on contentious issues such as the border dispute.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: