Diplomacy the only path in China-India border dispute

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray says diplomacy is the only way for China and India to solve territory issue

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 2:57am

The recent dramatic escalation in the age-old border dispute between India and China highlighted a recurring fragility in a relationship on which Asia's future stability hinges. The speed with which tensions were eased is, however, pregnant with possibilities, for it indicates that diplomacy at the highest levels can find lasting solutions to inherited differences.

Trade, which has grown to around US$70 billion, is the most powerful sinew that entwines the two Asian giants. Though imbalanced in China's favour, it is something neither country can do without. Nor can either afford to let trade be hostage to the instability generated by an undemarcated border.

The sector of the Siachen glacier where the Chinese had encamped is Daulat Beg Oldi, which is under Indian control. China lies to the north. On the west is the Line of Control with Pakistan, which does not extend quite up to the border with China. Matters are complicated by Chinese-controlled but Indian-claimed Aksai Chin, southeast of Daulat Beg Oldi.

The delineation of the Line of Control leaves much to the imagination. In practice, Indians and Chinese regularly traverse territories that both claim. That equilibrium was overturned by the PLA setting up camp in Daulat Beg Oldi.

New Delhi also seems to know the PLA feels obliged to indulge in a bit of sabre-rattling. The message is: there might be a new guard, but the border remains an entrenched issue.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's commitment is to a negotiated compromise. That explains why he never accused President Xi Jinping of aggressive conduct. Singh also had reason to believe China's civilian leadership does not want a military solution; when they met recently in Durban, Xi assured Singh he wanted a "fair, rational solution", to the border dispute.

Unfortunately, as Chinese diplomats noted, Singh's restraint is not appreciated by India's vociferous media or opportunistic opposition politicians. To prevent them hijacking disputes, the border must be demarcated so that borderlands are not open to varying perceptions of ownership.

With national elections next year, India's vibrant democracy allows competing groups to use the China bogey to pursue a range of political agendas that have little to do with the threat, actual or perceived.

Singh's approach to the latest crisis belies the claim that actions speak louder than words. The manner in which tensions were eased also reiterates that a diplomatic answer is the only feasible solution to the border issue.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a director in the Mumbai office of the global risk consultancy, Kroll Advisory Solutions. The views expressed here are personal