India, China expected to reach deal to ease tension along disputed border

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 4:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 4:47am

A new border management deal is expected to be on the table when Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh arrives in Beijing today - but both sides are keeping their hands close to their chests.

Singh's talks with state leaders are also expected to yield new trade agreements, as India seeks Chinese investment in infrastructure and greater market access for its products as it strives to reduce a ballooning trade deficit with its largest trading partner.

The new Border Defence Co-operation Agreement is expected to give the military a greater role in sorting out tension on the ill-defined Himalayan border, said Dr Jagannath Panda, a China expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

Chinese and Indian soldiers faced off for three weeks in April and May in the Depsang Valley. Soldiers on both sides claimed to be on the correct side of the Line of Actual Control, the de facto boundary in the high ice used by the two sides in the absence of a border agreement. The standard practice in such circumstances has been for local commanders to hold flag meetings, before alerting the political leadership and diplomatic corps.

Under the new agreement, Panda says, local disputes will be taken to higher levels of the military before civilian authorities are brought in.

Du Youkang, director of South Asian Studies at Fudan University, expects an agreement focusing on the mechanism for communication between officials in the event of such flare-ups. "The new agreement will provide better clarity on what military commanders should do when incidents like Depsang occur."

The agreement is also expected to create a more transparent mechanism for the two sides to inform each other of when they are carrying out patrols in order to reduce the possibility for misunderstanding, expert say, something China has long sought.

According to Zorawar Daulet Singh of New Delhi's Centre for Policy Alternatives, the new deal will bring all earlier border agreements under one framework to eliminate confusion.

"Managing the border is a technical problem and the idea is to get it right until such time that we solve the dispute … which is a political problem and will take decades to settle," Singh said.

"The border dispute will still linger on," agreed Wang Dehua, a South Asian studies specialist at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. "But a pact is likely to be reached to keep the border calm."

Wang also expects China to call on India to simplify visa applications for Chinese visitors, a longstanding complaint of Chinese businesspeople and their Indian partners.

Singh's visit comes as India's once sizzling economic growth rate shrinks below five per cent and foreign investors pull back. The rupee has depreciated by about 15 per cent this year. In the financial year to March, India's exports to China fell 25 per cent year on year to US$13.6 billion, while imports fell 4.5 per cent to US$52.24 billion, leaving a huge US$38.66 billion trade deficit.