China-India border dispute

With Doklam tensions eased, China and India can build dialogue and focus on diplomacy

Sun Xi and Faisal Ahmed say a full-scale border war was never a real threat, as both countries have more reasons to cooperate than engage in conflict, and Xi and Modi should leverage their friendship at the BRICS summit in Xiamen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 11:55am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 11:55am

The recent “expeditious disengagement” of troops at Doklam plateau has created enough space for Sino-Indian political engagement in the near future.

From China’s perspective, the dispute was caused by Indian troops trespassing into Chinese territory. Therefore, Beijing took the view that India should unconditionally withdraw its troops as a prerequisite, and then bring the matter to the table.

India’s perspective, on the other hand, was that road construction by China had changed the status quo in the area and posed a potential security threat to India’s strategically located strip of land called the “chicken’s neck”, or Siliguri Corridor, which links to its northeastern states. So, New Delhi took the view that China must abstain from construction activities in the area.

Over the past couple of months, both countries have accused each other of violating some or other treaty and the provisions thereof. They have even reminded each other of their defence preparedness since the 1962 war, as the two sides glowered at each other across the border. The stand-off also aroused public sentiments and fierce media debates in both countries.

Yet, the way the scenario has unfolded, it is clear that the two countries do not want war but rapprochement, and there are reasons to substantiate it.

First, “development” is the most important policy priority for the governments of the two countries, but rudimentary socio-economic challenges and supply-side constraints remain. As major emerging economies, accounting for bilateral trade of more than US$70 billion, China and India need a peaceful environment to coexist and enhance their global competitiveness.

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With a combined economic size of US$13.5 trillion, the two countries have much to do for the welfare of their people who together make up 2.7 billion of the world’s population. Beijing has been advocating its long-standing “peaceful development” strategy, while New Delhi has been emphasising universal brotherhood and the making of a “new India”.

Also, on the domestic political front for China, the 19th Communist Party congress is due to be held soon. So, ensuring stability will be a top concern in the short run.

By contrast, in India, the present government enjoys enough political strength and has sufficient time and mandate to fulfil its public policy obligations. So, political stability is not a cause for concern at this time. But a war would have been extremely challenging for both sides, given the harsh mountainous terrain, the approaching winter, and other domestic compulsions.

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Secondly, both sides would rather abstain from the use of force or any instrument of “coercive” diplomacy in managing bilateral relations. Use of coercion would simply give external forces opportunities to become stakeholders in the issue and exploit the situation. That would be strategically unfortunate for both, and also for Bhutan.

The Asian century is really coming, and both countries have a responsibility to lead it together

And lastly, India and China have more reasons to cooperate than to engage in a conflict. Only when the two cooperate can regional security, stability and prosperity be ensured.

The Asian century is really coming, and both countries have a responsibility to lead it together, through mutual trust and diplomatic engagements. For the global good, climate change and many other global challenges can only be solved when the two nations decide to walk hand in hand.

It is high time that besides formal diplomatic channels, fresh Track II dialogue be opened up soon to further ease political tension, and pave the way for a peaceful resolution of Sino-Indian border disputes. This is pertinent because, even though the two countries may be unwilling to start a border war, minor confrontations are possible if they cannot prevent such stand-offs in the future. Using soft power can help create closer socio-economic links and a win-win situation.

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The BRICS summit will be held in the Chinese city of Xiamen next week. In the rapidly evolving geopolitical context, the participation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and any reference he makes to the tri-junction will garner regional and international attention. This summit will thus be an opportunity for both sides to engage, move ahead with a positive frame of mind and initiate a road map to resolve such contentious issues.

We hope President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi will leverage their friendship to further bring about a rapprochement. Not to forget that on the sidelines of the recent G20 summit in Hamburg, both leaders praised the momentum within the BRICS bloc under each other’s chairmanship.

Sun Xi is a China-born independent commentator based in Singapore. Dr Faisal Ahmed is an associate professor at the FORE School of Management, New Delhi, India