China-India border dispute

Will BRICS summit stoke behind-the-scenes talks on China-India border dispute?

Next month’s meetings may offer a chance for low-profile get-together between leaders of China and India amid row over a Himalayan region

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 2017, 8:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2017, 9:34pm

The leaders of China and India are expected to meet on the sidelines of an emerging markets summit next month, but simmering border tensions mean the talks will be low key, observers say.

The BRICS summit – involving leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – in the coastal Chinese city of Xiamen from September 3-5 could give President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a chance for some behind-the-scenes interaction amid the two countries’ bitter dispute over the Doklam region in the Himalayas.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, an aide to former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said he expected Modi to take part in the summit despite speculation that lower-ranking officials would be sent instead. Modi’s absence would send a negative signal to the three other BRICS members, he said.

“Moreover, Modi going to Xiamen will give both him and Chinese President Xi Jinping a much-needed opportunity to have a one-on-one discussion on the border issue, on the sidelines of the main summit,” he said.

Manoranjan Mohanty, former chairman of the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, agreed that Modi would probably attend the summit. “Scaling down representation will show that India will leave it to China to shape the BRICS agenda,” he said.

But Mohanty said that even if the leaders met, it might not result in any major progress or agreement in the border dispute.

“[Both] sides are likely to underplay the talks in view of their respective government’s strong public postures,” he said.

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China and India have locked horns in the Doklam region for more than two months and tensions have flared further west in a disputed part of Ladakh where Chinese and Indian soldiers hurled stones at each other. On Thursday, the foreign ministry slammed India over its plans to build a road in Ladakh.

Zhang Guihong, an international studies professor specialising in South Asian affairs at Fudan University, said talks between Modi and Xi were possible despite the border tensions.

“But the premise would be that the bilateral talks would not involve the border issue. China has been very clear and firm about its position: India must first withdraw its troops, then there can be bilateral negotiations,” Zhang said.

China and India are already at odds over a range of issues from China’s blockade of India’s membership bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group and India’s objection to the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. They are also likely to continue to be divided over ways to combat terrorism. One particular bone of contention is whether to put more pressure on Pakistan – India and Western nations have accused of Islamabad of harbouring terrorist groups but China has praised Pakistan for its “important contribution” to counterterrorism efforts.

Observers said the protracted conflict between the two major Asian economies could further test the relevance of the BRICS grouping, despite China’s attempts to make this year’s summit the start of the bloc’s “second golden decade”.

“China and India have been tipped to be the leaders of the Asian century,” said Zhu Jiejin, a specialist in Chinese multilateral diplomacy at Fudan University. “BRICS has been a major platform for developing economies to explore their own ways of development and to bring reform to the existing global order.

“But the border dispute has presented a major challenge to China and India, and it remains to be seen whether the two countries’ leaders have the foresight and wisdom to transcend their bilateral problems and focus on further developing their market potential.”

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Wang Dehua, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Russia, another key member of the group with close ties to both China and India, could play a role in mediating the conflict between the two countries.

India had “looked at Moscow in the past six months to convince Beijing to shed its antagonistic approach towards India” and held talks with Moscow ahead of the BRICS summit, The Times of India reported.

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng