China-India border talks back on ... but is this the road to resolution?
China’s representatives will travel to India for talks this month but they have a tough task to rebuild trust, observers warn
China and India will resume suspended border talks soon, with top Chinese diplomats set for their first fence-mending visits to India since the military stand-off near the desolate Himalayan frontier.
The trips by Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi – more than three months after the worst border row between the two countries in nearly three decades – showed that both Beijing and New Delhi intended to get ties back on track, observers said.
But they cautioned that it would take more than one or two visits to secure any tangible results and bridge the gaping deficit of trust between two Asian powers apparently destined for strategic competition and rivalry.
Wang will attend a trilateral meeting with his counterparts from India and Russia in Delhi on Monday to discuss “major international and regional issues of common interest and trilateral practical cooperation”.
The meeting, originally scheduled for earlier this year, is believed to have been postponed after China protested against the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama’s trip to Arunachal Pradesh in April.
Meanwhile, Yang would head to the Indian capital as a special envoy for border talks with Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval later in the month, Li Bijian, minister counsellor at the Chinese embassy in India, said earlier.
The boundary talks were last held in Beijing in April last year but suspended as frequent border patrol confrontations culminated in the 70-day military face-off along an unmarked border at the junction of Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan.
The resumption of the border talks is arguably of greater symbolic significance, according to observers, especially with tensions still running high along the 4,000km Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the disputed border between the two powers.
Sun Shihai, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the talks, which were initiated in 2003, had become an important channel for communication between top Chinese and Indian diplomats on a wide range of issues beyond the border dispute itself.
“Special envoys are representatives of top leaders and their face-to-face dialogue covering major bilateral and strategic issues can be more efficient and productive,” he said.
“China-India relations are at a low point and the resumption of such high-level communications is an important bid to rebuild trust and confidence as top leaders realise that neither country can afford confrontation or even clashes despite their decades-long border disputes, and divergent and often conflicting national interests.”
Although Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed at a meeting in September to advance bilateral ties and leave the Doklam row behind them, tensions continue to simmer along the border months after the disengagement of troops on the plateau, known as Donglang in Chinese.
Beijing was also uneasy about India’s plan to intensify surveillance and build as many as 50 more outposts and 25 roads near the border, including a 150km road in Uttarakhand in the central sector, which has largely remained peaceful over the years.
Shashi Asthana, a retired major general and chief instructor at Delhi-based think tank United Service Institution of India, said the Doklam stand-off and recent border frictions underlined the need to define and demarcate the LAC, which was technically doable.
“Unless it is done, troops on both sides will continue to patrol the area as per their own perception of the LAC, which clashes with the other’s perception, leading to claims and counterclaims of transgressions and, quite frequently, stand-offs,” he said.
Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives Society, an Indian think tank, said the three-way mechanism, initiated in 2002, had been largely dominated by bilateral issues between China and India, despite initial expectations from Delhi for it to become a powerful voice on the global stage.
Observers also said the visits of Wang and Yang to India were the first since Xi was confirmed as China’s strongest leader in decades and his pet trade and infrastructure plan, known as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, was enshrined in the Communist Party’s constitution.
Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said the two sides were unlikely to patch up their differences, but could begin the uphill battle to reduce tensions and mistrust.
“It is wishful thinking to expect any resolution so early, but what both sides can hope for is to stabilise the relationship, even if it is at a lower level,” she said.
Retired Chinese colonel Yue Gang said India had become more proactive in seeking security alignments with other regional powers, such as Japan and Singapore.
While India recently became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – a traditionally anti-Western grouping dominated by China – it has also sought closer security and military ties with the United States, Japan and Australia under a proposed quadrilateral coalition apparently targeting China.
US President Donald Trump’s recent efforts to elevate India’s role in his “Indo-Pacific” strategy, in an apparent bid to counter China’s rise, has also alarmed Beijing.
Yue said India recently signed a naval pact with Singapore to bolster maritime security cooperation and had stepped up efforts to contain China’s influence in smaller South Asian nations, such as Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
“The Donglang border row will have a lasting impact on the regional geopolitical landscape, with India upping the ante to act as a counterweight to balance China and promote its own international standing,” he said.
Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, said the military stand-off in Doklam “was not the first instance of border tensions between these two neighbours and we cannot rule out tensions in the future”.
There would continue to be competition and cooperation between India and China, as both were emerging regional powers with huge potential, he said.