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India-China: An Unresolved Border Dispute Strains Bilateral Ties
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent India visit will be remembered more for missed opportunities than for making any significant progress towards the resolution of the 52-year old border dispute.
The shadow of a militarized dispute in the Ladakh region (Beijing disputes a large portion of the area as part of India and claims it) of Jammu and Kashmir hovered over the visit. Instead of forging a developmental partnership between the world’s two most populous countries, the stand-off during the visit of China’s top leader enhanced suspicions and skepticism on the Indian side of the border.
The pro-China lobby will not fail to highlight the economic achievements attained during Xi’s visit such as the Chinese intentions to direct $20 billion of investment in India and the establishment of special industrial parks in two states, concessions to Indian pilgrims visiting Tibet and cooperation in infrastructure and other core sectors.
But, it cannot take away the fact that despite holding 17 rounds of border talks at the special representative level since the mdi-1990s, no tangible gains are in sight. The joint statement at the Xi-Modi summit meeting said it all with the two leaders just pledging to settle the boundary question at an early date in addition to sticking to usual Panchsheel rhetoric.
While the India-China border is calm as compared to Pakistan side of the Line of Control, the lack of border settlement implies both sides stick to their pre-1962 claims.
The dispute is over two separate territories: Aksai Chin which is on western sector of the border and Arunachal Pradesh on the eastern sector. In the west, both China and India lay claim to 38,000 square kilometres of snowy wastelands known as Aksai Chin. Each side has its own perception of the border here with a Line of Actual Control currently separating the territories controlled by India and China.
The recent and last year’s stand-off took place here. In the eastern sector, China claims about 90,000 square kilometers to the south of the McMahon Line (agreed to by Britain and Tibet in a secret deal in 1914 and not recognized by China) in what constitutes our Arunachal Pradesh. In policy-circles and academia, there is a broad consensus that resolution of border dispute will require land swap under which India can keep Arunachal while relinquishing claims over Aksai Chin. The latter is of strategic importance to China as it connects Xinjiang autonomous region.
Although both sides recently agreed on troop withdrawal, the prospect of another confrontation always remains. More significantly, there appears to be a pattern in Chinese provocations in recent months as most of them have come on the eve of high-profile visits.
Last year, a prolonged incident of border stand-off in Ladakh was resolved before Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Delhi. It was followed by another confrontation on the border ahead of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Beijing visit. The latest confrontation began before Xi arrived, eased only towards the end of his visit, and escalated further with a fresh round of incursion into contested territory within 48 hours of his departure.
If that was not enough, President Xi’s statement urging the People’s Liberation Army to “be ready to win a regional war” added to the overall anxiety and deteriorating regional security environment. The Indian media did not fail to project the view that the statement was specifically aimed at India. Add to the above Beijing’s policy of stapled visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh, or warning Indian private companies to not undertake oil exploration off the Vietnam coast and an open support to Pakistan.
These irritants enmeshed in the larger failure to address border dispute hobble and strain India-China economic ties. Days ahead of Xi’s arrival, the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai had told the reporters that Beijing will commit investments of over $100 billion in India (roughly thrice the amount rival Japan committed to India during Modi’s visit), but ultimately translated into $20 billion.
New Delhi also did not commit to Xi’s Maritime Silk Route due to security implications in the Indian Ocean region. There exists lot of untapped potential in bilateral trade ties. China already has become India’s largest trading partner with a $70 billion volume of trade between the two nations.
People to people contact have also reached 8, 20, 000 visit last year. The two countries have provided leadership to the developing world and proactively cooperated on issues of common interest like climate change, food and energy security.