China and India are set to meet for the 21st round of Border Talks on November 23-24, 2018 in China. The talks will be led by Special Representatives from China, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and from India, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, respectively. The last round of talks was held in December 2017 in the immediate aftermath of the 73-day standoff between the two militaries at Doklam that significantly changed the status quo between China and India at the disputed boundary.
With the Border Talks becoming a customary practice between the China and India, what makes the 21st round of talks significant is the changing dynamics in the international system, as witnessed from China’s heightened trade wars with United States and India championing a proactive role in the much-debated Indo-Pacific region. Most importantly, the talks are to be shaped in the backdrop of the “Wuhan Spirit” that adopted a strategic and long-term perspective in acknowledging the importance of maintaining peace and tranquility in all areas of the China-India border region. With these systemic forces at play, what China and India will bring to the table is the key point of enquiry. To note, in their past border talks, China and India have not been able to achieve any remarkable progress since 2005, when the two countries signed the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, which has rather transformed itself into a long-term boundary predicament. The pertinent query is: Will the 21st round of Border Talks make any significant difference?
In broad terms, the issue of the unresolved boundary remains the most prominent factor that hinders the constructive building of relations between China and India, and more specifically, to the security relations between the two countries. It is the territorial issue that acts as the key destabilizing factor — a “trigger point” that can offset the balance at any time, if unchecked. What significantly adds to this is the lack of consensus between the two parties along the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC), making the territory the core interest that restricts any form of compromise. This was well-witnessed in the event of the Doklam stand-off, that has further brought to surface that concessions and negotiations are not an option on either side. In this context, unlike China and Japan, there is no fundamental interest of conflict between China and India. However, the biggest dilemma exists in the idea of a “way forward” — characterized as the persistent predicament. The interesting aspect to this predicament is that on one hand, both China and India have increasingly posited a non-compromising attitude to their sovereignty claims; on the other hand, the two countries have also mutually demonstrated that “peace” along the border is the essential condition that lays the foundation of consultation. That is, given “maintaining peace and tranquility at the border” has been a constant rhetoric, but this has been tested given the episodes of incursions. However, the promising factor to note is that the border has also managed to remain relatively stable and peaceful over the decades since the 1962 War, with Doklam being just a temporary offset.
The Talks also come in the backdrop of Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe’s landmark visit to India in August 2018 during which talks specifically emphasized the need to strengthen “defense confidence building measures” between the two countries.
What contributes to this “dilemma”? At the core is the issue of “strategic distrust” that has significantly widened the perception gap between China and India. In this process, the resolution of the boundary problem has been significantly affected in a three-fold perspective: first, the power disparity and the simultaneous rise of the two countries has contributed to perceiving the other’s actions and intentions as negative and threatening. Second, the vestiges of the past driven from the divergent narratives of the 1962 War has shaped the “victim-victor complex,” thus adding to the misinterpretation of each-other’s intentions. And third, the strong pessimism on either side towards the resolution has made the border a “stalemate” in China-India relations.
In this matrix, the Border Talks in addition to border personnel meetings, flag meetings, and meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs have provided a dialogue mechanism to quell the unwarranted risks. Although the 20 rounds of Talks have failed to make any significant breakthrough, they have simultaneously kept the channels of communication open between two countries. This has helped to ease the tensions, more in terms of conflict management rather than that of conflict resolution.
In specific terms, the implications of the border talks as noted can be said that though the talks since 2003 have not led to any remarkable outcomes, yet they have succeeded in making some progress in the boundary settlement process, albeit at a very slow pace. China and India have crossed the first stage where both have reached the agreement to settle the boundary question. The second stage, which has been on building the “framework for resolution of the boundary question,” has been evolving for the past eight years. Only after drawing the “framework” will the two sides be able to proceed to the third stage of the talks that entails “demarcation on maps of any framework agreement and a delineation on the ground”.
The context that provides the impetus to the 21st round of border talks is the consensus reached between China and India at the Wuhan Summit. First, both sides issued a “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs”. And second, the two sides also “directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides, including the principle of mutual and equal security, and strengthen existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanisms to prevent incidents in border regions”. Furthermore, the two militaries agreed on facilitating the long pending proposal of setting up a hotline, first suggested by the 2013 Border Defense Cooperation Agreement, between their respective headquarters. The Talks also come in the backdrop of Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe’s landmark visit to India in August 2018 during which talks specifically emphasized the need to strengthen “defense confidence building measures” between the two countries. The suggestions outlined setting up an exchange mechanism for visits between the two defense ministries, a direct confidential phone line between the two defense ministries and, strengthening exchanges at all levels including defense authorities, theater commands and different services.
Given there is no quick fix solution to China and India’s boundary problem, the damage settlement mechanism in terms of border talks has added a new dimension to the fractured ties. That is, not much concrete results have been reached so far, but the procedural meetings have acted more like a course correction measure to keep the “checks and balances” in place. With the 21st round of Border Talks in process, the aim for both China and India should entail breaking the old patterns and reaching a formidable outcome. Rather than just becoming another rhetorical event, this time the talks do hold importance in taking some strides ahead. If not a way forward, both sides should reach a concrete agreement in adopting guidelines that will help provide a code of conduct in times of crisis.