China–India border dispute: when Xi comes calling, will Modi be ready?   

Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

When President Xi Jinping arrives in the Indian capital next week, he will become the first leader of a major power to pay a state visit in the Narendra Modi era. It is rare for a Chinese head of state to visit India this early in his tenure. It took Jiang Zemin seven years and Hu Jintao four years to pay their solitary visits to New Delhi.

President Xi’s early arrival attests to the forward progress in Sino–Indian relations since late 2009. There has been no territorial nibbling by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel in the disputed belt along their Himalayan frontier in the past five years — though numerous cases of ‘transgression’ have been reported. Territory is no longer utilised as an expedient pressure point by Beijing to signal disaffection; for the most part it is seen rather as a land bridge to restore the spirit of good neighbourliness in ties with India.

The extent to which China and India have of late couched their diplomatic engagements in the vocabulary and practices of an earlier age of Asian connectivity and cosmopolitanism is revealing too. In 2010, an Indian-style Buddhist temple was dedicated by the Indian president to the city of Luoyang, a key terminus on the tea, horse and Buddhist items trading circuit that had bound China, Tibet, India and the nomadic Inner Asian empires together.

In October 2013, President Xi unveiled his signature ‘new silk road’ corridors initiative at a rare Party work forum on periphery diplomacy. India was integral to these belts of contact and commerce and the formalisation of sub-regional economic corridors is expected to be a key takeaway from Xi’s New Delhi visit.

This June, China and India along with Myanmar commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel) which derive from their overlapping traditions of political morality and ethical universalism. A geo-political order that is keyed to regional tradition and historical circumstance might yet furnish a doctrine of legitimacy that complements the balance of power in the Asian Century.

China and India must first conclusively resolve their long-festering Himalayan boundary dispute if they are to translate their respective trans-Himalayan principles of harmony and unity into a workable model of conflict resolution for others in Asia and the world.

Six years after the Five Principles was codified in treaty form, Myanmar resolved its boundary dispute with China, which had been ‘left over from history’. Eight years after the Five Principles’ codification, India by contrast spurned a similar package offer of settlement and fought a losing border war with China.

India must de-anchor its strategic vision as well as its inflexible negotiating stance on the eastern sector boundary from the painful legacy of the 1962 war.

New Delhi insists to this day that the Anglo-Tibetan understanding on the alignment of the boundary — the McMahon Line — that emerged from a convention in Simla in 1914 is immutable (though the line can be fine-tuned on the ground). The boundary was known at the time to the Chinese side and not expressly objected to, and in any case the Tibetan authorities had the right to sign boundary treaties ‘during the 300 years prior to 1950 … whatever [sovereignty-related] status [it] had enjoyed’. So China is duty-bound to honour that commitment.

But both arguments are flawed. The international boundary question was never put forward to a tripartite discussion at the convention’s plenary session; hence the Chinese envoy had no means to formally record an objection. Tibet, or any other local authority, was not empowered to conduct boundary negotiations and the notes appended to the 1914 convention affirmed that Tibet was a part of China. Both London and Beijing had repudiated the Simla understandings before the ink was dry.

Successive Indian prime ministers across party lines have incrementally retracted New Delhi’s maximalist Sino–Indian boundary claims — although primarily in the western sector. In 2003, the previous BJP government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee junked two decades of Congress government-led negotiating strategy that had marked time in technical-legalistic preliminaries and vowed to resolve the dispute on the basis of forward-looking political and strategic imperatives. Within two years, principles-based parameters to guide a settlement were agreed upon. When Xi Jinping arrives in New Delhi, Narendra Modi should go one step further and acknowledge that the eastern sector boundary has never been formally demarcated and its alignment is hence in dispute.

Make no mistake — with India having signed on in principle to a package deal after four decades of hesitation, the onus is broadly on China to guide the negotiations towards a successful, status quo-based closure. President Xi will likely want to fully size-up the strategic orientation of the new government in Delhi before committing China to a permanent resolution of the dispute. By admitting that the business transacted at Simla a century ago was not as sacrosanct as many Indians have been led to believe, Modi can signal that India stands willing — and politically able — to fashion a creative boundary package that is shorn of the baggage of its colonial past.

New Delhi may pleasantly find that in making this gutsy call, the watershed principle and the due interests of the settled population in the boundary areas are settled to its advantage during Xi and Modi’s terms of office.

Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc.

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