A Day before Border Talks, India Snubs China

India’s National Security Advisor M K Narayanan and China’s Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo, special representatives of the two governments, will hold the 13th round of border talks between the two countries at New Delhi on August 7-8, 2009. The territorial and boundary dispute between India and China is over half a century old and the two nations fought a border war over it in 1962. The present round of talks is being held in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion after a year’s gap. 
At the strategic level, the India-China relationship has improved considerably in recent times. Peace and tranquillity have been maintained on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The last incident that resulted in firing and casualties happened in 1967 when there was a border skirmish at Nathu La pass in Sikkim. The two countries have cooperated well in the international arena by forging common positions in the WTO and climate change negotiations, but are yet to reach substantive agreement on the issue of energy security. Bilateral trade, mainly comprising Chinese finished products being exported to India and Indian iron ore being imported by China, crossed US$ 50 billion during the year 2008-09. China is now India’s second-largest trading partner after the United States. People-to-people contacts have grown steadily over the last decade.
However, mutual suspicion bordering on hostility still marks the relationship at the tactical level. China had vehemently opposed the grant of an NSG waiver to India for the transfer of nuclear power and uranium enrichment technology. It still refuses to accept India as a nuclear-armed state and does not discuss nuclear confidence building and risk reduction measures with India. China continues to make frequent claims to the Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state of approximately 96,000 sq km claimed by China as its territory.
Chinese state-controlled media have launched vituperative attacks against India this year for its ‘aggressive’ policies. An article in the Global Times on June 12, 2009, accused India of deploying 60,000 additional troops on the border – a patently false claim – and was rather dismissive of India’s aspirations for global power status. It went on to issue a stern warning: "India needs to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China."
A month earlier the Chinese government had arm twisted India by refusing to give its consent to the US$ 2.9-billion India development plan pending clearance at the Asian Development Bank unless the mention of Arunachal Pradesh was removed from the document. The Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, cleared a US$ 80 million irrigation project in Arunachal Pradesh on August 6, 2009, one day before the 13th round of border talks. It is a direct snub to China and a clear message that India considers Arunachal Pradesh an integral part of the country and China's objections to Arunachal’s development will not be accepted.
As the LAC has not been physically demarcated on the ground and military maps, patrol face-offs are commonplace. The Indian press carries frequent reports of intrusions across the LAC and the issue has been raised in Parliament. It is possible that a patrol face-off in future may lead to a firing incident that spins out of control. Hence, a local border war cannot be completely ruled out, even though the probability is low. As the military gap between India and China is growing steadily, early resolution of the territorial and boundary dispute is important from India’s point of view. China’s view is that it is a problem that has been left over from history and the two sides should leave it for future generations to resolve.
Not much progress has been made over the preceding 12 rounds of border talks between the two countries. In fact, due to continuing Chinese intransigence, it has not been possible to even exchange marked military maps showing the perception of the two sides about where the LAC runs, without prejudice to their respective claims on the territorial dispute. Marked maps have been exchanged only in respect of the relatively less contentious Middle Sector along the borders of the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Marked maps showing the LAC are yet to be exchanged for the McMahon Line in the Eastern Sector (Arunachal Pradesh) and the Western Sector (Ladakh-Aksai Chin) in which China is in physical occupation of 38,000 sq km of territory claimed by India. Only after marked maps are exchanged can discussions take place to resolve the differences in these sectors. 
During the border talks in 2005, the two governments had signed an agreement titled "Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary Question". Among other major issues, this agreement stipulates that the two sides must "safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas." One year later and a week before President Hu Jintao’s November 2006 visit to India, Sun Yuxi, China’s ambassador in New Delhi, claimed that the “whole of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory.” Since then, various Chinese spokespersons and the official media have staked a claim to Tawang, a monastery town close to the border with Tibet, on the specious plea that a former Dalai Lama was born there. This claim violates the principle of safeguarding the interests of “settled populations” and has completely stalled further progress in the border talks. 
Consequently, the two sides failed to issue a substantive joint statement on the conclusion of the 12th round of talks. The statement issued said rather blandly that the talks were “pragmatic, candid and friendly." Not much can therefore be expected from the current round of talks, especially because these are being held in a vitiated atmosphere. This is worrying because in a world that has become so interdependent, failure to resolve territorial and boundary disputes can have catastrophic consequences.
Gurmeet Kanwal is the Director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), a New Delhi based think-tank.