BY ZHANG JIADONG
Chinese and Indian special representatives reached important consensus on boundary issues during their 21st round of talks over the weekend. Both sides agreed to take measures to deepen trust while strengthening communication and coordination over border issues.
After 20 rounds of talks by generations of leaders, the meeting has become a part of routine diplomatic activity between the two neighbors. However, talks this year have attracted extraordinary attention built around weighty expectations, in that this is the first round after the unofficial meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Wuhan in April, as well as the first parleys after the inauguration of Wang Yi as the new Chinese special representative.
The 21st round of talks is considered a golden opportunity to observe China-India relations, especially policy changes over the territorial dispute, and an indication of how the bilateral spat will shape up in the next few years. The two sides took the view that relations were going in a positive direction.
Nevertheless, we should never expect too much from this round of talks. It is impossible to arrive at a solution to the border issue in the 21st meeting since it has been lingering during the past 20 rounds.
Many people have overlooked the fact that these are “talks” between the special representatives of the two countries, which are merely aimed at exchanging opinion, enhancing mutual trust and stabilizing the situation, instead of negotiations to solve disputes or seek solutions. Although both sides believe that settling border disputes as soon as possible is beneficial to relations and serves the core interests of both countries, the pursuit of stability in the disputed areas rather than closure remains the goal of both sides.
Uncertainty on the border dispute exists. The two countries are often trapped in a vicious circle. Once China-India relations deteriorate, China always takes positive measures including safeguarding national rights and interests. As a result, the two sides sit down to discuss how to improve bilateral relations and avoid the risk of armed conflict.
However, as soon as relations start looking up, India takes proactive measures to maximize its interests in the dispute. Eventually, this leads to a deterioration in ties and sets back the clock to be reset for improvement of relations. Over decades, relations between China and India with respect to the territorial dispute have hovered around such circumstances. Now, the China-India border dispute has an international dimension. The controversy used to be the most sensitive issue to hinder relations. If the neighbors could figure out a solution, it would fundamentally improve ties and play a significant role in developing bilateral ties .
But nowadays, as both countries become stronger, they have gradually walked out of the landscape of traditional diplomacy and put in more efforts in other regions and spheres. The competition and cooperation between them have already gone beyond land into maritime and other sectors, and have transcended the bilateral realm to reach the regional and international levels.
Although the border dispute may still be the most sensitive issue between China and India, its importance has reduced and it’s no longer the most important strategic problem. The strategic readjustments of the two countries are turning out to be more noteworthy, especially when India turns away from its non-alignment policy more rapidly and adjusts its relations with powers.
To sum up, resolving the territorial dispute is in the interests of both China and India. Beijing has already solved territorial disputes with 12 neighboring countries that share their borders with us and it can mend fences with India as well.
Nonetheless, China’s experience indicates that resolving border disputes is usually the result rather than the cause of improvement in relations. But India insists that its relations with China won’t improve fundamentally until the border dispute is resolved. The two countries’ different understanding of the order between trust and misgivings demonstrates their strategic divergence, which will keep lingering.
(The author is director of Center for South Asian Studies, Fudan University. [email protected])