India and China have taken a significant step towards settling the border dispute by agreeing to complete the delineation of the Line of Actual Control within a reasonable time-frame.
THE trend towards normalisation of India-China relations was in a way symbolised by the fact that Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh chose to go to Beijing on the inaugural China Eastern Airline flight connecting New Delhi and Beijing, in the last week of March. India has moved rapidly to repair the relationship which was adversely affected by certain diplomatic maneouvres by some of its leaders after it went officially nuclear in May 1998. China had cancelled the 1998 Sino-Indian Joint Working Group meeting in Beijing in order to express its strong disapproval of India's nuclear tests and what it saw as unjustified accusations by some Indian leaders.
Jaswant Singh's visit to China in 1999 put bilateral ties back on track. That visit was followed by high-level visits to India from the Chinese side. High-profile Chinese visitors in the last two years included Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress Li Peng and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. President K.R. Narayanan was in China two years ago. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is scheduled to visit China at the end of this year. Senior Indian Ministers who are known for their antipathy towards Beijing have exercised a lot of discretion in their public utterances in recent times. In fact, Defence Minister George Fernandes, who is one of them, is expected to visit China later in the year.
Jaswant Singh's visit to China comes soon after the Chinese Premier's successful trip to India in January. During his visit, Zhu emphasised that the common interests of India and China far outweighed their differences. Zhu also said that the two countries did not constitute a threat to each other. During Zhu's visit, the Chinese side reiterated that the border dispute between the two countries could be settled through "mutual understanding, mutual accommodation and mutual adjustment".
A significant step towards settling the border dispute was taken during Jaswant Singh's latest visit to Beijing. Both countries agreed to complete the delineation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) within a reasonable time-frame. Jaswant Singh said that the accelerated schedule of talks on the LAC "is something India has not been able to achieve for the last fifty years".
Both sides have exchanged maps on the middle sector. In Beijing, Jaswant Singh also announced that maps relating to the western sector would be exchanged in June. Both countries hope to conclude the process of clarification of the western sector by the end of this year. Maps relating to the eastern sector will be exchanged early next year. According to Jaswant Singh, once the exchange of maps is complete, there will be "very little scope for confusion" and the process of delineation will begin. This, according to the Minister, will help both sides reach a settlement of the dispute.
India and China share one of the longest undemarcated borders in the world, and the dispute involves over 125,000 sq km in the three sectors. The border dispute was the source of the military confrontation between the two countries in 1962. There have been several clashes since then, the most serious being the standoff at Sumdorong Chu in the eastern sector in 1986-87. But the border has been generally peaceful since the 1962 war as neither side has any immediate concern about the other's military intentions. Over the years India has been redeploying its troops away from the LAC. There has been similar force reduction on the other side too. The Chinese authorities have indicated that there are around 240,000 Indian troops and 40,000 Chinese troops deployed along the border.
Although Jaswant Singh told newspersons in Beijing that the Indian government's efforts in the last four years to mend relations with China had begun to bear fruit, resolving the border dispute will not be an easy task. In the western sector, the dispute centres around an area of 33,000 sq km on the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh. The matter is further complicated as Pakistan ceded 5,000 sq km of the disputed area to China in 1963. In the eastern sector China continues to dispute India's claims over 90,000 sq km of territory south of the McMahon Line. If any meaningful progress is to be made, to begin with Parliament has to make the necessary amendments to the resolution that was unanimously adopted following the 1962 war "binding the government to obtain the return of every inch of India's sacred soil claimed or taken by China".
Jaswant Singh described the talks he had with the Chinese leadership in Beijing as "productive and substantive". Besides holding discussions with his counterpart, Tang Jiaxuan, the Indian External Affairs Minister also met Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice-Premier Qian Qichen. Qian is in charge of Foreign Affairs in the Chinese Communist Party's (CPC) Polit Bureau. Jaswant Singh also conferred with Dai Bingguo, head of the International Liaison Bureau of the CPC. The "substantive agreements" included the decision to hold the first ever official talks between the two countries on ways to combat terrorism, which Jaswant Singh said would be held in April.
After September 11, the Chinese government has also jumped on to the international anti-terrorism bandwagon. Chinese officials now allege that the Uighur separatists, who are fighting for an independent East Turkestan state, were being helped by the Taliban and the Al Qaeda.
India and China have also re-emphasised their determination to increase bilateral trade substantially. Both countries have the potential to become the world's largest markets and the prospects of economic and trade cooperation between them are vast. During Premier Zhu's visit to India earlier in the year, both sides had signed agreements on cooperation in tourism and Memoranda of Understanding on cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space, on China providing hydrological information to India and on cooperation in the field of science and technology. During Zhu's visit, business contracts worth more than $100 million were signed. But the volume of trade between the two countries is only around $3 billion annually. The Chinese are of the opinion that bilateral trade can increase to $10 billion annually in the next couple of years if both sides make an effort.
However, according to some Chinese sources, the Indian bureaucracy is creating bottlenecks. Chinese entrepreneurs and professionals who wish to work in India are given only one-year visas. Apparently, in many instances the visas are not extended. This is one of the factors that made some Chinese companies close shop in India in recent months.
After his meeting with the Chinese Premier, Jaswant Singh said that a framework had been put in place for a comprehensive dialogue on all issues. He said that there were encouraging signs of a qualitative change taking place in bilateral relations and that the only other countries with which India had such a broad-based dialogue architecture are the United States and Russia.
But beneath the apparent bonhomie there are lurking suspicions on both sides. New Delhi is not happy with what it perceives as Chinese help to Pakistan's nuclear and missile build-up. Beijing on its part has always insisted that it has not broken any international agreements and that all its military dealings with Islamabad are above board.
Beijing, on the other hand, is keenly watching the growing strategic relationship between New Delhi and Washington. American Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill said in a recent speech that India and the U.S. should together prepare to face the enemy "beyond the third mountain range". Blackwill is identified with the hawks in the current Republican administration, like Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, who are advocates of a strong anti-China policy. Beijing is keenly observing the mellowing of Washington towards New Delhi, especially on issues relating to nuclear proliferation.
After Pokhran, Washington and Beijing acted in tandem to pressure New Delhi to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Today, with Washington's priorities having changed, Beijing finds itself out on a limb on the issue. There seems to be a school of thought in China that now feels that Beijing was wrong to team up with Washington to take the lead in condemning New Delhi for the 1998 nuclear tests. There is an unstated suspicion that the U.S. is building India up as a counterweight to China as part of its overall long-term containment strategy. The "Tibet" factor continues to be an irritant in bilateral relations. The Chinese side feels that New Delhi is still encouraging the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan separatist movement. Some Chinese analysts also feel that India still views Tibet as a buffer zone between itself and China.