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On the right track

Print edition : Nov 04, 2005 T+T-

The talks at the level of Special Representatives and the meeting of the Joint Working Group suggest that the engagement with China is progressing in the right direction.

P.S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

"CHINA and India are not competitors. We are friends." Such a robust view of the state of play on the bilateral front was articulated by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at a media conference in Beijing in March, several weeks ahead of his significant visit to India.

Does the assessment, seen by some critics as a romanticised view of the "uneven ground reality", hold good even now? In the prime focus of these sceptics, mostly Western diplomats and some Indian observers, India, though acting in association with Japan and two other counties, has so far failed to secure China's support for its bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Important, in this context, is India's own often positive assessment of its overall equation with China in the present circumstances. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who met Wen Jiabao in Beijing on September 8 shortly before the recent U.N. summit, noted that the Chinese leader expressed his belief that the two countries "are on the same wavelength".

Shivraj Patil met Wen Jiabao after signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Chinese State Councillor and Minister for Public Security Zhou Yongkang to combat terrorism and maintain security, and enforce law and order along the border. Shivraj Patil did not ask Wen Jiabao about his views on India's credentials for a status equivalent to that of China in the Security Council.

However, it was important that the Home Minister described as a "very warm" experience the meeting that he and the Indian delegation held with the Chinese leader. Wen Jiabao spoke of the China-India relationship as a factor in the maintenance of global peace and tranquillity.

It was against this backdrop, not clouded by New Delhi's disappointment at the U.N. in mid-September, that the Special Representatives of India and China met in Beijing from September 26 to 28. The formal talks between India's National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo - the sixth round in this high-level series since 2003 - took place in "a friendly, cooperative and constructive atmosphere".

The meeting, originally planned for September 26 and 27, continued into a third day of formal sessions. While this in itself was seen as a noteworthy development, the two sides were in agreement in their independent but positive assessments, the political ambience of the parleys.

The extended discussions led to some speculation about the going actually getting tough. However, given the agreement between the two sides ab initio to preserve the privileged confidentiality of the process, it is futile to speculate on the progress at this stage. With the two sides deciding to hold the next round in New Delhi, there was no scope for a Cassandra to spoil the show.

Measured as a process, the Special Representatives have something to show for their efforts. They have now begun the "second phase of negotiations" under their big-picture mandate of exploring "the framework of a boundary settlement" by addressing the issues from the "political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship". The "second phase" has been defined as talks with the explicit "mandate to work out an agreed framework for a boundary settlement" itself. The basis for both the talks and the framework for a solution is the existing "Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of India-China Boundary Question".

This agreement for parleys between the Special Representatives was signed in New Delhi on April 11, during Wen Jiabao's visit. The two sides now took note of the "sound groundwork" that had been done in the form of the agreement. And they undertook a "conscientious exploration" of the framework for an eventual boundary settlement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on September 28.

The Chinese view was that the "sound momentum" of the ongoing evolution of a "strategic and cooperative partnership" between the two countries had provided "favourable conditions" now, more than ever before, for shaping a final settlement of an issue "left over from history". The complicated diplomatic language may go above the heads of those unfamiliar with the complexities of the China-India border dispute. But the fact remains that the two sides have now begun to exert efforts, from the all-important political perspective, to fashion a framework that could then serve as a settlement or lead to a solution.

"Respect for history" is among the factors prescribed by Wen Jiabao as the basis for a settlement. He has called for "equal consultation, mutual understanding and mutual accommodation, respect for history and mutual accommodation of reality".

ON a different but related plane, the process undertaken by the Special Representatives should not be confused with the Joint Working Group (JWG) that also deals with the China-India boundary dispute. The mandate for the Special Representatives flows from an accord reached by the Prime Ministers of the two countries in June 2003. The JWG was constituted following Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's path-breaking visit to China in 1988.

In a broad sweep of functions, the JWG deals with such issues as the clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along the China-India border and confidence-building measures for the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC. The JWG held its 15th round of talks in Beijing towards the end of March. The heads of the delegations - Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei - expressed satisfaction over the resumption of the process after a hiatus of about two and a half years.

It is understood that no maps were exchanged during the three sessions of the JWG. While the exchange of maps is a sensitive aspect of the process, the importance of the bilateral agreements of 1993 and 1996 for the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC was reaffirmed during the meeting.

The interplay between the JWG and the Special Representatives may become important as the process to evolve a boundary settlement gathers momentum. However, there is no authoritative indication from either side at this point about the possibilities on this front.

Equally relevant to the current search for an China-India boundary settlement is the political impact of the intensity of bilateral exchanges at various echelons. In March, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and his Chinese counterpart Du Qinglin held talks in Beijing and agreed to "revitalise" cooperation in the farm sector.

In July, Union Commerce Minister Kamal Nath and his Chinese counterpart Bo Xilai met in Dalian (China) on the margins of a multilateral meeting and agreed that the two countries should oppose the ongoing moves by the developed countries to divide developing countries on trade and other economic issues.

China agreed in March to share with India key "hydrological data" on the Sutlej river during the flood season. This was of particular interest to New Delhi, which was at one stage worried about the possibility of flooding in some parts of India from across Tibet.

In yet another domain, Chief of the Army Staff General N.C. Vij paid an eight-day official visit to China towards the end of last year, the first by an Indian official at his level in over 10 years. Gen. Vij was informed of China's support for India playing "an even bigger role" in issues of "international and regional cooperation". In a sense, the current phase of high-level interactions was given some impetus by the first-ever strategic dialogue, at the bilateral level, that took place in New Delhi in January.

These and other related developments seem to indicate that China and India have managed, by and large, to keep their complex engagement on the right track. The early signs of this trend in the current phase of cooperative endeavour were conspicuously evident in 2003 and 2004 (Frontline, December 17, 2004). What is important now is that the intensity of bilateral exchanges has not tapered off, despite the uncertainty about the end-game over India's bid to become a permanent member of the Security Council.

Frederic Grare and other keen Western observers of the China-India engagement in the larger Asian context argue that "an open conflict between the two countries is not likely in the near future", given Beijing's current priorities and the existing global "balance of power". The idea of a "strategic partnership" between Beijing and New Delhi, or indeed between China and some other powers in the present situation of dominance by the United States, is viewed by some Western experts as only a political appellation for strange bed-fellows.

Now, there certainly seems to be an element of asymmetry in the China-India equation (Frontline, June 4, 2004). However, any effort to pre-judge the ongoing China-India engagement as a mere tactical effort by both sides is to miss the immense dynamics on the bilateral front.