On the right track

Published : Dec 17, 2004 00:00 IST

Special Representatives of India and China conclude on a positive note the fourth round of their discussions on the border dispute between the two countries.

in Singapore

THE decision by India and China to sustain specialist-level talks on their boundary dispute fully captures the present mood of positive endeavour on both sides to improve the quality of their engagement. In a sense, it comes as no surprise that the two countries have agreed, at the conclusion of the fourth round of parleys at the level of Special Representatives, that the next meeting should be held at a mutually convenient date.

The brief press statement issued by the Indian Embassy in Beijing at the end of the talks, which were held in the Chinese capital on November 18 and 19, emphasised that a "frank and detailed exchange of views" had taken place in a "friendly, constructive and cooperative atmosphere". The description of the ambience of the talks echoed the official statement at the end of the third round, held in New Delhi in July.

If any inference is to be drawn at all on the basis of such descriptions, the process, not to be confused with the mechanism of the Sino-Indian Joint Working Group (JWG) on the boundary question, has moved from a "friendly and constructive" phase, as the second round held in Beijing in January was characterised, to a higher plane of being a "cooperative" endeavour as well.

The process was initiated following an agreement reached at the summit level by the leaders of India and China in Beijing in June 2003 to "explore the framework of a boundary settlement" by looking at the issues from "a political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship". Such a categorical formulation left no room for doubt about the exalted status of the process.

While the Chinese Executive Vice-Foreign Minister, Dai Bingguo, has served as his country's Special Representative at each of the four rounds held so far, India's National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit has taken over as Special Representative from Brajesh Mishra after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government assumed office in May. The first round in this special series was held in New Delhi in October 2003 and the fifth round is slated to take place at the same venue in due course.

The principle of privileged confidentiality, which `safeguards' the discussions between the Special Representatives, has been devised to prevent an accidental collapse that might be sparked by a liberal sharing of information about the talks with the media and the public at any stage of the process. The virtues of this practice have not become a debatable issue at this point, given the political will of the two countries to keep the dialogue going and also the sheer complexity of the issues at stake.

It is evident, however, that the process involving Special Representatives has been designed to ensure a definitive movement towards a boundary settlement on the basis of the "political perspectives" of the two sides. However, what has not been spelt out is whether the mandate for this process includes a fast-track approach.

Diplomatic sources, while not wishing to be drawn into a discussion of any specifics about the scope of the talks and the nature of the process itself, point out that the JWG has not been discarded. The Special Representatives-level talks and the JWG's work do "not preclude" each other. So far, there has been no indication whether the Special Representatives will, at some stage, commission the JWG to take into account their ideas and formulae or whether the two governments might mandate it to do so on technical matters. The links, if any at all, between these two "different processes" need some elucidation in the public domain.

Authoritative Chinese sources indicated to this correspondent that Beijing was keen to push for a boundary settlement with India. China had resolved its differences with several key neighbours on land border issues, it was pointed out.

In a global perspective, a new reality that has some strategic resonance for the China-India engagement is the latter's active bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Asked about the impact of the Indian move on the contentious issues between the two countries, informed sources told Frontline that it should be seen as being "different" in political complexion. However, the fact remains that China, which is among the five countries with the veto right in the Security Council, does hold a trump-card. The Chinese authorities do not sketch any such scenario in relation to its dealings with India on any major issue such as the border question.

The qualitative issues that define the ambience of engagement between Beijing and New Delhi are the concept of "Panch Sheel" and China's declared policy of "peaceful ascendance" (Frontline, May 7). While China has not postulated its "peaceful rise" in a manner that would call for the endorsement of India or any other major power, it has certainly drafted "Panch Sheel", originally a China-India declaration, for the wider purpose of fashioning a "New Security Concept".

Anchored to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence - mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence - China's "New Security Concept" is portrayed by strategic experts such as Luo Renshi as being different from the United States' view, according to which security is a matter of alliances, deterrence and the use of military force.

Western experts on China, such as David Shambaugh, have argued that "despite its turgid and seemingly naive prose, the `New Security Concept' should not be dismissed as frivolous and irrelevant".

Within the overall framework of Beijing's world-view on security issues, New Delhi's interaction with it on the boundary issue has received a certain qualitative impetus following the Chinese gesture on Sikkim (Frontline, June 4). While analysts like John W. Garver have sought to project the China-India border dispute as a complex aspect of the two countries' "protracted contest", the scope of the intense talks by the Special Representatives on the border issue is a sign of diplomatic maturity on both sides.

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