NEW DELHI: India on Monday elevated peace on the border to a “core issue” with China, making it plain that it could not countenance any disturbance of the status quo, and thatprovocation like the recent Depsang incursion could push bilateral ties off track.
The new stance was spelt out by Prime MinisterManmohan Singh after he emerged from his meeting with visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. “The basis for continued growth and expansion of our ties is peace and tranquility on our borders,” Singh asserted, marking a new red line in bilateral ties.
The PM said that after “candid and frank” discussions, diplomatic-speak for plain-speaking, the two countries “took stock of lessons learnt from the recent incident in the western sector, although he stressed that “existing mechanisms proved their worth” during the tensions.
This focus on peace on the border is a significant shift in India’s China policy as it had so far looked keen not to let the border disagreement hinder deepening engagement in other spheres, and seems to be a clear fallout of the incursion in Ladakh in April.
The new posture suggests that the incursion, when Chinese troops intruded and pitched tents 19 km inside what India claims to be its territory, was not as “local” or “isolated” as it had initially seemed to the government..
The two sides have agreed to quicken efforts to sort out differences over the border, with national security advisor Shivshankar Menon and his counterpart Yang Jiechi set to meet in the next six weeks to take the boundary resolution forward. “Our special representatives will meet soon to continue discussions, seeking early agreement on a framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable boundary settlement,” the PM said.
While the actual resolution may be a while away, India will push for clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China and India have exchanged maps in the middle sector and have shown maps in the western sector. India is likely to push that process pending the framework agreement.
Calling the visit “significant and substantive”, Indian ambassador to China S Jaishankar said it had thrown up potential new areas of cooperation. In the coming months, defence minister A K Antony will travel to China, as will Menon, Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia for the strategic economic dialogue and high level officials from the commerce ministry.
However, Li did not seem to be as gung-ho about the border mechanism as the Indian side. “Both sides believe we need to improve the border mechanisms that have been put into place and make them more efficient and resolve our differences,” he said as he called for strategic trust between India and China. The proposed border defence agreement did not come up for discussion. Jaishankar clarified that the Chinese draft was received on March 4 and the Indians sent a counter draft on May 10, post-Depsang.
Significantly, an agency report from Beijing said the border disagreement was conspicuously missing from Li’s remarks circulated by the Chinese foreign ministry.
As at the dinner on Sunday, the PM pushed China to share information on its projects on the Brahmaputra. He said, “It would be useful for the mandate of our Expert Level Mechanism to be expanded to include information sharing on upstream development projects on these rivers.” The Chinese side, sources said, took on board Indian concerns and Li told Singh that this would be worked on by the Chinese government.
A 35-paragraph joint statement covered most aspects of the bilateral relationship, though officials at the meetings said there appeared to be a greater understanding by the Chinese on the necessity of addressing the trade imbalance, and opening up Chinese markets for Indian goods and services.
India once again refused to endorse “one China”, but said there should be “mutual sensitivities” for each other’s concerns. The only concession on China’s Tibet concerns was a line that “the two sides will not allow their territories to be used for activities against the other”.
India and China are two of the largest countries investing in nuclear power. The joint statement opens the way for both countries to look at institutionalizing dialogue on civil nuclear cooperation. However, China is opposing India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
On maritime security issues, the joint statement committed both countries to “safeguarding security of international sea lanes and freedom of navigation”. In South China Sea, China is not comfortable with the concept of freedom of navigation due to its territorial claims. India has managed to register its interests in the Asia-Pacific region, with the joint statement stating, “The current priority of this region is to maintain peace and stability of the region, promote regional common development, as well as to establish an open, transparent, equal and inclusive framework of security and cooperation.”
Xinhua, giving Li’s remarks, said he had proposed a six-point proposal: increase strategic communication, pragmatic cooperation, increase defence cooperation, expand cultural cooperation and in international affairs, and “care for each other’s concerns, properly handle sensitive issues, and continue to push forward negotiations on border issues so as to jointly maintain peace and tranquility in border areas”.
A discussion on Afghanistan called for an “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led” reconciliation process, which satisfied India, because it keeps the Pakistan equation out of the reckoning.