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By Syed Nazakat in New Delhi

General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s most visible face, was frank and forthcoming when he met Indian Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma in Delhi in December. China, he said, wanted to improve bilateral relations first; the border issue could wait. His visit was part of India’s creative diplomacy to defuse the tensions in the relationship by engaging high-level talks with the Chinese military leadership. Though there have been occasional flares along the 4,057km Sino-Indian border, the military leadership is working hard to sign a landmark deal to ensure peace. The two sides have already negotiated the agreement during the recently held Annual Defence Dialogue. The talks were initiated after an agreement between Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao, for creation of a new joint mechanism for better border relations. It will be led by joint secretary (East Asia) in the ministry of external affairs, with representatives from the military, paramilitary and intelligence agencies, and the Chinese director general of boundary affairs. The two sides will remain in touch to avert unpleasant situations along the undemarcated boundary, or the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The agreement is likely to be signed by National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and his Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo in New Delhi in mid-January. The meeting had been scheduled for November but Beijing called it off in protest against the international Buddhist congregation in Delhi, which the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama attended. India and China have also agreed to send two military delegations in January and February. India has proposed that some of the border posts along the LAC be relocated for administrative and logistical convenience. According to a senior defence ministry official, China may welcome border personnel meetings in Lipulekh sector as in the Nathu La border opening.

The border dispute has long been intractable. After the 1962 war, the demarcation of the border between the countries has remained unsolved. The border is in three sectors―eastern, middle and western. China says that the McMahon Line, which was drawn by the British, is illegal, and that Arunachal Pradesh belongs to it. China prefers to discuss the boundary dispute as part of an overall package, which includes bilateral relations. India says China has illegally occupied 38,000 sq.km of its territory in Kashmir’s Aksai Chin area, and there was no single treaty between India and China delimiting the entire boundary. India wants to discuss the border dispute sector by sector, starting with the western one. Although the disputed border has largely remained peaceful, transgressions by the Chinese troops have been a major irritant in the bilateral relationship. Every month, reports pour in from various frontiers of unannounced Chinese military patrols in the border area. Often border guards do not make direct contacts, but leave behind subtle traces of their presence, such as cigarette packets. India is worried about the significant increase in the number of stand-offs along the border and a more aggressive posturing by the Chinese soldiers. Defence Minister A.K. Antony recently informed Parliament that the PLA had attempted to cross the 250-metre wall “on our side” of the LAC in Yangtse area of Tawang in Arunachal. “It was prevented by our troops. The stone wall was partially damaged by PLA. As per the established mechanism with China, a strong protest was lodged with the Chinese side on the PLA patrol’s action in a flag meeting,” he said.

India uses the military channel when conventional diplomacy does not do enough to improve the ties with China. To strengthen the military-to-military relationship, the two countries have had a series of bilateral visits of service chief-level delegations. Gen. J.J. Singh visited China in May 2007, Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major in 2008 and Admiral Sureesh Mehta in 2009. From China, Admiral Wu Shengli visited India in November 2008. Though Chinese officers do not attend the courses offered by the Indian defence services, a number of training related delegations are being exchanged with China and there have been two joint military training exercises. The first one was held in Kunming in China in 2007 and the second was held in Belgaum in India in 2008. If everything goes according to plan another edition of the ‘hand-in-hand’ bilateral military exercise will be held in 2012. What is in the pipeline A new joint mechanism between India and China for better border relations. It will be led by joint secretary (East Asia) in the ministry of external affairs, with representatives from the military, paramilitary and intelligence agencies, and the Chinese director general of boundary affairs. The two sides will be in touch to avert unpleasant situations along the Line of Actual Control.

Bones of contention

China:  The McMahon Line, which was drawn by the British, is illegal Arunachal Pradesh belongs to China Boundary disputes are to be discussed as part of an overall package, which includes bilateral relations

India:  China has illegally occupied 38,000 sq.km of India’s territory in Kashmir’s Aksai Chin area Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India Border disputes are to be discussed sector by sector

(THE WEEK, January 8, 2012)

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