Dousing the fire

The meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Thailand may have helped to bring down the level of tension between the countries but there was no progress on addressing substantive issues that contributed to the recent escalation of tension. A meeting between the top leaders of two countries on the sidelines of a multilateral summit cannot be expected to address contentious bilateral issues, and therefore the very assertion of the need for friendly engagement is itself welcome. The  relations between the two countries had been recently adversely affected by official protests, public statements and unhelpful actions from the Chinese side. The decision by the two leaders not to amplify the differences is therefore positive and might help to create a better environment.

Though there was no discussion, it is unlikely that specific issues were not mentioned at the meeting. The prime minister has himself stated that he mentioned the issue of the Dalai Lama’s proposed November visit to Arunachal Pradesh to Premier Wen and reiterated India’s position on the matter. Though India has always stated that the Dalai Lama is not allowed to engage in political activities in India, the Chinese contention is that his very presence in India is itself a political problem for them, especially when he visits Indian territory which Beijing claims as its own. It may not go unnoticed that the prime minister was very cautious in his statement on the issue. However the reaffirmation of the need to maintain peace and tranquility on the border and the agreement to use the existing mechanisms to resolve outstanding issues should be positive commitments. The decision to set up a hotline at the level of the top leadership and the recent signing of an MoU on climate change are welcome moves in this respect.

But the experience is that the two countries may have to go beyond the existing mechanisms for resolution of bilateral disputes. The many meetings at the official level have not substantially helped to resolve the boundary dispute and new issues are emerging. The bilateral engagement needs a political push for better and more visible results. The meeting between the prime ministers may not have been designed for that but more of such initiatives are needed. The scheduled meeting between the foreign ministers of both counties in Bangalore on Tuesday should give an impetus to the process.

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