Building trust

India and China have taken an important step towards stabilising their disputed and often restive frontier. They have signed a Border Defence Co-operation Agreement (BDCA) that puts in place measures to prevent conflict escalation. They have pledged to avoid use of force or threaten use of force against each other in the event of rising tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This is reassuring, especially in the context of recent tensions that could have escalated into fire-fights had hot heads on the two sides not been reined back.

Towards preventing such escalation the BDCA provides for improved communication; a hotline between the military headquarters of the two sides and periodic meetings between their border personnel are on the cards. Besides, Beijing and Delhi have agreed to avoid tailing each other’s patrols in areas where there is no common understanding of the LAC. Such aggressive tailing has in the past deepened suspicions and encouraged confrontation. Hawks on both sides have dismissed the CBMs provided by the BDCA as just more of the same. It is not, as every CBM adds to trust built by earlier CBMs. However, these sceptics are right in underscoring the need for conflict resolution. The official dialogue to settle the border has gone on for over three decades now. What is standing in the way of an agreement on the border? Pacts like the BDCA are fine but these merely put a lid on potential violent conflict. What India and China need now is a pact that resolves the root cause.

Besides the BDCA, India and China signed eight other agreements during prime minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing. Among them is an MoU on Strengthening Co-operation on Trans-border Rivers. This is a timely intervention that could clarify China’s intentions and India’s anxieties over the River Brahmaputra. The two sides have done well to anticipate and act on this matter.

China’s issuing of stapled visas prevented an agreement on a liberal visa regime. This is unfortunate. Liberalised visas would benefit people-to-people exchange that could improve China’s image among Indians but also, benefit thousands of Chinese businessmen, tourists and students keen to visit India. By digging in its heels on the status of Arunachal Pradesh, China is hurting itself. At a time when a new dynamism and maturity seems possible in Sino-Indian relations, petty point-scoring as with issue of stapled visas is preventing this from happening.

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