Prioritise settlement of border dispute

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India was overshadowed by the serious standoff between the Indian and Chinese armed forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh’s Chumar region.

An intrusion of nearly 1,000 Chinese soldiers into the Indian side of the LAC prompted India to rush three battalions to the border. While the troops did not clash, tensions spiraled and could have easily derailed Xi’s visit had good sense not prevailed on both sides. This should serve as a reminder that settling the border dispute cannot be put off or ignored any longer. India and China acted wisely decades ago in putting their border dispute aside for some time, even as they focused on co-operation in other areas.

 The logic behind this approach was that economic and other ties would help build trust and thus facilitate a compromise settlement of the border. Ongoing talks on settling the border have not been given the priority and urgency it deserves. In the circumstances, the border dispute has hung like a dark cloud over bilateral relations between the two countries, triggering accusations and counter-accusations over alleged intrusions and erupting in serious clashes periodically. The two sides have now agreed to treat finding an early solution to the border issues as a “strategic objective” and to seek a “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution.”

Xi’s visit resulted in a dozen agreements. China has committed investments worth US$ 20 billion in India over the next five years. The two sides pledged to initiate talks on civilian nuclear co-operation, marking a shift from China’s position hitherto of not engaging in talks with India on nuclear-related issues. China also reiterated support for India's full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Xi’s visit was therefore a fruitful one.

However, these gains are ephemeral as they could melt quickly should the border dispute turn nasty. This is the lesson that India and China must draw from the dark clouds of possible clashes that hung over Xi’s visit. Both sides expressed commitment to settling the border through friendly consultations. But such rhetoric has been heard before. What we need now is concrete and time-bound action to settle the border. Xi did point to bilateral mechanisms in place to ensure tensions don’t escalate.

 But putting a lid on tensions is not enough any longer. The underlying conflict needs to be resolved.  A political settlement to the border dispute through empowered Special Representatives must be put on top of the bilateral agenda.

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