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The Indian external affairs minister Salman Khurshid has not been able to resolve what has been called the ‘China puzzle’. “It’s not clear why it happened,” Khurshid said in Beijing on Thursday, referring to what India said was an incursion by Chinese troops into its territory in the eastern Himalayan region of Ladakh in April.
“I think they [the Chinese side] were not offering us that background [why the entry of troops happened] and we were not asking for that background…There was a tremendous sense of satisfaction that it [troops’ entry] was resolved in the manner it was resolved,” the Indian minister said after meeting Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart.After the agreed withdrawal of both Chinese and Indian troops from the Daulat Beg Oldi sector in Ladakh, Mr Khurshid was possibly expressing the relief felt by many Chinese, Indians and other well-wishers of the two countries that there had been a pull-back from a potential flashpoint.
Many Indians, like the minister, are puzzled by the timing of the Chinese incursion given that Chinese Premier Li Keiqang is expected in Delhi on May 20 – India being his first foreign destination after taking over as Premier.
In fact, Mr Khurshid’s was a preparatory visit ahead of Mr Li’s – a sign that the two countries now accord considerable importance to their relations. In the past, preparatory visits took place at the level of officials, now a senior Indian minister had been tasked with the job.
Events around the undefined Line of Actual Control in the Ladakh area last month have seemingly cast a shadow over his visit and Mr Keqiang’s. It’s now up to the leaderships of the two countries to put aside this irritant and move forward in trying to resolve their issues, often described as the “leftovers” of history.
Since the visit of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in December 1988, the two countries have given their relations a semblance of normality despite the fact that they confront the realities of the largest unresolved land border dispute in the world following their 1962 war.
They have built up a structure through agreements in 1993, 1996 and 2003 through which mechanisms have been put in place to deal with situations where border patrols encounter each other.
In parallel, they first agreed on a Joint Working Group (1988) to exchange maps for the delineation of the Line of Actual Control, which did so in the middle Himalayas, but failed to do the same in the eastern and western sectors of their disputed boundary.
In 2003, the two sides set up the mechanism of Special Representatives to resolve the border issue, with India and China agreeing on a bunch of “political parameters and guiding principles” to resolve the boundary issue.After 15 rounds of meetings, the Special Representative process seems to have hit a roadblock, with the two countries nowhere close to clinching a border settlement. In fact, they have now taken to discussing issues not in their original ambit, a sign that progress on boundary resolution has been minimal.
With a new Chinese leadership taking office, and India heading into election mode, breaking new ground between the two countries seems difficult. But both sides, with the world’s largest and second largest standing armies, and trade of $76 billion, need to understand that the stakes are high.
While Delhi talks about the road links and border infrastructure created by the Chinese, the right-wing radical in India constantly points to India’s weaknesses and the need to do more.
At the same time, the Indian right-wing conveniently ignores the strategic context in which India-China relations are now situated. India’s growing alignment with American views is evident, including the no-holds-barred support for the 2008 civil nuclear deal with India.
The official Indian welcome to US President Barack Obama’s pivot strategy towards the Pacific region and growing military-to-military relations would also have been noted by Beijing.
In many private conversations, now exposed by Wikileaks, Indian fears of Chinese intentions are evident. The stress on Indo-American democratic commonalities could well be interpreted as directed at a one-party State like China.
About 10 days before the Chinese incursion in Ladakh, India’s Congress party vice-president and possible Indian prime minister aspirant, Rahul Gandhi, made what must easily classify itself as the silliest possible comments on China made for a while.
Addressing a live audience on television, Gandhi tried on April 4 to (clumsily) show with the help of another gentleman on stage how gently India exercised power and how coercively China exercised power.
So, was the message of Chinese troops setting up camp in Ladakh a message to India that Beijing was capable of exercising power? Or, was it a message to the top echelons of the government that their anti-China messaging was being noted?
There will probably never be a definite answer. But, there’s little doubt that India and China must move towards resolving their border dispute – once and for all.
This will be good for the two countries, the rest of the region, the world and for emerging forums like BRICS. Squabbles between India and China are the last thing that would lead to the creation of a more equitable world order.