India, China still have big problems between them

Xi flowersFrom the outset it has been clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have to walk the razor’s edge in his interaction with China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping.

That is because, notwithstanding the friendly rhetoric and promises of Chinese investment, India and China still have big problems between them. The biggest, as Modi’s remarks at the press interaction noted, was the border. Since the last major flare up in 1986-87, India and China have created a ‘confidence building measures’ regime, which has effectively kept peace there. But, as incidents in the last couple of days reveal, unsettled borders can never really be quiet borders.

For this reason, Modi, was perhaps the first Indian leader in recent times to directly speak of the issue, and that, too, before China’s supreme leader. He echoed what Xi himself has been saying, and what he reiterated — that we should resolve the border at the earliest. Second, while the CBMs have done a good work, Modi said there was a need to, at least, work out a commonly accepted alignment of the 4,056-km long Line of Actual Control that marks the border today. There are some 14 places on the LAC where India and China’s perception of where it lies differs, and this gives rise to the so-called “transgressions” or “incursions”.

According to the 1993 agreement on maintaining peace and tranquillity on the LAC, the two countries committed themselves to coming up with a mutually acceptable LAC. But after initial exchanges of maps, the process ground to a halt because in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, there were expectations that the two sides would actually resolve their border dispute quick time.

Following the appointment of highlevel Special Representatives in the wake of Vajpayee’s 2003 visit to Beijing, things moved fast and the two sides worked out a basic agreement on the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India China Boundary Question “in 2005 which would essentially have the two sides swap their claims — India’s Aksai Chin for China’s Arunachal Pradesh.

The 17 rounds of discussions between the Special Representatives have done the required work, what is now needed is for the political leaders, which means Xi and Modi, to finalise the settlement. There are other problems, some that have been spoken about openly, some not and some only obliquely. Among the ones that have not openly come up is China’s activities in South Asia, especially Pakistan. As long as Beijing seeks to keep India unsettled in its own region, we cannot really develop ties which could be called friendly.

Among the ones that have been obliquely mentioned by Modi is that of transboundary rivers. In the west the problem relates to the Sutlej and the Indus, and in the east to the Brahmaputra. The Chinese have agreed to provide India with data related to river flows, but there is nothing we can do to prevent them from damming or diverting the flow of the rivers that flow into India.

International law is weak on these issues and the Chinese say they provide India information on river flows on “humanitarian grounds” not on the basis of any special right that we have as a lower riparian.

As a realist, Modi cannot but be unaware of the fact that the Indian public’s expectations of him relate to his ability to deliver on the economic front. In that scheme of things, China plays a huge role as the engine of the world’s economy. At the same time, that same constituency also expects Modi to best China in the geopolitical competition with China. Unfortunately, he cannot do both at the same time, particularly at this juncture. He needs time to get the economy going, as well as to reform and restructure the instrumentalities of the state to even think of competing with China as an equal.

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