But Sino-Indian relations are likely to go nowhere unless the two countries are able to resolve their border issue. Having fought a war in 1962, and come close to another in 1987, they have managed to maintain peace and tranquillity there for the past 25 years and forged closer economic and political ties. But the Depsang Plains incident of April-May 2013 is a warning that a disputed border can never be a peaceful border, and it remains the principal obstacle to normal ties between the two rising Asian giants.
Narendra Modi and China's supreme leader Xi Jinping have a historic opportunity to transform this state of affairs. Both are the most powerful politicians to have taken charge of their respective countries in recent times, and, they appear to have the political capital needed and, more important, the larger vision of Sino-Indian relations, to obtain a border settlement.
The dispute no longer makes sense - both sides have secured their most vital non-negotiable areas - China has Aksai Chin and India Arunachal Pradesh - and neither side will give them up short of a major war, which itself will be disastrous for both countries.
Intriguingly enough, thrice in the past year and a half, the Chinese leadership has suggested that they are looking for change. In March 2013, May 2013 and more recently in June 2014.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had met Xi Jinping in March 2013 during the BRICS meet in Durban, both sides had agreed on the need to accelerate the process of the border settlement. The Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted Xi as saying on March 29 that China and India should "make good use of the mechanism of Special Representatives (SR) to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible."
The first part of the formulation has been standard in recent years, but it is the second part - "as soon as possible"- that Chance to resolve border dispute PM Narendra Modi and Chinese premier Xi Jinping could make history during Xi's visit to India by Manoj Joshi is significant. This message was repeated by Premier Li Keqiang in New Delhi in May 2013, and most recently by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, during his visit to greet the new Modi government in Delhi in June 2014. In a statement, he noted, "Through years of negotiation, we have come to an agreement on the basics of a boundary agreement, and we are prepared to reach a final settlement." That's as clear a message as you can get.
Curiously, there have been no comparable statements from the Indian side on the desirability or feasibility of an early border settlement. However, privately officials involved in the negotiations say that the Special Representatives' negotiations have achieved what they could, now the top leaderships in the two countries must make the final push.
The SR level talks were initiated in 2003 during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Beijing in 2003. The two sides made quick progress, and by April 2005 they reached an "Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India China Boundary Question." It virtually spelt out the contours of a border settlement: Article IV gave "due consideration" to the two sides "strategic and reasonable interests" and Article VIII agreed that any settlement "should safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas." This was as clear a statement the two sides were ready to swap their claims - India would concede Aksai Chin, a vital strategic area which provides the only all-weather link between Xinjiang and Tibet. And China would accept India's claim to Arunachal Pradesh, which has settled populations, in contrast to the other areas in dispute.
But having achieved this agreement in 2005, there was a slide back. Between 2007-2010, Sino-Indian relations nosedived. In some measure the Indo-US nuclear deal was responsible, and in some measure China's nervousness relating to Tibet where there had been large scale disturbances in 2008 for which Beijing privately held New Delhi responsible. So it was a pleasant surprise when Yang Jichei, appointed China's SR by the Xi Jinping government said at the start of the 16th round of SR talks in June 2013 that he was ready to "break new ground" and "strive for the settlement of the China-India boundary questionâ€¦in a new period."
The Chinese posture suggests the Xi-Li team has done its homework and feels the time has come to clinch a settlement. There are indications the Modi team has also done its homework. In the last two months this issue has been discussed in depth by the new team led by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
This is where Modi and Xi come in. Both are regarded as the most powerful politicians to head their respective countries in recent times. But we should not underestimate their difficulties. Any settlement will be unsettling for important constituencies in both countries. If Modi has to get an agreement through Parliament and, before that, the Sangh Parivar, Xi needs to take his Politburo, if not his Central Committee with him.
Both are aware of the historical consequences of the deal and both know that they can only do it now when they are at the height of their powers. Indeed, this is what Prime Minister Vajpayee intended to do in 2003. Unfortunately for him and the nation, he lost the 2004 elections and thereafter India lacked a powerful leader with the necessary political capital to work out a settlement with China.
Mail Today Sep 16, 2014