Modi and the Boundary Question: Will History Repeat Itself?

13 May, 2015    ·   4873

Stephen Westcott presents his reading of in light of Narendra Modi’s China visit

Stephen Westcott
Stephen Westcott
Research Intern
While negotiations during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming China visit, expected to occur on 14-16 May, will mostly focus on deepening economic ties and reducing the trade deficit, there is growing speculation that there will be some progress on resolving the long deadlocked boundary question. Indeed, this expectation has been fed by a flurry of talks between the two sides over the border in the past month. The 18th round of the Special Representative Talks were held between 23-24 March, marking the first formal talks on the border dispute since Modi took office. The Joint Military Talks were held in early April. Little has been revealed publicly about the outcome of the talks, apart from the usual platitudes over the desire to uphold ‘peace and tranquillity’ along the border. However, viewed in the light of recent statements such as the India Foreign Minister’s comment that both sides are seeking ‘out of the box’ solutions, these talks conducted smoothly so close to Modi’s visit have raised the expectations that some form of deal is in the making. Is a breakthrough in the long deadlocked negotiations imminent?

At least since the 2005 agreement on the principles for resolving the boundary question, the negotiations have pursued the less ambitious target of seeking to manage the dispute rather than resolve it. Indeed there has been only incremental progress aimed primarily at reducing tensions and establishing institutions for trust-building exercises such as the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. However, both Modi and Xi have expressed their desire to remove the dispute that has acted as a spoiler in bilateral relations and prevented it from reaching its full potential. Modi in his tenure so far has demonstrated that he is keen to resolve some of India’s longstanding border disputes, most notably with Bangladesh, which he has framed as being in the national interest to slap down criticism from hardliners in his own party. Another sign that a deal could be in the offing is both countries have expressed strong interest in increasing their bilateral trade. Several Chinese officials and commentators in particular have been recently talking up the compatibility between the economic policies that could be easily capitalised upon with the removal of the border obstacle.

While there is ground to be optimistic, it is also sobering to remember that both countries have been in a similar situation in the past. Once negotiations were restarted in the 1980s they started with great expectations but proceeded slowly before being nearly derailed by some border clashes, most notably the 1986 Somdurong/Wangdung incident which came close to becoming a lethal military skirmish. Though tensions were defused by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit, it is widely considered that a chance was lost to resolve the boundary question when he did not respond to Deng Xiaoping’s ‘package deal’ offer. This proposal effectively would have seen the formalisation of the status quo with China recognising India’s control over the east and India recognising China’s control over the west and is considered probably one of the fairest resolutions possible. While the talks that followed Gandhi’s visit marked the beginning of the establishment of the various institutions to maintain peaceful relations along the border, the desire to definitively resolve the dispute has slowly leached out of the border negotiations.

Nonetheless both Modi and Xi appear to be signalling that they wish to be the ‘future generation’ that Deng spoke of who would resolve this issue. In India, Modi is only a year into his electoral term and if a settlement with China is reached now, he can overcome criticisms as he has done with Bangladesh by painting it as being in the best interest of security and economic interest of the country. Should a deal, at least in principle, fail to eventuate early in Modi’s term, it is unlikely that he or his government would be willing to counter one as it would open them up to domestic criticism and damage electoral chances. The Chinese government for their part is facing a slowing economy and several security concerns in Tibet, Xingjian and in the seas to its west, which provide a powerful incentive to remove this distraction and focus on more important issues.

Whether these factors will be enough to break the typical inertia that surrounds the border negotiations or whether it will be another in the litany of missed chances remains to be seen. It would be naive to believe that this would be final as any deal will require some mutual relinquishing of territorial claims which has so far proven unpalatable, at least for the Indian side. Even if it is achieved, changes on the border are unlikely, at least for several years, with the terrain needing to be rigorously surveyed and demarcated, a process that has proven to take over a decade in other disputed border areas and is likely to raise fresh issues during the process. Both countries are undoubtedly aware that the sooner this process gets underway, the sooner it can be completed. Nonetheless, the odds are any progress in this upcoming visit will fall short of such a final development but remain better than nothing. Whether it will adequately neutralise the border as bilateral issue remains to be seen, though it can be said with certainty that both countries diplomats’ will be engaged with this problem for many years to come.