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Good fences make good neighbours

An indefinite delay in resolving the border dispute with China ultimately exposes the processes of dispute settlement to opportunism

Joe Thomas Karackattu 

Joe Thomas Karackattu

In the last two weeks, some segments of mainstream Indian media and a few have gone ballistic against the government over its handling of Chinese soldiers who have put up tented posts in the Depsang Valley in eastern in the western sector of the India-China border. The Chinese side officially maintains that Chinese patrol troops have never crossed the line of actual control (LAC), invoking the argument that China and India as neighbours are yet to complete border demarcation. The Indian side maintains that due to variances in the perception of where the runs, such problems do arise. As per the current modus vivendi, in case patrols from both countries come face to face in a disputed area, the modality is to raise banners that assert each side's claim over that tract, and eventually to move out of the area. Somewhere, that process has developed a glitch.

India and China do not have any negotiated boundary agreement in place today. Boundaries, as demarcations of sovereignty, have to be agreed upon by each of the states (legal persons) whose borders they are. Chauvinism cannot substitute for that process in either country. At present, it is effective control and historical claims that serve as markers for the border regions and both sides end up patrolling up to their claim lines. For India, the agreements inherited from the British (chiefly, the McMahon line for the eastern sector and the Macartney-MacDonald line for the western sector) serve as delimitation exercises, in the absence of actual demarcation on the ground. China deems the agreements as extensions of imperialist tradition. Curiously, however, China has had agreements with Pakistan in the west and Burma in the east, where the line has been aligned, in principle, according to the aforementioned agreements. Three pressing points therefore emerge from the present episode.

Firstly, in the absence of a boundary agreement, the entitlement of land does remain open and contentious. The basic stages of boundary-making comprise an understanding on the allocation of territory (where sovereignty/entitlement over the territory can be arrived at), followed by delimitation of a boundary through a legal text or map. The final stage is demarcation which transfers the defined boundary from paper to the physical landscape, which then allows the respective sides to administer what is within their border pillars. India and China are yet to arrive at a mutually negotiated agreement on the question of entitlement, let alone delimitation or demarcation. What this means is that violation of India's boundary can only occur when there is an actual boundary line as opposed to the "frontiers" which exist today with competing claim lines. Likewise, the Chinese foreign ministry reiteration of the absence of 'demarcation' seems to suggest that the question of entitlement itself has been settled. This, too, is problematic, since there is no unique mutually agreed in this area.

The next issue relates to handling by the respective governments of ground-level developments. Due credit must be given to the governments on both sides for preventing leaks/selective information from any nodal agency other than the respective foreign ministries. Without such effective diplomatic management there would be no control over either the dispute settlement process or the outcome. Peace at the borders is as much a physical state of coexistence as it is a psychological phenomenon (need for harmony instead of insecurity). China, as much as India, remains bound by Article 6 of the 1993 agreement that clearly states that references to the Line of Actual Control should not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question itself. For both countries, where the perception of the differs - i.e., no common alignment of the exists - the sanctity of the competing claim lines should be maintained as regards ceilings on military forces or armaments or equipment, in line with what has been agreed to in the 1996 agreement (Article 3; clauses 2 and 3 and Article 5). In the interest of transparency, useful remote sensing satellite data (using even third-party services such as Landsat 7 or Spot 6) could be exchanged on such contentious matters, as both countries are bound to address questions or doubts relating to either side observing the agreement through diplomatic channels. Ultimately, both the outcome (physical line of separation) and the process of arriving at the solution should be seen as fair. The current effective diplomatic handling of the crisis could only be termed successful once it upholds the vital psychological dimension to this current episode. A total winner or loser emerging from the current episode would not be in a position to arrive at any successful settlement on the boundary dispute even in future. For both countries, the prospect of mianzi (saving face) would remain an important aspect of resolving the current local crisis.

Lastly, the upcoming visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang should be used by both countries to reiterate the leaderships' vision in both countries at the political level, beyond the current diplomatic level, on managing the relationship and specifically taking the border issue towards stability and finality. This would also inject fresh life into the institutional rounds of border talks, where negotiations seem to be ending up in reiteration of selective assertions by either side. The process of bordering is as important as the physicality of the boundary itself. Indefinite delay in resolving the ultimately exposes the processes of dispute settlement to opportunism, which could transform the current to a core territorial dispute (the latter being disagreements over the possession of land by a state after it acquires effective control over it). A race towards expanding effective control is only going to bring down the dispute settlement process. There is no strategy in driving the India-China relationship towards that state of animosity.

Currently, as societies, Chinese public perceptions of India (and vice-versa) remain in a state of relative neglect and even prejudice. If we compare social networks of Indian families in terms of their kin educated in China, or relatives employed there, or friends relocated there, or remittances received from China, with the diaspora networks in America, Europe, the Middle East, or Australia, the contrast is stark. Such social distances disallow formation of dense horizontal networks, which is a source of generating social capital, and thereby trust. Already, the effects of growing economic interdependence in influencing state preferences are visible in the leadership's handling of this current episode. This needs to be nurtured further. There is no substitute for multi-level engagement with Chinese society in the years to come. Instead of routine incremental policy-making, we need to have a wider radius of "epistemic communities" - networks of researchers, traders, businesses, alumni associations, friends, among others to generate more social capital and transform societal preferences. Building trust is not a matter of luck, and differences on the boundary question should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations (2005 agreement).

The writer is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and a former Fox Fellow at Yale University