India and China will have the 16th round of talks on their boundary dispute on December 3 and 4 against the backdrop of a serious passport controversy. The two Asian giants have not made much progress in their previous rounds of talks and neither side will be expecting any concrete deliverables from the upcoming round between India's National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
That said the upcoming round of talks in Beijing may well be different from previous meetings as the two sides may for the first time agree to create a progress report on the boundary talks under the Special Representatives’ mechanism which started in 2003. This in itself won’t be a notable achievement as the two SRs (Menon and Dai) would be presenting the jointly devised report to their respective governments.
Menon made a significant remark ahead of the boundary talks noting that, "We are in the process of agreeing on a framework to settle the boundary and the next step, hopefully the third stage, is to actually agree on a boundary. Right now we are at the second stage."
The border talks will be held close on the heels of the recent passport dispute between the two countries. China recently began issuing passports that included a map showing all the areas that China claims as part of the Chinese state. This included, Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, the disputed areas between China and India.
Last week, in response, the Indian embassy in Beijing started a new practice of stamping the new Chinese passports with a map of India showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as Indian territories. The Chinese government has so far printed over a million such e-passports.
On November 26, Menon appeared at an elite gathering of diplomats and strategic analysts in New Delhi. The event was hosted by the leading Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF). I asked Menon about his thoughts on the passport maps controversy. Menon, who’s a career diplomat and not a politician despite his ministerial status in the government, sought to downplay the controversy:
"I think you need to see these things in some perspective. We do have differences on where the boundary lies. We are discussing them. We have made progress in dealing with that… What has changed? Chinese have a view on where the boundary lies which is why we are having discussions on the boundary because we have differences on where the boundary is. The Chinese chose to put a watermark on their passports which shows the boundaries as they see it. We show our boundary as we see it on visas that we issue. So, what has changed? On our documents, we continue to show what we regard as our boundary; they show their claims on their documents."
Interestingly, Menon’s boss, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s, reaction on the issue was much stronger. Khurshid, a politician, had described the Chinese move as “unacceptable.”
It is not India alone that has rebuffed China over the passport map row, with other nations like Vietnam and the Philippines also strongly protesting Beijing’s new passports. Vietnam too has followed in India’s footsteps and has started issuing visas on separate visa sheets stapled to the new Chinese passports.
The Vietnamese authorities have lodged a formal protest with the Chinese embassy in Vietnam after new e-passports issued by China have depicted a map showing disputed territories in South China Sea as falling under Chinese sovereignty. The government of Philippines too has lodged a protest with Beijing’s embassy over the new e-passports.
The development shows that China is increasingly getting a tit-for-tat response from its neighbors and India is not alone in rebuffing Beijing as China continues to push the envelope over the boundary dispute. It remains to be seen whether the new Chinese leadership will continue with such policies.