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India and China’s Border Spat

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The Pulse

India and China’s Border Spat

A recent incident on the border between India and China have some concerned. Can a compromise be worked out?

On April 23, eight days after 25-30 soldiers of  China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) walked across an unguarded portion of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China in Ladakh, military delegations from both sides met again to try and resolve the standoff. But a four hour long meeting failed to break the deadlock, prolonging the latest flashpoint between the two nuclear armed powers.

China and India fought a brief but bitter war in 1962 over the non-demarcated border, but even half a century after that conflict ended the boundary dispute remains unresolved, leading to episodes like the current face off. 

Both sides have put in place several mechanisms to ensure that small incidents on the border do not get out of hand despite continued incursions and intrusions by both sides. In a break from the pattern, however, the Chinese troops have setup tents and stayed in position six miles inside Indian Territory for more than a week, posing a dilemma for Indian decision makers.

While neither Beijing nor New Delhi wants the current situation to escalate beyond the local level, domestic factors in both countries makes it difficult for the two governments to devise a solution that doesn't look like one side has conceded too much to the other.

So even as China demands that India stop developing militarily useful infrastructure on the border, it continues to stress it seeks a comprehensive strategic partnership with New Delhi. China’s “two track” approach could be seen in some quarters as a strategy to keep India engaged strategically while keeping it off balance tactically.

Since taking office President Xi Jinping has largely hewed to his predecessors’ five point formula for moving the India-China relationship forward. On the border issue, for instance, Xi has simply reiterated previous Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's assertion that the resolution of the boundary problem is not easy and therefore the two sides must concentrate on other factors like the burgeoning bilateral trade believed to total US$100 billion. India, aware that its economic and military strength is still not on par with China, has often chosen to downplay or ignore Chinese provocations and instead peddle the line that there is enough room in Asia for both to rise simultaneously.

The latest flare up threatens to test both sides’ patience and resolve. Earlier this week, Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for India's External Affairs Ministry, asked China to withdraw its troops and return to the status quo. His counterpart in Beijing, Hua Chunying, resorted to the usual rhetoric, stating "The two sides should work together to properly solve this issue left over from history through peaceful negotiations, so as to create good conditions for sound development of bilateral relations.”

The two conciliatory statements raised hopes that a resolution at the border would be forthcoming, but these were squashed when the Chinese military put forward two preconditions at the flag meeting with India’s military. As the meeting made clear, the Chinese military want India to agree to stop building outposts and logistics depots and conducting patrols near the perceived border, before its troops would retreat behind the border again. India is unlikely to accept these terms.

Eventually, both sides may craft a face saving compromise by agreeing to some of the points, but veteran China watchers in India say Beijing will use the latest episode to push for yet another bilateral mechanism for border management.

Jayadeva Ranade, a China specialist formerly with India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) says: "The present stand-off does not reflect any new policy, but is part of the standard Chinese patrolling policy along the borders including DBO. The Chinese will use this opportunity to revive a proposal put forward during Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie's visit that to avoid such confrontations the troops at the borders should advise each other of their patrolling programmes/schedules."

Whatever the formula, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have a lot to talk about when his new Chinese counterpart Premier Li Keqiang makes his first visit to India, expected to take place sometime in late May.

Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7.