A well-staged visit to the Forbidden City; adoring crowd, a fawning host in the form of Premier Li Keqiang; a rare opportunity to address the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party: a departure from protocol in breaking bread with a retired leader; half a step forward in keeping the disputed border quiet. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's two-day China visit last week was high on atmospherics, low on substance, but Singh himself was satisfied with the incremental progress that he managed to achieve.
Speaking to accompanying media on board Air India One after concluding the visit, Singh said: "In China, my visit was to follow up on the process of getting to know the new Chinese leadership better. China is our largest neighbour, a significant economic partner and a country with increasing global presence. While we have our differences, there are many areas, bilateral, regional and multilateral, where cooperation among us is to our mutual benefit. It is only through a process of intense engagement that we will be able to move forward in all areas. I am satisfied that my just concluded visit has served its purpose."
Not everyone will agree with the assertion but the centerpiece of the Indian Prime Minister's trip was undoubtedly the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, or BDCA, which laid down more communication between tactical and strategic commanders and even at higher level between representatives of defense ministries of both the countries, hinted at a proposed 'hotline' between military headquarters and formalized an understanding on "no tailing" of troops when they come face to face on the long border.
A closer scrutiny of the agreement, however, reveals that it has only managed to add layers to the already existing mechanisms to maintain peace and tranquility on the border. Many of the provisions were already discussed and included in earlier agreements.
For instance, Article IV of the BDCA, 2013 states: "In implementing border defence cooperation and to facilitate contacts and meetings between relevant organizations, the two sides may establish Border Personnel Meeting sites in all sectors, as well as telephone contacts and telecommunication links at mutually agreed locations along the line of actual control. The two sides may also consider establishing a Hotline between the military headquarters of the two countries. Specific arrangements shall be decided upon through mutual consultations between the two sides."
Now read this from the November 1996 agreement (Article VII):
In order to strengthen the cooperation between their military personnel and establishments in the border areas along the line of actual control, the two sides agree:
(1) To maintain and expand the regime of scheduled and flag meetings between their border representatives at designated places along the line of actual control;
(2) To maintain and expand telecommunication links between their border meeting points at designated places along the line of actual control:
(3) To establish step-by-step medium and high-level contacts between the border authorities of the two sides.
Privately, Indian officials say two more border meeting points have been identified at Lipulekh in the central sector of the Line of Actual Control and the other at Kibithu (Dichu) in the Eastern Sector. And yet, as noted China specialist, Professor Srikanth Kondapalli has written: "Subsequently, at the 9th JWG meeting in Beijing in October 1996, two more annual military meeting points at Lipulekh in the Central Sector and Dichu in the Eastern Sector at the Major General level were finalised."
Indian officials acknowledged that the latest pact is a marginal improvement on the three earlier agreements but were at pains to explain that the BDCA would in no way impinge upon India's belated efforts to build and improve infrastructure all along the Line of Actual Control. India is building 75 strategic roads, laying important railway lines and constructing operational assets in the difficult terrain on the China frontier to support the raising of a new Mountain Strike Corps and improving airfields for the Indian Air Force. None of these projects are likely to be completed earlier than 2018.
In that context, Indian military officers, not wanting to be identified, admitted that the BDCA may have bought them more time without compromising on basic security requirements. They had in fact feared a more "binding" BDCA that would have further restricted their right to handle the situation on ground as they deemed fit. The “limit of patrolling” imposed on the Indian Army troops deployed along the more sensitive areas of the LAC has also thankfully remained unchanged, they added. "At least now we know that the higher leadership will immediately come into play if another crisis like Depsang arises," one of them told The Diplomat.
The fine print of the BDCA notwithstanding, the Indian prime minister, perhaps on his last visit to China in his current tenure, was accorded special treatment by the Chinese leadership. President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Keqiang both hosted banquets for him. More markedly, former Premier Wen Jiabao, who stepped down earlier this year, hosted a lunch for his "old" friend Singh. This was a major change from established norms in China where retired leaders strictly stay out of the public. Li personally showed Singh around the historic Forbidden City. Singh also addressed the Central Party School, an honor rarely bestowed on visiting dignitary and outlined the future road map of Sino-India relationship.
Singh, mindful of domestic concerns that New Delhi repeatedly succumbs to Chinese pressure on various fronts, repeatedly stressed the need for a peaceful border and eventually an honorable settlement. He also flagged India’s concerns on continuing Chinese assistance to India’s South Asia rival Pakistan and the unfavorable trade balance.
As the Indian prime minister said: “We agreed that peace and tranquility on our borders must remain the foundation for growth in the India-China relationship, even as we move forward the negotiations towards a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the India-China Boundary Question. This will be our strategic benchmark… as large neighbours following independent foreign policies, the relationships pursued by India and China with other countries must not become a source of concern for each other. This will be our strategic reassurance.”
Beijing did not react on oblique Indian references to its “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan, and nor did it give back any strategic reassurances, but it was clear China wants to keep up continuous engagement with India lest New Delhi forms a closer compact with the U.S., Australia and Japan. If India is wise enough it will continue to strike the right balance in its relationship with Beijing and not succumb to its charm offensive even as it pursues an independent foreign policy.
Nitin A. Gokhale is Security & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian Boradcaster NDTV.