Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was in Beijing this week to participate in a trilateral meeting with her Russian and Chinese counterparts. While there, she also held separate meetings with both President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Swaraj told reporters that, in addition to the trilateral meeting, one of the main purposes for the visit was laying the groundwork for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to China in May 2015. Apparently, part of that groundwork will be a concerted effort to see concrete progress in discussions over China and India’s disputed border.
The Telegraph, citing an Indian government official, said that New Delhi in particular hopes to hammer out the Framework for a Resolution of the Boundary Question. “That’s the next big diplomatic target for the government,” one official told The Telegraph of India. “The breakthrough has to be ready to be announced when the PM visits in May.” India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, is expected to travel to Beijing soon to continue the negotiations.
India and China dispute two large swaths of territory: Arunachal Pradesh to the east of Bhutan and Aksai Chin on the western edge of the India-China border. Arunachal Pradesh is administered by India as a state while Aksai Chin is administered by China as part of Xinjiang. In the 1990s, China and India effectively agreed to hold to the status quo, with both countries agreeing to abide by the Line of Actual Control until their governments could agree on a true border. However, the LAC remains ill-defined and incursions by both sides are frequent.
Since 2003, China and India have held a total of 17 rounds of border talks, with little to show for it. But new leadership in both Beijing and New Delhi has raised hopes that the two sides can reach the Holy Grail of their bilateral relationship: a demarcated border.
Since Modi came to power last year, China and India have taken to emphasizing the newness of their relationship. “I have been told that the Lunar Year of Sheep is known as the year of creativity and innovation… I feel that your India visit was about creativity and innovations,” Swaraj told Xi during their meeting this week. Xi also affirmed that “China-India relations entered a new development stage” with his fall 2014 trip to India. He added, “I have full confidence on the future of China and India relations and I believe that good progress will be achieved in the growth of bilateral relations this year.”
The question, then, is whether this new “creativity and innovation” can actually lead to a diplomatic breakthrough on the border issue. China and India both were hoping to have such a breakthrough to showcase during Xi’s September visit to India. That didn’t pan out – instead, the presence of Chinese troops in a disputed region highlighted how the border issue continues to strain China-India ties. That led to Modi raising India’s “serious concern over repeated incidents along the border” in talks with Xi.
Last year, in the wake of Xi’s visit, both he and Modi said their governments were committed to an “early” settlement of the border question. This time around, Indian diplomats have taking the daring step of putting a time-frame on the negotiations, raising expectations for a major announcement in May. That will be a difficult goal to reach – neither Modi nor Xi appears to be particularly flexible when it comes to territorial issues. But a border agreement will be a major coup for both Modi and Xi if they can pull it off.