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Border talks: Mixed signals from China

By B Raman
August 10, 2009 14:53 IST
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Strategic expert B Raman on the recently concluded talks with China

The 13th round of the talks between the Special Representatives of India and China on the long-pending border dispute was held at New Delhi on August 7 and 8. India was represented by M K Narayanan, the National Security Adviser, and China by Dai Bingguio, the state councillor. It was reported that in addition to the border dispute, which was the principal subject of the discussions, they also discussed other matters of strategic importance.

According to the briefing given to the Indian media by Indian officials, the discussions on other matters of strategic importance resulted in the following agreements:

  • To set up a hotline between the prime ministers of the two countries as a confidence-building measure. India presently has a hotline only with Russia. It has been reported that the suggestion for a hotline between the prime ministers of India and China originally came from President Hu Jintao when he had met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the margins of the summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation at Yekaterinburg in Russia on June 15.
  • To keep up the momentum in the expansion of the bilateral trade which reached $52 billion last year.
  • To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in a befitting manner next year.

The focus in the media briefings on the positive decisions in respect of other matters of strategic importance and not on the border dispute possibly indicated that the deadlock in finding a mutually acceptable solution to the border dispute remained unbroken in the talks. It is noticed that the government/party controlled Chinese media gave more details of the talks than the Indian media.

It may be recalled that earlier this year the Global Times, an English language daily of the People's Daily group, and a section of Chinese academics had mounted a critical and sarcastic campaign against India following media reports of reported Indian plans to deploy two Mountain Divisions and an Air Force Squadron in Arunachal Pradesh for its defence.

This media campaign against India -- unusual in its sarcasm and ridicule of Indian aspirations of becoming a global power -- had a strongly negative impact on large sections of Indian public opinion and added to the existing prejudices against China. Possibly realising this, an attempt was made by the People's Daily on the eve of the border talks to project India in a positive light by the publication of some articles, which gave the impression of being more objective and appreciative of India. One of these articles, which was widely noticed in India, was contributed by Zhang Yan, who assumed charge as the Chinese Ambassador to India in March last year.

In a special interview to the Xinhua news agency on the eve of the border talks, which was disseminated on August 4, he said: "China and India should settle the existing border disputes properly, calling into play the greatest possible political wisdom. Despite the twists and turns in China-India ties and border disputes, the two countries share the same historical responsibilities of developing economies, improving people's lives and safeguarding world peace and development, which requires them to properly handle existing problems with the utmost political wisdom. The two countries are facing valuable development opportunities. They should use the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries next year to cement bilateral links and contribute to Asia's and world peace and development. The two largest Asian countries have witnessed rapid growth in their relationship in recent years and forged a strategic cooperative partnership. There were frequent visits between top leaders and increasing parliamentary, youth and military exchanges.

"China is now India's top trading partner, while India has become China's largest overseas project contracting market and an important investment destination. Bilateral trade volume between the two hit $51.7 billion in 2008, up 35 per cent over the same period of a year ago. The two countries have also set a target of bilateral trade volume of $60 billion by 2010. The two countries share the same stance on major international and regional issues, and had maintained close cooperation on hot topics such as climate change, food security, Doha negotiations and the worldwide economic downturn. As emerging powers, China and India have worked closely within the frameworks of BRIC, the five developing nations and the Group of 20, to safeguard the common interests of developing countries."

It is learnt that the Chinese visual media also projected a more positive image of India. While thus projecting India and the Sino-India relations in a positive light on the eve of the border talks, the English language Chinese media, at the same time, sought to convey a message that this positive portrayal did not presage any change in China's stand on the border dispute, which remained and which would remain as before. Under the title "Expert: China will not compromise on Sino-Indian border issue", the Global Times reported as follows on August 7, the day the latest round of border talks started: "Border talks between China and India began today in New Delhi, capital of India. This round of negotiations followed media speculation, with Reuters saying the two countries are not likely to reach a border treaty, while Hong Kong media claimed the negotiations are making great progress. Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, suggested that the present time is not favorable for China to resolve boundary issue in such a hurried way because the country is still rising globally and if the dispute is not properly addressed, the result will only be blamed by generations to come.

Chinese military expert Long Tao commented that the disputed region of South Tibet is not the cause of the two countries' conflict in the history, but rather was left over from 1914. That was when the British colonialists arbitrarily made the "McMahon Line," which Long says is even more ridiculous than the unequal Treaty of Nanjing. He also added that though the two parties want to focus on developing bilateral ties, China won't sacrifice its sovereignty in exchange for friendship. Therefore, India should not have any illusions with regard to this issue."

The Xinhua news agency disseminated a report the same day quoting Jiang Yu, a spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry, as saying as follows: "China is willing to make joint efforts with India in the spirit of mutual understanding and accommodation to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the issue. China and India have disputed territory along the Himalayan region in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region as a result of the McMahon Line drawn by the British colonial rulers in India in the early 20th century. However, the Chinese government has never recognised the illegal McMahon Line. "

The message, which was conveyed through the Chinese media in the days before the border talks and on the first day of the border talks, was thus very clear: China continued to attach importance to a further improvement of its bilateral relations with India, but it will remain firm on its claims to Indian territory in the Arunachal Pradesh sector.

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B Raman