The release of Joint Press Statements historically falls under two broad paradigms. First, to express bonding or confidence in public amongst partners while the second is an attempt to manage a fast deteriorating situation or relationship. The 10 September 2020 Joint Press Release between India and China falls in the latter as India-China relations, once expected to be a defining factor of the “Asian Century”, are on the brink of collapse.
The Joint Press Statement released post the meeting between Dr. S. Jaishankar (India’s External Affairs Minister) and Wang Yi (State Councillor and Foreign Minister of China) outlined five main points, expressing hope that India-China ties will return to their original “power-partner” framework built over the years. The five specifics were (1) not allowing differences to become disputes, (2) pursue dialogue and disengage militarily on the ground, (3) abide all existing agreements and protocols, (4) impose thrust on the Special Representatives (SRs) level dialogue and Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China border affairs, and (5) work towards new Confidence Building Mechanisms (CBMs) to maintain peace and tranquillity. While each of these points holds major significance in the current context of India-China border confrontation, the fifth intention requires deeper and more focused assessment. What kind of new CBMs are both sides referring to when the existing ones have been largely unsuccessful in defusing tensions?
CBMs, dialogue mechanisms, agreements and protocols have always been the bedrock of India-China engagement, particularly in defusing tensions on the border. Formal ambassador-level contact between India and China was resumed in August 1976, but it was the visit of India’s then Foreign Minister A.B. Vajpayee to China in 1979 that set in motion the true political interactions between the two countries. Formal border talks started in 1981 and eight rounds of talks were held until 1988. During these talks, there was an acknowledgement by both sides, especially by India, that the existing boundary dispute should not be a barrier to the progress of overall bilateral relations.
The post-1962 normalisation between the two sides happened with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988. The two sides signed a new border resolution mechanism, which established the Joint Working Group (JWG) mechanism. Between 1988-2002, the JWG met almost 14 times without really finding any concrete solution. Rather, the JWG proposed new mechanisms at the Special Representatives (SR), diplomatic and military levels with the hope that these new higher-level mechanisms would help resolve the boundary dispute. Since 2003, the SR dialogue mechanism has become the most important negotiation medium for the border conflict. Supporting this dialogue is the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) which was established during the 15th round of SR talks in January 2012.
Despite the presence of such extensive border dispute mechanisms, including 22 rounds of SR talks in the past few years, no resolution has been reached between the two parties. This is because such a resolution requires major compromise on both sides, and more importantly, change in the set perception of their intentions vis-à-vis each other. However, with the geopolitical order changing and greater challenges emerging (take the unprecedented and sudden COVID-19 pandemic itself) on a day-to-day basis, such consistency in perception between two competing powers is exceedingly difficult to achieve. This is a major reason why CBMs, agreements and even SR talks have been largely unsuccessful in ending the conflict. It is thus not wrong to say that the current border tensions too are more a result of national temperaments and strategic demands rather than technicalities like failure of existing mechanisms. Hence, creation of new CBMs and other structures is not really an answer to the main problem at hand.
Instead, perhaps, both countries must focus on already existing mechanisms – with a genuine interest and preparedness to make concessions on the Chinese part – as a means of maturing bilateral ties. In 2014, a Joint Statement marked the onset of creating a closer ‘developmental partnership’ to “strengthen political communication, deepen strategic trust as well as intensify political dialogue and consultations at all levels”. Now, in the post-Galwan environment, New Delhi and Beijing should recommit themselves to this ideal. India and China have converging economic interests and diverging strategic interests, leading to “constrained cooperation” between them. To overcome this, their renewed focus must prioritise bilateral development while concurrently ensuring peace and tranquillity at the LAC and continued efforts to resolve ‘outstanding differences’ through friendly negotiations under the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.
Simultaneously, India and China must necessarily focus on already instituted CBMs designed to address the border conflict before creating new ones. These mechanisms are, in fact, quite comprehensive on their own, but may have to be restructured to reflect the present-day realities of both countries. Democratic India and communist China both thrive on nationalism in the economic, military and political domains; the current governments in particular draw deeper support due to their nationalistic overtures, complicating ties further.
Under such circumstances, reinvigorating and restructuring CBMs can be an important aspect to move the peace-making process further. This should include investing in Conflict Avoidance Measures (CAMs) like establishing hotlines between high-ranking military leaders; and Peace Building Measures (PBMs) like greater people-to people contacts and history sensitization classes. Some steps have already been taken in this direction, including an emergency hotline between India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC). Nevertheless, any such commitments and measures will remain ineffective if China does not show a genuine and concrete interest in improving ties and taking border dispute resolution further. And under the present circumstances, this remains an unlikely possibility.
A rising power with daunting economic prowess looking to regain its medieval glory, China has remained steadfastly rigid in its revisionist demands. Its participation in bilateral dialogues has been driven by its own selfish national interests rather than a real desire to have lasting peace. Even in its other border disputes, Beijing has sought to claim entire regions based on whatever interpretation of history suited its national interests. In the South China Sea, for instance, China introduced its own ‘Nine-Dash Line’ map claiming 90 per cent of the area. With Beijing adopting a similarly belligerent and uncompromising position at the LAC, it the same creation of more mechanisms to manage the issue does not evoke much confidence. The latest Joint Press Statement is, by all appearances, a step in this direction.
Moreover, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has become more nationalist and assertive. The year 2021 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the party will only attempt to further heighten nationalistic support, which is bound to make it short-sighted and less willing to end the dispute if it means losing face. The CCP is already nervous of its future trajectory. As much as it attempts to control information within Chinese territory, the CCP has witnessed rising protests – such as in Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Territory – making it uncertain of its own path ahead. As a result, Xi’s foreign policy decisions, and his own future within the Party, are increasingly driven by the CCP’s power formulations and domestic calculations. The ‘Peaceful Rise of China’ narrative that a Xi-led Beijing has repeatedly spouted no longer holds under international and public scrutiny; therefore, the PRC sees securing increasing territory and dominance as an essential part of sustaining and developing its global might.
Guided by such thinking, China’s India approach is characterised by significant misperceptions and misjudgements. Rather than accepting India as a potential partner in seeking mutual growth and prosperity, the Chinese leadership sees it as a rising power which could, possibly soon, prove a threat to its own ascension to global power status. Instead of attempting to build bridges and pursue comprehensive ties, China has approached India as a ‘suspect’ power, only generating more synergy between India and Indo-Pacific states like the US, Japan and Australia.
Any resolution to the dispute thus requires a fundamental recalibration of China’s India outlook: Beijing must be receptive of India’s growing agency, respect its sovereignty on sensitive matters like Kashmir, and pursue proactive engagement by according it greater space in its calculus. Only if China recognises India as an acceptable power partner and a part of its Asian formulation, can both sides effectively normalise bilateral ties.
Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”.