Could the spirit of Gandhi help resolve long-standing border tensions between China and India?
In almost every way, President Xi’s visit to India this week was expected to be strikingly different from the previous engagements between the two countries.
Breaking away from the tradition of receiving a foreign head of state in the national capital, Prime Minister Modi received President Xi Wednesday in Ahmedabad, the financial hub and most populated city of the state of Gujarat, different and distant from opulent New Delhi. Before the crucial talks began, Prime Minister Modi took President Xi on a personal tour of Mahatma Gandhi’s abode: The Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. The idea might have been to draw inspiration from the Apostle of Peace as India strives to resolve its border issues with China without having to assert military might.
Disputed borders have always been and will likely always be a bone of contention between India and China. To say that discussion on border disputes would be part of the talks this week would be an understatement.
Just 48 hours before President’s Xi’s visit to India, reports emerged that locals in the Leh region in Northern India had spotted Chinese troops in Indian Territory. India and China share more than 3,000 kilometres of border from Kashmir in the North to Arunachal Pradesh in the Northeast. Since 1962, when India lost miserably to China in a military war, their border disputes stand unresolved. Disputed borders have often been both the cause and effect of continuous conflict between the two most powerful neighbours in Asia.
There have been consistent violent border incursions by Chinese military troops with matters escalating to an alarming level when Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops intruded 19 kilometres-deep into Indian Territory across the line of actual control in Daulat Beg Oldi Sector in Ladakh in April last year. After three weeks of stand-off and anxious diplomatic measures by India, Chinese troops went back to their original position. There have been reports that tensions in that same area of the border escalated again this week.
It was the incident in April last year, coupled with other incursions, which led the previous Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to sign the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement with China last October to maintain peace along the border. But the agreement doesn’t seem to have deterred China from setting up posts: contrary to the agreement, incursions have been on the rise, becoming a source of annoyance to India.
As a prime ministerial candidate, Modi was a vocal critic of India’s meekness, which was often construed as inability to stand up to the ‘Mighty Chinese’. Now as prime minister, it is upon him to act upon his rhetoric and, at least, change the perception of India as a weak country; if not to bring a solution to this perennial dispute.
On the eve of President Xi’s visit to India, the Indian prime minister appeared to be prepared for the hard talk. Indian manoeuvres over the past month are a clear indication that the country is thoroughly prepared to discuss the ‘uncomfortable’ issue of Chinese incursions. Unlike the previous Indian government that regaled in signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement and concluded all was well between India and China, India’s new right-wing prime minister seems to be in no mood to play second fiddle to China’s most powerful politician.
Two months ago, Prime Minister Modi and President Xi met on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Brazil. A decision to establish a New Development Bank headquartered in China and presided over by India will see the two countries working closely together in coming years. Prime Minister Modi refrained from raising border issues in Brazil when he held meetings with the Chinese delegation. But that might not be the case this time.
While trade was expected to be an important aspect of this week’s meeting, and several deals were announced during the trip, with Prime Minister Modi at the helm it was unlikely that he would permit economics to overshadow politics. From what we know so far, it seems he did not disappoint. According to the Wall Street Journal, at a news conference with President Xi on Thursday, Modi underlined the importance of the issue saying “peace and stability on the border are the foundation of our mutual trust and relationship… We both agree on this and we must both steadfastly follow it.”
The priority of the issue is precisely why India’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval, considered to be one of the Prime Minister’s closest aids and most important advisor on matters related to foreign policy, was dispatched to Beijing last week to hold talks with Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, who is also China’s special representative for China-India border talks. As the Prime Minister’s special envoy, Doval carried with him a special message for President Xi, fuelling speculation on what that special message might be.
Meanwhile, Ahmedabad had been spruced up at the cost US$1.7 million to welcome President Xi on Wednesday, a day that also happened to be Prime Minister Modi’s birthday. Earlier this year, President Xi was quoted saying that furthering the Sino-Indian strategic partnership is his “historic mission”. But before President Xi embarks on his “mission”, it needs to be made clear that nothing would please India and Prime Minister Modi more than China stopping its interference with India’s borders.