When the foreign ministers of China and India emerged from their meeting in Moscow last week, there was a sense of relief.
Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said their 2½-hour discussion had yielded a five-point plan to ease the worst border crisis between the two countries in decades.
It seemed like there was the start of a way out of clashes that had already claimed the lives of at least 20 Indian soldiers and involved gunfire.
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But their differences re-emerged almost immediately.
For decades the two sides have agreed that economic issues should be separate from the dispute but now China sees India muddying that understanding with sanctions against Chinese firms and technologies. At the same time, India sees China as raising the stakes by moving more troops into an area that was previously largely considered a no man’s land.
At the diplomatic level, the two sides appear to be in agreement. On Monday Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong said that whenever the situation gets difficult, “it is all the more important to ensure the stability of the overall relationship and preserve mutual trust.”
The next day, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told the Indian parliament that both countries resolved to keep peace and tranquillity along their border.
But Singh also said that they had not been able to find a mutually acceptable solution and New Delhi had doubled its budget in recent years for strategic roads along the border to match Chinese infrastructure on the other side.
Observers said mutual suspicion from China and India, the rise of nationalism in both countries and rapidly changing regional geopolitics have cast a shadow over efforts by Beijing and New Delhi to reach and agreement and rebuild trust.
Aman Thakker, an adjunct fellow with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the latest crisis had “emerged as a watershed moment and a catalyst among Indian strategists to rethink and reassess India-China policy”.
He said Delhi’s policy since the 1988 China trip of then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was largely structured around continuing to engage in border negotiation and work out confidence-building measures to keep peace, while fostering bilateral cooperation in other areas. However, such a policy framework now faced “serious stress”, he said.
“[China] has become increasingly assertive and muscular along the border, leading to various stand-offs,” Thakker said, citing the border clashes of 2013, 2014 and the Doklam crisis in 2017.
However, Liu Zongyi, a researcher on South Asia at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said New Delhi’s China policy had undergone significant change.
“China and India used to have a tacit agreement that their boundary and political disputes would not spill over to their economic cooperation,” Liu said.
“This time, India has not only taken economic retaliation [against China] but also cultural measures, like scrutinising Confucius Institutes and other projects between Indian and Chinese universities.”
“This is very grave and unprecedented,” Liu said. “The trust in this tacit agreement has been breached.”
“In seeking the ‘new confidence-building measures’, I think we should address not just peace and tranquillity in border areas, but also patching up the broken understanding in insulating economic cooperation,” he said, referring to one aspect of the five-point consensus reached by the two foreign ministers in Moscow.
Analysts have also noted developments by both sides in recent years that may bring about mutual suspicion. One, for instance, was New Delhi’s decision in August last year to repeal the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and turn it and Ladakh into two federally administered union territories – the latter nominally including Aksai Chin area currently controlled by China.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, was not reassuring to Delhi.
At the same time, both countries’ foreign policies are shaped by strong nationalism internally, making bilateral talks less effective in resolving differences, according to Jagannath Panda, a research fellow and East Asia coordinator of the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
“Upholding national security and territorial integrity seems to be the prime line of focus for both. A lack of flexibility is hence clearly visible,” Panda said.
Thakker said the tension had resulted in India deepening relationships with its key partners, either by engaging closely and behind the scenes with the US, signing a new logistics pact with Japan, launching an alternative Supply Chain Resilience Initiative with Japan and Australia, or reportedly finalising its invitation to Australia for the US-India-Japan Malabar naval exercises.
“The US will continue to be a factor in the bilateral relations between the two countries. China doesn't like that,” said Rup Narayan Das, a senior fellow with the Indian Council of Social Science Research.
“But China also knows well that India follows an independent foreign policy which is not dictated by the US. India needs US support to deal with China.”
While India’s partnership with the United States is on a progressive path and Washington appears to have shown an active interest in defusing the tension, Panda said the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – a loose demarcation between Indian-controlled territory and Chinese-controlled territory at the border – was a complicated part of India and China’s shared history.
“It is neither in India’s or China’s interests to allow any third party to interfere, a fact both sides are cautious of,” Panda said.
China and India entered into a series of agreements and confidence-building measures between 1993 and 2013 to prevent the border situation from escalating.
These included a 1993 agreement to reduce troops; the 1996 agreement that improves military transparency and the much-cited no-fire rule within 2km (1.2 miles) of the border; as well as a 2005 agreement that stated that boundary differences should not affect overall bilateral relations.
Separate deals made in 2005 and 2012 established the modalities of regular border talks and consultation at the director general level between diplomatic and military officials.
Panda said that while the existing mechanisms seemed at a standstill, the thrust of these mechanisms should be encouraged.
“The post-1962 phase in India-China ties has faced challenges from time to time at both military and diplomatic level. Political interactions have guided [officials] to find a way forward in attempts to resolve disputes,” he said, referring to a month-long war between the two countries 58 years ago.
Lin Minwang, an international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the question now was how to come up with a new, better system to manage and control differences under the changed circumstances.
“The existing rules that have been upheld for such a long time have been violated. It is still to be seen how both sides would initiate a new mechanism,” Lin said.
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This article China-India border dispute: there may be a five-point plan but is it enough to bridge differences? first appeared on South China Morning Post