March 23, 2015
The first round of boundary talks with China under the Narendra Modi government, taking place this week, is an opportunity for New Delhi to explore the territorial compromises necessary to resolve the longstanding dispute. With strong leaders at the helm in Delhi and Beijing, there are rising expectations that the two special representatives — Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi — will be able to find an early breakthrough on the boundary dispute. By their very nature, territorial compromises are not easy, despite the strong political will in Delhi and Beijing. Even the simplest of solutions to the boundary dispute — turning the status quo into a legitimate border — involves a notional exchange of territories and changing the way the two countries have long drawn their maps.
Given the difficulties of finding a final settlement, the two sides have focused, in the last few rounds, on ensuring peace and tranquility on the border. Repeated incursions by both sides across the claimed boundary line have raised tensions on the border in recent years and cast a political shadow over bilateral ties. Further, the lack of agreement on where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is has complicated the effective implementation of many confidence-building measures for border stability that the two sides had negotiated in recent years. So, the clarification of the LAC has become an immediate political need for both countries.
Both these approaches — maintaining a peaceful border and clarifying the LAC — look beneath the boundary dispute by disaggregating the problem. But the greatest opportunity for the two governments today lies in looking beyond the boundary dispute and altering the broader context in which it plays out.
The Chinese have often said expanded bilateral cooperation across the board will set the stage, over the longer term, for addressing the intractable territorial problem left over by history. That long term might be too far down the road for India’s political comfort. A more productive approach would be to focus on promoting cooperation across the shared but disputed frontiers. This cooperation must necessarily be pursued in tandem with efforts to maintain peace on the border and purposeful negotiations to resolve the dispute.