India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon will be in China shortly and would be meeting a host of important outgoing and incoming Chinese leaders on December 3-4, the first time when a senior Indian official will be having direct contact with the new Chinese leaders. Menon also doubles up as India’s Special Representative on border talks with China and will be holding talks with his Chinese counterpart State Councillor Dai Bingguo who is retiring in March 2013.
According to senior Indian diplomats, the Menon-Dai talks would not be characterized as formal SR-level talks. Instead Menon’s brief is to explore the mind of the new Chinese leadership on the border and other bilateral issues and touch base with the new leadership after the Communist Party of China recently approved the nation’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition. In many ways Menon’s China visit would also be in the nature of a farewell to Dai with whom he has held many rounds of boundary talks under the SR mechanism.
Menon’s parleys with his Chinese interlocutors on December 3-4 are likely to result in two important take-aways for both the sides. One, during their informal discussions the two SRs are expected to thrash out a kind of a progress card of the boundary talks held so far under the SR mechanism which would be put up before their respective governments for their consideration. Two, Menon may also meet one or two members of the seven new members of the newly-drafted Polit Bureau Standing Committee, though the meetings are yet to be firmed up. There is a possibility that Menon may call on Li Keqiang, who will be the number two after the new Chinese leadership takes over in March. Li is the designated Prime Minister who will replace Wen Jiabao.
Menon’s talks with Dai are expected to focus on a broad framework which the two countries have been trying to thrash out during their previous rounds under the SR mechanism. This will be largely be an informal and exploratory exercise wherein the framework’s broad contours would be discussed. The framework in itself would not be finalized during these talks because it would be up to the new Chinese leadership to take a call on it. This essentially means that the next round of formal talks under the SR mechanism will be held only after the new Chinese leadership takes over.
Both India and China have conveyed to each other their satisfaction with the boundary talks at the SR’s level. India and China have so far held 15 rounds of talks on the boundary dispute, the last ten of which have been held under the SR’s mechanism since it was put in place in 2003. In 2008, after five rounds of SR’s-level talks, the two sides signed an agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles for settling the boundary dispute. This signaled end of the first phase of the Sino-Indian talks on the boundary issue.
Menon himself has taken cognizance of this phase-by-phase approach of the two sides when he went on record saying this in New Delhi last week: "We are in the process of agreeing on a framework to settle the boundary and the next step, hopefully the third stage, is to actually agree on a boundary. Right now we are at the second stage."
The last round of Sino-Indian border talks, held in New Delhi in January this year threw up another concrete deliverable when the two sides set up the “Working Mechanism on Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs”. The new mechanism at the level of senior diplomats is essentially an additional safeguard to maintain peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The first meeting under this new mechanism was held in January itself when the two SR’s held talks.
Days before Menon’s departure for Beijing, the 2nd meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs was held in New Delhi on November, 29-30. The Indian delegation was lead by Gautam Bambawale, Joint Secretary (East Asia) and comprised of representatives of the Ministries of External Affairs, Defense and Home Affairs as well as members of the Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. The Chinese delegation was led by Ambassador Wang Xiaodu, Special Representative, Department of Boundary and Oceanic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and comprised of representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Defense. After this meeting the Chinese delegation called on Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai.
At the second meeting of the new mechanism at the level of senior diplomats and security officials, the two sides reviewed in cordial, constructive and cooperative atmosphere the developments in the India-China border areas since the first meeting of the Mechanism in January this year. The Ministry of External Affairs released a brief statement at the end of this meeting saying that the two sides acknowledged with satisfaction that peace and tranquility continued to be maintained due to the joint efforts of the two countries. “The two delegations also exchanged ideas on additional measures for maintaining peace and tranquility as well as further steps to build greater trust and confidence between the two sides. The two delegations welcomed the recent liberalization of border trade across Nathu La, which has led to a significant increase in the volume of trade. They continued their discussions on introducing additional routes for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra,” the MEA statement said.
China and India are number one and number three economies of Asia. Their bilateral trade is hovering around $ 100 billion mark and some economic experts believe that this could reach a highly impressive figure of $ 300 billion within a decade. The two nuclear armed most populous nations on earth cannot afford to repeat a mistake of half a century ago when they fought a brief war on the boundary issue. It would be in the larger interest of the humanity if India and China were to amicably resolve their boundary dispute; the sooner, the better.