National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, went to Beijing earlier this week to have his last formal meeting with his Chinese counterpart, State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who will be retiring in March next year. When they had met earlier this year in January, the two had decided to come up with a joint record of negotiations and to look at the future trajectory of these talks. The aim of the latest talks was to ensure continuity with Dai’s successor. Menon has suggested that the two sides have now reached a “common understanding” on the progress made so far in the border talks that will provide a framework for drawing a “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable” boundary. This is basically another way of saying that nothing substantive was achieved and the talks would continue in fits and starts.

These boundary negotiations had started in 2003 when the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, had agreed on a new framework for the resolution of the border dispute. Vajpayee visited China in June 2003, the first such visit by an Indian premier in a decade during which the two states appointed special representatives to impart momentum to the flagging border negotiations, with the prime minister’s then principal secretary becoming India’s political negotiator. More significantly, India acknowledged China’s sovereignty over Tibet and pledged not to allow “anti-China” political activities in India while China acknowledged India’s 1975 incorporation of the former monarchy of Sikkim by first agreeing to open a trading post along the border with the former kingdom and by later rectifying official maps to include Sikkim as part of India.

In 2005 both sides established the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question Agreement, broad principles to govern the parameters of any dispute settlement. China has expressed its desire to seek a fair resolution to the vexed boundary issue on the basis of “mutual accommodation, respect for history, and accommodation of reality.” When Manmohan Singh visited China in 2008, the two states signed the “shared visions on the 21st century” declaration “to promote the building of a harmonious world of durable peace and common prosperity through developing the Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity between the two countries,” while also reiterating support for the 2005 boundary settlement agreement.

Indian and Chinese Special Representatives for the boundary negotiations have been struggling since then to come to some sort of an understanding on the boundary question but with little success. The negotiations have been on a virtual standstill since 2005 despite all the gloss that the two governments have tried to put on the developments since then. China has vigorously asserted its old claims along the border with India and has combined it with aggressive patrolling, which New Delhi views as a violation of the 1993 agreement on the LAC. Even as India considered the Sikkim border issue settled, repeated Chinese incursions in the “finger area” in northern Sikkim in the past few years are aimed at opening a fresh front against India. Concerns are growing about covert intrusions into the Indian territory to strengthen Chinese claims over the disputed border areas. PLA forces are also regularly intruding into Bhutanese territory at the junction where the three countries meet and destroying Indian Army posts. These incursions are strategically directed at the Siliguri corridor that connects India with its northeast states.

China’s rapid expansion and modernization of transport infrastructure across the border is also forcing India to respond, though India is already decades behind. The PRC’s plans to modernize transportation across the Himalayas had been evident for decades. The railway link between Beijing and Lhasa further tightened China’s grip on Tibet and helped it to rapidly deploy troops in the region when riots broke out in 2008. China’s ambition is to extend this rail line to Yatung, just a few miles from Sikkim’s Nathu La, and subsequently to Nyingchi, north of Arunachal Pradesh, at the tri-border junction with Myanmar. China’s plans for the development of its border areas contrast vividly with India’s tentative stance on infrastructure development. China’s transformation of transport infrastructure in the provinces that border South Asia (Yunnan, Tibet, and Xinjiang), as well as its decision to build road and rail networks across the borders of these areas, is rapidly altering the geopolitical realities for India, which is struggling to cope with the decay in its border infrastructure.

New Delhi and Beijing are trying to sort their boundary problem in a strategic context today that is vastly different from the one that prevailed in 2005. Certainly these are tough negotiations and territorial give and take will never be easy for either government. But what is striking is the growing divide between the two sides. After 15 rounds of negotiations, there remain significant differences in the interpretation by the two sides of the 2005 agreement on the guiding principles for the resolution of the boundary dispute. Where India’s understanding remains that only minor territorial adjustments are needed to get to the demarcation of a common boundary, China continues to claim almost 60,000 kilometres in Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang. China wants significant concessions from India on the eastern sector which India is in no position to offer.  The 2005 agreement was seen as a significant breakthrough when it was signed. But as the present realities make clear that the ambiguous language of the past makes it virtually impossible for the two sides to reach a final settlement and the 2005 pact may in fact be more of a hindrance in the coming years as the two sides continue to stick to their own interpretations.

It needs to be recognised that such pacts are only as good as the strategic environment allows them to be. At a time when the Sino-Indian relationship is facing trouble on a number of fronts, it is unrealistic to assume that the 2005 pact will be of help in resolving the boundary dispute.