Originally Published 2013-07-11 09:17:11 Published on Jul 11, 2013
China and India need to do more than repeatedly declaring outcomes of meetings as 'successful' and 'positive'. Talking things out straight will no doubt lead to friction and diplomatic parleys but at least it will be an enterprise in reality.
India-China relations and the importance of diplomatic signaling
India and China recently held the 16th round of their Special Representatives' talks on the boundary question on 28-29th June. The talks, which began in 2003, were envisaged as a conduit through which India and China could address their long-pending boundary issue and prevent flare-ups along the unresolved Line of Actual Control (LAC). Yet, these talks, as well as the new boundary working mechanism that came into operation last year, failed to thwart incidents like the Depsang Valley border stand-off in April. It is important to ask why, as also to explore ways to ensure that future rounds of talks take both countries closer to an eventual resolution of the border dispute. The 16th round of talks were especially focused on devising mechanisms to avoid repetition of Depsang-like situations. However, apart from the talks on the new Border Defence Cooperation Agreement and Afghanistan, it remains doubtful if the two countries ended up "breaking new ground"1 , as claimed by Chinese interlocutor Yang Jeichi. Instead, the talks seem almost indistinguishable from the previous 15 rounds, replete with commitments to "maintenance of peace and tranquility along the border areas"2 and "building a strategic and cooperative India-China partnership",3 all of which left nothing more than a sense of déjà vu. Depsang was not the first instance of border transgression and it may very well not be the last if India and China continue to choke established channels of communication with mere verbiage rather than expressing in concrete terms what each wants and expects from the other. Diplomacy is a mind game that both China and India are adept at. However, effective diplomacy is dependent on the giving and receiving of proper signaling between nations. It is precisely this element which is missing in bilateral diplomatic relations between India and China, as a consequence of which, contrary to popular belief, China is as unsure about India's actions and responses as India is about China's. Incorrect signaling between nations is not only detrimental to the success of bilateral talks, but can also lead to sub-optimal outcomes like crises and even wars. Apart from the latest border stand-off, a glimpse at India-China relations in the past will also bear testimony to this. In retrospect The outbreak of the India-China war in 1962 can be partly attributed to the fact that China did not quite expect India's 'forward policy', after the latter's initial ambivalence. India too, still in the brothers-in-arms euphoria, gravely miscalculated by not taking China's repeated 'warnings' seriously. A similar story of signaling, though with a different outcome, can be found in the Somdorung Chu incident of 1986 when, in response to China's troop deployment along the NEFA, India had instantly mobilised around 50,000 troops and conducted combined air-land exercises.4 This was an unmistakable demonstration of both the willingness and capability of India to stand up to the Chinese. The signal was taken and the Chinese backed off, thereby averting a war. India's diplomatic ambiguity With regard to the Depsang stand-off in April, India responded to the 19-km incursion into its territory by setting up quid pro quo structures in an eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation with the PLA. This response was probably not what China had anticipated, given the numerous earlier occasions when India had let similar 'incursions' pass by without creating much of a hue and cry, often even downplaying such issues. This is where the whole question of erroneous signaling comes into play. If India had consistently maintained a firm and unwavering posture in the past on issues like boundary transgressions and 'cartographic aggressions' by China, then China would have had a clear idea about India's policy stance. It could then have made a rational choice analysis based on this shadow of the past and fashioned its responses and actions accordingly. Thus, unambiguous signaling of what is acceptable and what is not is indispensible to any healthy bilateral relationship, indeed crucial for meaningful boundary talks and eventual resolution of the border dispute. Instead, last year, after a similar incursion into the Chumar sector of the Depsang Valley, Indian Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde resounded, "I assure you there is no problem in Ladakh till now"5. What kind of message does that send out to the Chinese? None other than an interpretation that India is not pressing for claims in the Western sector of the disputed border or is in agreement with China's understanding of the border. Based on past experience then, China might have thought that India will have 'no problem in Ladakh' this time either if a 19-km incursion is made into Indian territory. It does not help either when the external affairs minister is shy to demand an explanation for border incursions into Indian territory. During Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to India immediately after the Depsang Valley incident, Mr Salman Khurshid reportedly said "Why embarrass him by asking?if he has the answer he can share it with us"6. India should thus realise that past behaviours, thought not a perfect guide to future trajectories, provide an empirical baseline for making policy judgments. China's carrot and stick policy China too on its part has to realise that the 'handshake across the Himalayas' extended by Li Keqiang has to be followed up by commensurate action. Forging CBMs is not easy when China is simultaneously concluding nuclear technology sharing agreements with "all-weather friend" Pakistan, and stating that India "must accept this enviable friendship" and "we cannot help it if India's feelings are hurt"7. It further has a tendency of declaring Pakistan at par with itself while reserving a unique mix of contempt and respect for India. Cracks in its otherwise perfectly-mastered art of 'charm diplomacy' are also exposed from time to time. Despite dangling the carrot of better political and economic ties, China had often threatened that cooperation in BRICS could "easily be disrupted" and that high-level visits to New Delhi are "probably not enough to ease and finally eliminate all suspicions"8 . Thus, China needs to put a little more heart into its 'smile diplomacy' so that it doesn't come across to other nations as simply baring its teeth, while India needs to chalk out and declare a concrete China policy (something like China's 'blue book' on India), rather than dealing with issues on a case-by-case contingent basis. Conclusion It is all very well therefore to have 16 rounds of Special Representatives' talks and regular high-level visits, but unless both countries get beyond the petty courtesies and 'smile diplomacy', exercises like the Special Representatives' talks will eventually be rendered defunct or merely ceremonial. China and India need to do more than repeatedly declaring outcomes of meetings as 'successful' and 'positive', which, according to diplomat Abba Eban, is actually just a euphemism for 'nothing worthwhile has been achieved'. Talking things out straight will no doubt lead to friction and diplomatic parleys but at least it will be an enterprise in reality. If diplomatic signaling is not a reflection of what each nation wants, it will forever elude a solution to all bilateral irritants between India and China. (Kasturi Moitra is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University.) Notes 1.    Ananth Krishnan, "China ready to 'break new ground' on border settlement", The Hindu, 28 June 2013. 2.    Ministry of External Affairs, "16th Round of Talks between the Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question", Government of India, New Delhi, 29 June 2013, available at http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/21884/16th+Round+of+Talks+between+the+Special+Representatives+of+India+and+China+on+the+Boundary+Question (accessed on 2 July 2013). 3.    Ananth Krishnan, "India, China to strengthen border mechanisms", The Hindu, 30 June 2013. 4.    Mandip Singh, "Lessons from Somdurong Chu Incident", IDSA Comment, 26 April 2013, available at http://idsa.in/idsacomments/CurrentChineseincursionLessonsfromSomdurongChuIncident_msingh_260413 (accessed on 2 July 2013). 5.    "No threat from China in Ladakh", The Indian Express, 12 October 2012. 6.    Gardiner Harris, "In New Delhi, Chinese Prime Minister Promotes Trade Ties", The New York Times, 21 May 2013, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/world/asia/in-new-delhi-chinese-leader-promotes-trade-ties.html (accessed on 2 July 2013). 7.    "India must accept enviable friendship between China and Pak", Deccan Herald, 23 May 2013. 8.    Ananth Krishnan, "A 'political missile,' say Chinese media", The Hindu, 19 April 2012.
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