News analysis: Ajit Doval becomes China negotiator with stars in alignment - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 26 November 2014

News analysis: Ajit Doval becomes China negotiator with stars in alignment

This map incorrectly shows Sikkim as disputed. The Central Sector is actually in Uttarakhand

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Nov 14

Since 2003, in 17 rounds of talks, India and China have relied on quiet diplomacy between a top official from either side to resolve their thorny territorial dispute. Termed “Special Representatives” or SRs, these negotiators --- who must enjoy the confidence of their national leaders --- are mandated to bypass the endless technical wrangling of diplomats, bureaucrats and soldiers.

On November 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval would "conduct boundary negotiations and strategic consultations with China".

Doval will be India’s fifth SR; after Brajesh Mishra (2003-04); JN Dixit (2004-05); MK Narayanan (2005-10); and Shivshankar Menon (2010-14).  For a decade, China’s SR was the redoubtable Dai Bingguo, who has been lauded by Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinsky. Dai retired last year to be succeeded by Yang Jiechi.

Modi had first offered the job of SR to former foreign secretary and respected Sinologist, Shyam Saran, who declined. The rank of “principal secretary” that Saran was offered was two ranks below his Chinese interlocutor, Yang Jiechi, who holds the rank of State Councillor --- one rung above a minister.

Doval has accepted the challenge at his current rank of “principal secretary”. He will now negotiate with Yang Jiechi to decide ownership of some 1,30,000 square kilometres (sq km) of territory that both countries claim. This is spread across three areas --- (a) The uninhabited Western Sector in Ladakh, where the dispute involves 38,000 sq km; (b) The small Central Sector in Uttarakhand, which is just 2,000 sq km; and (c) The large and contentious Eastern Sector, which measures some 90,000 sq km, practically the whole of Arunachal Pradesh.

Sources close to the negotiations say that New Delhi has been prepared to accept Beijing’s claims in the Western Sector, provided China accepted India’s claims in the Eastern Sector with the relatively inconsequential Central Sector resolved through minor give-and-take. Beijing, however, demands “substantive concessions” in the Eastern Sector --- specifically ceding to China ownership of the strategic Tawang district. This is unacceptable to New Delhi.

Notwithstanding this deadlock, previous SRs negotiated an “Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the China–India Boundary Question”, which was signed during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in April 2005.

Doval will have to translate this into a “Framework Agreement” for a final settlement, after which a new border will be delineated and demarcated.

The “Political Parameters” of 2005 are viewed as a triumph in New Delhi because they include two points that favour India’s case. These are (a) Article VI: “The boundary should be along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features to be mutually agreed upon between the two sides”; and (b) Article VII: “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.”

Indian diplomats see China’s acceptance of the watershed principle as tacit acceptance of the McMahon Line, drawn along the watershed in 1914, which India claims is the border between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. The clause about protecting the settled populations is seen in New Delhi as Chinese acceptance that populous Tawang remains with India.

China downplays these assumptions. Beijing signed the “Political Parameters” under pressure, at a time when New Delhi’s international profile was growing. In 2005, a burgeoning growth rate had made India the darling of global investors. New Delhi was edging closer to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Japan. With the US-India strategic partnership flowering, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh due to visit Washington, Beijing clearly folded under the pressure.

Says a senior diplomat of that era: “China apparently resolved to make Wen’s visit to India a grand success, hoping to take some of the shine off Dr Manmohan Singh’s forthcoming US visit. New Delhi successfully leveraged Beijing’s concerns and pushed through a favourable “Political Parameters” agreement that the Chinese premier signed in India on April 11, 2005.

Even so, New Delhi failed to maintain the momentum. The global economic crisis, India’s growth slump, and political paralysis in New Delhi gave Beijing little incentive to continue purposeful negotiations.

With India’s political wheel turning full circle this year, Doval will negotiate from an expanding diplomatic space. Prime Minister Modi’s powerful domestic mandate, revitalised ties with Japan and Vietnam, and a burgeoning US-India relationship --- evident from President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to New Delhi as Republic Day chief guest --- could induce Beijing to resume serious negotiations.

Over time, the SR dialogue has grown in scope. Besides the boundary question, it has become a standing forum for strategic discussions between New Delhi and Beijing. The two SRs discuss sensitive issues when they meet one-on-one; while the visit agenda occasionally includes a “retreat” outside the capital, where they have ample opportunity to exchange ideas, views and to float trial balloons.

The SR talks are complemented by two other simultaneous dialogue tracks. One is between India’s foreign secretary and China’s equivalent vice-minister for foreign affairs. The second track is a Technical Group, which includes the dealing foreign ministry officials from both sides. This resolves the nuts and bolts issues of border management, such as confidence building measures (CBMs).

The SR Dialogue was instituted during Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003. There had been little progress in 8 rounds of talks between officials from 1981-88; and in 14 meetings of a Joint Working Group (JWG) from 1988-2003. Both sides agreed that a political solution to the boundary question, negotiated between empowered, top-level officials, would allow the pursuit of broader strategic goals.

The first challenge for Doval would be to obtain a clear negotiating mandate. So far, there has been little clarity on India’s bottom lines. While both sides would accept a border settlement on their own terms; reconciling those might involve concessions. It remains for the prime minister to gauge what concessions he can sell to parliament and the people. 


  1. Brig Sampat Patil27 November 2014 at 07:29

    Good analysis

  2. One would expect somebody of your caliber you to know that the Indian NSA is an MoS rank appointment.

    Besides, the current NSA has loads of experience in NEFA at the ground level realities.

  3. @ Anonymous 14:18

    Ajit Doval carries the rank of Principal Secretary. You can take it or leave it.

  4. What has been the role of China usurping Tibet in these border wrangles with India?


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