New Delhi: The special representatives talks on the boundary question, or SR-level dialogue mechanism between India and China, is an important channel of communication and should continue in order to mitigate border standoffs and other issues, experts have told ThePrint.
The 22nd edition, which was the last round of SR-level talks to take place, happened in New Delhi last December between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Wang Yi, State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, both of whom are designated SRs for India and China, respectively.
“The relationship with China is a difficult and complex one, and it is useful to have high-level dialogue mechanisms between India and China for the management of this relationship. The SR talks are one such dialogue channel that have proved invaluable and should continue,” Ashok Kantha, former Indian ambassador to Beijing and former secretary (East) at the Ministry of External Affairs, told ThePrint.
Kantha, who is now Director at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), also said that over the years, the SR talks have developed a three-part role — the original mandate of searching for a political settlement to the boundary question, management of borders, and a forum for strategic dialogue.
“The SRs have some important achievements to their credit, including the agreement of 2005 on political parameters and guiding principles for the boundary settlement,” he said. “The SRs have also provided important guidance for ensuring peace and tranquility in border areas in a challenging situation where there are major differences on the alignment of the boundary and the LAC (Line of Actual Control).”
The border stand-off
Over the past week, Indian and Chinese forces have been engaged in a tense border stand-off across several sections of the LAC. The stand-off has intensified in the areas such as the Galwan river valley where India has been building a new road.
Many are comparing the present stand-off with that of the 2017 Doklam face-off. The Covid-19 pandemic and the geopolitical dynamics around it, wherein Chinese President Xi Jinping has come under considerable pressure owing to a reputational loss, have also added to the border scuffles.
“The context and timing of the current stand-off is to be kept in mind. China is feeling the pressure from the world over its handling of the Covid-19 crisis. During any dialogue, China is likely to press for tactical concessions as strategic aspects with India are non-negotiable,” said Probal Dasgupta, a former Army veteran who recently published his first book, Watershed-1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China.
According to Dasgupta, the SR mechanism has in the past helped resolve issues and thus is “not a failure” as a mechanism.
“In fact, SR dialogues have gone beyond discussing boundary disputes and have also included special economic dialogues since the last 10 years. However, it is important to note that the dialogue needs to happen at the right time,” he said.
The SR mechanism
The SR mechanism was institutionalised in 2003 after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China led to the agreement.
“SR dialogues are restricted to building a communication channel but can never be a permanent solution because the Chinese want the border issues to fester: as it suits them to use these border stand-offs as a leverage to pressurise India on other fronts,” Dasgupta said. “SR dialogues were previously held when the atmosphere was conducive to it. It cannot be seen to be used as a negotiating platform at this moment.”
Kantha added that it is “imperative to have high-level strategic consultations to manage the simultaneous rise of the two countries, their overlapping footprints in different theatres and convergences and divergences in their respective strategic perceptions”.
In the last meeting of the SRs, both sides reiterated the need to “maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas for the overall development of the bilateral relationship, pending final settlement of the boundary question”.
It was also agreed that the next round of SR talks will be held in China.