The Sino-Indian border is the longest undemarcated boundary in the world. It also happens to be disputed, has thousands of troops massed along its length and been the site of one modern-day war. What has been striking about the border, however, is that it has been remarkably stable and tension-free.
There has been no violence along the border for over three decades and it has been the subject of protracted, sleepy negotiations for even longer. This environment is changing.
India, somewhat belatedly, has begun upgrading its military infrastructure in a manner similar to what China has been doing for the past several years. In this dynamic situation, the sense that the Sino-Indian border has become much more tense and militarily active has spread inside India and, to a lesser extent, among the Chinese public.
The signing of what is the fourth protocol on managing tensions along the border has long been overdue. The last such agreement was signed in 2005 and the strategic environment on the ground and in more abstract circles has since changed beyond recognition.
The border defence cooperation agreement is not merely about trying to avoid military incidents spiralling into something larger. It is also about seeking to provide a stable environment that would allow an important bilateral relationship to sort out and remove many irritants.
India and China may never be friends. But they need not be enemies. Many of the strategic, economic and even territorial problems they have with each other are not beyond resolution. The continuing battle over visas, for example, is self-defeating for both sides and is easily resolvable in a less volatile environment. The unofficial barriers to Chinese investment in India and the obstacles placed to India’s service sector in China are another.
There are clearly areas the two will not see eye-to-eye on: China’s provision of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan can only be interpreted as an act of hostility towards India. There have also been sources of friction that arise largely out of bafflement on one side or another.
New Delhi has struggled to understand Beijing’s flip-flop on visas to Kashmiris. China is mystified as to why their language teachers cannot get visas to work in India. These are issues for which diplomacy can seek solutions. But the background noise caused by border altercations and visas must be quietened first.
Border and visa agreements were planned for this State visit. The expectation is that both will happen in the coming months — and the two Asian giants can focus on the real underlying sources of mutual distrust.