The Border Defense Cooperation Agreement signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China is without doubt a constructive step towards resolving the boundary dispute. The BDCA itself is not a gamechanger: it simply reinforces the basic international norm that countries ought to settle differences through peaceful means. Specifically, the Agreement adds to the existing layer of confidence-building measures through flag meetings, joint military patrols, and periodic highlevel interaction. The BDCA nevertheless indicates both New Delhi and Beijing have accorded high priority to preventing hostile incidents along the Line of Actual Control. That Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Dr. Singh have exchanged visits within six months of the incident reflects this fact. The Chinese intrusion and subsequent withdrawal from the Depsang plain earlier this year provided the impetus to BDCA negotiations, and prompted serious introspection on the effectiveness of the Working Mechanism on Border Affairs. By opting for a tempered Agreement though, Dr. Singh has chosen to play his hand cautiously in an election year.
The BJP, which facetiously claimed the government has ceded territory to China, would do well to acknowledge the spirit with which former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee established the Special Representative mechanism on border talks during his 2003 Beijing visit. The ultimate objective of finalizing an LAC acceptable to both countries is still some distance away.With no clear understanding of how the other perceives the Line, and China preferring “status quo” along the boundary, the onus will be on India to seize the initiative. Preparing the framework for a lasting settlement is important: that said, India-China ties cannot be hostage to the boundary dispute. It is unfortunate – but entirely predictable – that plans to usher in a liberal visa regime were shelved owing to the controversy over China handing out stapled visas to two athletes from Arunachal Pradesh. The stapled visa issue has assumed dangerous proportions. It cannot be allowed to eclipse the need for greater cooperation, particularly in the fields of trade and tourism. While making the case for robust engagement at the Strategic Economic Dialogue scheduled for next month, India must also ensure our exporters gain a stronger foothold in the Chinese market. Whether it is on the strategic or the commercial side, both governments can only reap the benefits of cooperation through constant dialogue. In snuffing out “old theories of alliance and containment,” Dr. Singh has rightly emphasized a workmanlike approach to dealing with this important relationship.