Between April and September 2016 China and India engaged in a variety of security discussions involving their special representatives, national security advisors, defence ministers, foreign ministers and heads of government. These discussions show a two-level logic of some global agreement, but more evident regional disagreements.
From 20-21 April, the 19th Special Representatives' Meeting on the India-China Boundary Question
, a mechanism running since 2003, brought India's National Security Advisor Ajit to China for discussions with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi. Chinese Foreign Ministry comments
were positive, that the two sides enhanced mutual trust and expanded consensus through this meeting which is of great significance in promoting settlement of the boundary question, maintaining peace and tranquillity of the border areas and securing sound and stable development of bilateral relations. However, vagueness surrounded what was actually discussed and agreed/disagreed since barring the opening remarks, officials on both sides maintained total secrecy on the proceedings and Doval himself declined to speak to the media. Chinese comments
that extensive, in-depth and candid exchange of views on the boundary question, bilateral relations, and regional and international issues were opaque, candid
being often a euphemism for blunt private disagreement. No progress was evident on incoming Indian border and regional concerns, though cooperation against terrorism was reaffirmed, including intelligence-sharing. From 30-31 August, at the 9th
meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on China-India Border Affairs
, Ouyang Yujing, China's Director-General of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Foreign Ministry, had discussions in New Delhi with Pradeep Rawat, the Joint Secretary of the East Asia Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. A peaceful border was trumpeted despite heated Indian media comments
the previous month about Chinese land incursions and airspace violations in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Chinese rhetoric
was positive in terms of the Working Mechanism
being to create favourable conditions for boundary talks at the next stage; but again this represents border management rather than border resolution since sovereignty dealing boundary talks remained unstarted.
National Security representatives
China and India share common global-level concerns on counter-terrorism. This was evident
on 15 September, at the Meeting of the BRICS High Representatives Responsible for National Security
, which brought together China's State Councillor Yang Jiechi with India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, with a newly-established BRICS Working Group on Counter Terrorism meeting
the day before.
On 17 April, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and India's Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj met in Moscow for the Russia-India-China (RIC) Foreign Ministers meeting in which the RIC Joint Statement
expressed common ground on pushing for a multi-polar international system. With regard to regional affairs, the three RIC Foreign Ministers also agreed to establish a new trilateral Russia-India-China Consultation on Asia Pacific Affairs
that would meet in late-2016 Although Wang Yi
was keen to stress
that for the future China and India should work together through the alignment of each other's development strategies, in order to facilitate the earlier realization of the Asian century, current friction over South Asia was apparent in further bilateral discussions between Swaraj and Wang, where Swaraj raised
the issue of China's blocking on 31 March of Indian attempts at the United Nations to add Masood Azhar, theleader of the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed linked to the attack on Pathankot airbase in January 2016, to the list of banned persons under UN Security Council resolution 1267. China's reasons for blocking India's UN move were linked to its support for Pakistan, an ongoing security issue for India. In late August, Wang Yi visited India to hold bilateral talks with Sushma Swaraj. The Chinese Foreign Ministry's sense
of the significance of Wang's trip was that China-India cooperation was facilitating multi-polarization progress which was a pointer to constraining any US unipolar order. The ongoing border issue was joined on the agenda list by apparently candid but unreleased discussions over China blocking India's bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and over New Delhi's move to bring about a UN ban on Masood Azhar. Indian sources
claimed this was an occasion to start a conversation with Beijing, but it was difficult to see any tangible movement on specific security issues. A two-level logic was suggested
by official Chinese comments that the two countries would never allow specific differences to affect the overall bilateral friendship and not let individual [border and regional] problems hold back the steps of bilateral [economic] cooperation. It seemed an exchange of (divergent regional) views alongside some common global points of agreement on anti-terrorism and anti-piracy security issues. On the institutional front, one further development of Wang's visit in August was the announcement of a new Foreign Secretaries Mechanism
, to be led by the India's Foreign Secretary and China's Vice Foreign Minister.
On 16 April India's Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar flew into China for a 5-day visit. The context, of concern to China, was the visit to India the preceding week by US Secretary for Defence Ash Carter, in which Parrikar had signed an in-principle acceptance of a logistics support agreement with the United States, which was widely interpreted
in India as China-related, and which was fully signed on 30 August. Parrikar raised various friction points with China; namely the Masood Azhar issue, China's inability or reluctance to provide LoC (Line of Control) delineation maps along their disputed borders, and the Chinese presence in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on all of which China gave little ground. Admittedly, a couple of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) were agreed in principle, including establishing a hotline between the defence ministries and increasing local border meeting points. However, again this represented border management rather than border resolution. Parrikar's own trip to the US in August 2016 brought further security strengthening and announcement of tacit China-centric balancing measures between India, the US and Japan in the shape of regular MALABAR naval exercises.
Heads of Government
Modi had discussions with Xi at the SCO Summit in July and the G20 summit being hosted by China in September 2016. China-India cooperation to defeat the scourge of terrorism
was agreed in their bilateral meeting in September, having been a similar shared concern at their SCO discussions. With regard to the G20 meeting, Indian sources argued that
India is expected to go along with China on several [global-level] trade and climate change issues during the discussions at G20, which opens on Sunday. But the devil is in bilateral meetings, and it is here that geopolitical issues would crop up. The geopolitical issues are precisely those border and regional issues where the two countries remain locked in acute security competition.
Global-level agreement, on issues like multipolarity, anti-terrorism and common economic development, is likely between China and India at the BRICS summit due to be held in India on 15 October. However, undercurrents of their regional friction are likely to be present at the RIC Consultation on Asia Pacific Affairs
and their bilateral Maritime Affairs Dialogue
scheduled for late-2016; where it will be revealing if the South China Sea is discussed or more likely brushed under the carpet. A similar two-level logic is also likely for the Foreign Secretaries Mechanism
when it meets.
This article was first published in Centre on Asia and Globalisation's China-India Brief #81. The article is written by David Scott. David is a consultant and prolific writer on India and China foreign policy; having retired from teaching at Brunel University in 2015, but continuing to present at the NATO Defence College in Rome. He can be contacted at decb64_ZGF2aWRzY290dDM2NkBvdXRsb29rLmNvbQ==_decb64.The views expressed in these articles are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.