With two political strongmen, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the helm of their billion-plus nations, prospects of the two countries finally getting down to working towards settling their vexed boundary dispute have increased.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, as India’s special representative, sits across the table from China’s state councillor, Yang Jiechi at the imposing Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Monday for the 18th round of boundary talks. The Chinese leader will also be calling on PM Modi on March 24 morning.

The importance of this round lies in the fact that it will be the first one to be held by the Modi government, which is working towards an even tighter strategic clinch with the US than the previous Manmohan Singh regime. As New Delhi and Washington move closer, a sense of uneasiness prevails over this in Beijing.

Even as it bitterly jostles with its neighbours in the contentious South China Sea, China is getting increasingly worried about the ongoing American rebalancing of forces towards the Asia-Pacific region. It will need to keep its borders with India calm and peaceful.

Modi, who is slated to visit China in May, would of course like to brandish a breakthrough with China to top off his continuing focus on foreign policy since he took charge last year. Equally, Xi Jinping, who is now two years into his presidency, too can play an important role in moving a step forward on the boundary issue.

Testing waters

But we should not expect miracles.

The long-standing dispute over the 4,057-km long Line of Actual Control is too complex to be resolved in the near future, even if Modi and Xi show extraordinary political will. A resolution would require both the Indian Elephant and the Chinese Dragon to be ready for concessions and compromises.

This is easier said than done when it involves the competing claims over thousands of square kilometres of territory form two Asian giants who are geo-strategic rivals in the region and beyond. For instance, If China claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, spread over 90,000 sq km, India wants to reclaim the Aksai Chin area in Jammu spread over 38,000 sq km.

The two sides will primarily use the opportunity to test the waters and gauge each other, especially in the backdrop of China dealing with a new, stronger, right-wing Indian government this time. It will also have to reckon with a new SR in Doval, who unlike his predecessor Shiv Shankar Menon is no China expert.

The two sides could then work to give it final shape for it to be a substantive outcome when Modi visits Beijing in May. Modi stressed this need for clarification of the LAC to ensure “peace and tranquillity on the border” to “realise the potential of our relations” when Xi visited India in September last year.

Stuck at the second step

After the SRs kicked off their first round of talks in October 2004, India and China did manage to ink the ‘Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question’ the very next year.

This was the step one of the three-stage roadmap drawn up by the two sides. However, in the decade since, the two have not been able to work out step two, which entails a framework agreement for a boundary settlement.

They have not even been able to exchange maps for the western sector (Ladakh) and eastern sector (Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh) of the LAC, with Beijing dragging its feet on this critical step. The only exchange of maps that has taken place is for the least contentious middle sector (Uttarakhand, Himachal) over a decade ago.

The third and final step of the SR mechanism would be to provide the basis for the delineation and demarcation of the India-China boundary.

As the discussions to resolve the dispute have proceeded at a snail’s place, China has assiduously built and upgraded its military infrastructure all along the LAC over the past decade. Jolted out of its stupor, India is only now trying to play catch up.

In the absence of a clearly demarcated boundary, soldiers from both sides repeatedly cross the LAC to strengthen claims to disputed areas leading to frequent troop face-offs and confrontations.

Chinese incursions

In April-May 2013, for instance, the 19-km deep incursion by the People’s Liberation Army into the Depsang Valley in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of eastern Ladakh led to a 21-day stand-off between the two armies. It even threatened to derail then PM Manmohan Singh’s impending China visit but was eventually resolved in time for him to go ahead as planned.

The episode led the two countries to finalise the ‘Border Defence Co-operation Agreement’ to defuse troop face-offs. The story, however, was repeated, with another prolonged confrontation in the Chumar sector of eastern Ladakh last September, which coincided with Xi’s visit to India.

But in both the incidents, as in other confrontations over the years, not a bullet was fired from either side.  This augurs well for the management of the border dispute. But what is now needed is its resolution to rid the two countries of the continuing problem bedeviling their bilateral ties.