Later this week, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is expected to visit Beijing for the 19th round of the Special Representative talks, which now cover the original subject –­ the border dispute – as well as the gamut of economic and political relations between the two countries.

His visit on Wednesday will follow that of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who will be in China from Monday. While Parrikar will focus on the military-to-military ties, especially the follow-on of the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, Doval will look at wider strategic issues, which includes the border dispute. However, the Indian side is currently cut up over the hold that has been placed on India’s application in the UN Security Council committee to have Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar designated as an international terrorist. China is a member of the council.

Doval first visited China for talks on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014. However, this time, he will be going under the rubric of the Special Representative process. The 18th round of Special Representative talks, the first involving the Modi government, were held in March 2015 in New Delhi between Doval and his Chinese counterpart State Councillor Yang Jiechi. The outcome was fairly anodyne, with both sides being content to express their satisfaction over the pace of negotiations and emphasised their commitment to obtain “a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable” resolution of the border question “at an early date.”

Defining the border

The talks are now in their second phase in which the two sides are seeking to work out a framework settlement based on the 2005 agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles of a border settlement. After 17 rounds, they had worked out a 20-point consensus on what the framework should involves – such as the basic principles like watersheds, crest lines and river valleys through which they intend to define the border.

The last phase, and the most difficult, is where they would sit and apply these principles to delineate and demarcate the Sino-Indian border, which is disputed in its entirety at present. Insiders say that the decisions in this phase are entirely political and will be part of a bargain that the two sides will work out as per the logic of the Special Representative process.

The Special Representative process began following Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 2003, when the two sides abandoned their previous and futile method of negotiations based on historical claims and maps. The decided to negotiate across all the sectors of the border and arrive at a settlement through a political package deal. The Special Representatives – at that time Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and NSA Brajesh Mishra and State Councillor Dai Bingguo – were charged with working out that deal. There was rapid progress in the beginning indicated by the 2005 agreement which signalled that the settlement would be on an “as is, where is” basis.

But soon the good feelings evaporated. Chinese power, economic and military grew sharply in the wake of the economic crisis in the west in 2008-'09, and Beijing did not take too kindly to India getting closer to the United States. The result was a more vociferous assertion of Chinese claims, including the insistence on terming Arunachal Pradesh as “southern Tibet”, as well as physical incursions along the Line of Actual Control.

US tilt

The Modi government appears to have decided that since the Chinese are unlikely to be particularly accommodative on the border or Pakistan, they might as well up the ante by developing closer ties with the US and with countries in the Pacific periphery of China. The Modi government has taken a step forward by defining a common Indo-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The Indian decision to tilt towards the US cannot but be viewed with some concern in Beijing. India may not be able to bring much military aid to the party in the South China Sea, but its presence in the coalition of countries that are working under US auspices to confront Beijing, does make a political and diplomatic difference.

While teaming up with the US and Japan is a perfectly legitimate power play considering Beijing’s dealings with Pakistan and India’s neighbours like Sri Lanka and Nepal, there is a certain gaucheness in the Modi government’s dealings with China. Last May, in his KF Rustamji Lecture, Doval termed the need for settling the border dispute as critical for Sino-Indian relations. He criticised the Chinese position for a “complete contravention of accepted principles”, adding that Beijing had “accepted the McMahon Line while settling the border with Myanmar and then say[ing] that the same line is not acceptable in case of India, particularly in Tawang”.

Doval was flat wrong in this assertion. The Chinese had accepted what they say is a “customary alignment” that is virtually the McMahon Line, but with some give and take to underscore China’s refusal to accept its legality. Further, they had got the Burmese to categorically disavow the McMahon Line, which they have consistently declared illegal. At least twice – in 1960 and in the 1980-'81 period – the Chinese offered India a similar deal where India would concede some minor areas south of the McMahon Line in exchange or India’s acceptance of the Chinese claim, which they had already occupied, in Aksai Chin.

Breaking protocol

This time, too the Chinese spokesperson Hua Chunying emphatically declared that “the Chinese government does not recognise the ‘McMahon Line’, which is illegal”. But she did speak of the efforts of the two sides to resolve this dispute “left over from history”.

Last year, according to some reports, the Chinese did not take too kindly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to take up the issue of the border settlement directly with President Xi Jinping last year during his Beijing visit. The Chinese viewed this as a breach of protocol and ticked off the Indian side.

Now, New Delhi is publicly raising temperatures over the Masood Azhar issue. It is one thing to raise the issue of terrorism in world capitals in a near-hysterical fashion that the government of India has been doing for the past year and more. But it’s quite another to try the same tactic with China, which is likely to remain quite unfazed by it.

The third issue which the Modi government is raising is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, especially since its origin point lies in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which India claims in its entirety. From the legal point of view India is right and no government in New Delhi can afford not to publicly uphold the Indian claim. But in practical terms, New Delhi has signalled more than once that it would be more than happy to simply partition the state of Jammu & Kashmir on an “as is, where is” basis. So while the claim is a useful in chastising Islamabad, it is counterproductive as a stick to beat Beijing with.

A multi-pronged approach

India’s dealings with China comprises a mix of cooperation, conflict, competition and containment. No policy towards China can afford to be based on only one of these elements. The trick is to create the right amalgam. The prospects for a border settlement with China at this juncture are slim. For the Chinese the value of the disputed border lies in their ability, by virtue of their superior communications, to put pressure on India when required. Given the dynamics of the border, a minor incursion in Depsang as in May 2013 or Churmur in 2014, becomes a major political issue in India, while it has little or no play in China a) because it is in a remote part of the Chinese heartland, and b) the Chinese can control the narrative in their media.

China and Pakistan pose a serious military challenge to India, but China’s economic profile as a global industrial powerhouse and trading power makes it useful potential partner for India, especially since China possesses vast amounts of investible money. Likewise, China may be a thorn in the flesh when it comes to undermining India's position in its own region, but it is also a useful partner in multilateral dealings on issues like world trade and climate change. China is a member of P-5 and is far more important to the US, European Union or even Saudi Arabia and Iran, than India is. It has diplomatic leverage in, for example, being able to deny us membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It would be hazardous to adopt a truculent approach to ties with Beijing.

In dealing with China, India needs to take a comprehensive approach. First, it must rid ourselves of the illusion that it can compete and contain China by itself. China is decisively ahead of India in all elements of what it calls “comprehensive national power”. What India needs to do is to collaborate and cooperate with China where it can to promote economic growth at home, as well as develop asymmetrical strategies and capabilities to deter Beijing from militarily and diplomatically harming New Delhi's interests.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.