If only a smooth political visit could resolve the border issue…

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit apparently went swimmingly well. There were nine pacts, banquet after lush banquet including a rare one by former Chinese leader Wen Jiabao and a visit to the historic palace of power and intrigue in China, the Forbidden City, with Premier Li Keqiang as guide and translator to the Indian PM.

They also shook hands in front of the Tiananmen gate of which can be translated as “the gate of peace”.

Singh’s lecture at the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) was touted a rare honour as he was the first Indian leader to have been given the honour.

But, as it turned out that on a broader international scale, it wasn’t that rare an honour after all:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had spoken there in 2013 and several other leaders have lectured at the school in the past three years including German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2010.

But probably what was similar between Singh’s lecture and the speeches given by other leaders was the question-answer session at the end. The questions asked by senior CPC cadres at the end were obviously stage managed. The Indian PM had to literally repeat his speech to answer the questions.

Diplomats from both countries seemed very happy throughout and contended with the visit. It was difficult to understand which party was smug and who were simply relieved.

Nothing negative apparently was discussed.

Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh’s answer was a crisp and curt “no” when asked whether China asked India to rein in the Tibetan spiritual guru, Dalai Lama, as Beijing keeps howling about the Dalai Lama – who incidentally has been a welcome resident in India for decades – inciting separatism and self-immolations in the Communist country.

During the official banquets Hindi music and classical Indian dances were organised that included performances by Chinese exponents. I could not find out whether they were the same ones who perform at every Indian embassy function in Beijing.

On the China-Pakistan question too, Indian diplomats shrugged off questions, saying that the issue was a part of ongoing discussions.

The border defence cooperation agreement (BDCA) quite clearly was the diplomatic crowning glory – not clear for who as it was Beijing that had proposed it first.

The first draft had been handed over to India by China weeks before the Communist country also sent its soldiers to pitch their tents on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

That’s of course the Indian version of the story; China always maintained in its glib way that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops had never crossed the LAC and were patrolling and pitching tents to sleep well on their side of this much talked-about but invisible border between two big, big neighbours with a huge number of people and a history of violence.

But even the glorious BDCA failed to satisfy all.

“The agreement does not address the border issue per se and thus, to some extent, institutionalises the status quo. It has been criticised for de facto allowing what India used to consider border violations. While it is presented by both sides as a means of ensuring the safety of a border area (where, indeed, not a single bullet has been fired since 1975), the agreement is primarily a tool for the political management of bilateral relations. It does not constitute a guarantee against potential future incidents. The safety of the border area is likely to remain dependent on future political tensions between the two countries,” wrote Frederic Grare, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday in an Indian newspaper.

It was carried under the headline: “An Agreement Among Unequals”.

Grare did add that the BDCA was a “pragmatic and realistic answer to a rapidly changing situation along the border, where the construction of new military infrastructure and the deployment of additional troops on both sides increase the risk of incidents.”

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