Although the frontiers in question date back to the British colonial era, the modern phenomenon of social media-fuelled nationalism is a major barrier to progress. One is Aksai Chin, a virtually uninhabited high-altitude desert expanse of about 37,000 square kilometres.
The other is what is now the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a diversely populated hill region with a population of around 1.4 million people spread out over 84,000 square kilometres, much of which China claims as Lower Tibet.
Aksai Chin lies between the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and China’s Xinjiang province, both regions that are also riven by separatist conflicts as well as India’s long-running dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir.
Arunachal Pradesh borders Tibet, which has its own separatist movement. India claims that these borders were agreed between British India and the independent or semi-independent authorities in Xinjiang and Tibet in the early days of the last century.
China does not agree with this argument. Both countries agree that these are legacies of history and cannot be solved in the short or medium term and are best left for the future.
But what causes friction between the two is that they do not have agreed a Line of Actual Control (LAC) to separate the jurisdictions under the control of their armies. The perceptions of the LAC differ at many places. In some places it might be by just a few metres, and elsewhere by tens of kilometres.
To minimise the risk of tensions caused by regular patrols by the two sides’ security forces, they have a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement that sets out the norms of behaviour for both sides. The most important elements are that nothing of a permanent nature will be built on these disputed areas, and that the patrols take every precaution to ensure they do not confront each other.
This means that if they come face to face they will both withdraw. The corollary to this is that the patrols will not follow each other. The agreement also requires local commanders to frequently meet and exchange views and sort out their local differences.
Despite the adverse geographical and climatic conditions, and the overarching tensions between Asia’s biggest economies, the troops on the ground are able to show surprising bonhomie and friendliness towards each other.
But periodically, either due to a misunderstanding or local posturing by either side, there are frictions that threaten to erupt into conflict. But it has not happened since 1967 when the two armies fought a fierce localised battle in the Sikkim sector, quite close to where the recent Doklam stand-off took place.
The two countries have been engaged in frequent talks at various levels since 1981. After then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988, both countries agreed to set up a task force to find a solution to the “border issue”.
Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader at the time, welcomed his “ young friend” and suggested they “forget the past” as they stood in the centre of the cavernous Great Hall of the People for a handshake the lasted three long minutes.
Over the three decades since then the two countries have been meeting to discuss the border issue, but so far we have seen an unwillingness by both sides to forget the past. Since 2003 these talks were elevated to a high-level political dialogue between special representatives.
We are now having the 20th round of this dialogue between India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and China’s State Councillor, Yang Jiechi. A former Indian NSA once told me that the talks are high on style and hospitality, with the Indian side trying hard to match the Chinese, but there has been little traction.
This is because the two competing territorial claims have been internalised by the public in both countries. The two countries are gripped by a strong nationalism, bordering on jingoism, which makes give and take, so vital in the resolution of such vexatious disputes, extremely difficult.
But the Border Management and Cooperation Agreement is a major outcome of these talks and that has by and large worked. The next logical step of these talks should be to agree on an LAC. But unfortunately even that discussion is bedevilled by an aggressive nationalism driven by social media that equates “giving up” with a national loss of face.
This is something increasingly very important to both countries: we will not be seen as giving up anything, even our obduracy and historical short-sightedness. So next week Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi will meet, but both sides will not be giving away anything. We will have to wait for another time for that.