24 October 2013
Rosheen Kabraji
(Former Chatham House Expert)


Following a series of alleged border incursions earlier this year, China and India have since signed a series of agreements, including a border pact during Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh's state visit to Beijing this week. While it is being labelled a 'landmark' agreement by the Indian media, there are still unresolved issues concerning the disputed Himalayan border, the so-called Line of Actual Control. 

There is little doubt that the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) is a positive step towards smoothing tensions and rebuilding cooperation and trust between the two countries. The BDCA's main purpose, which includes provisions to improve communication between the two sides and increase military cooperation, is to reduce confrontation amid months of exacerbated tensions along the border. 

The agreement emphasizes the two countries as civilizational partners who have more to benefit from mutual cooperation than conflict, specifically on trade. Highlights of the agreement include increased communication and information exchanges, and expanded joint efforts such as combating smuggling and assistance during natural disasters. The agreement states that both sides will exercise maximum self-restraint and refrain from provocative actions, and not use force in situations where border forces come into contact with each other in areas that are still disputed.

Given existing sensitivities, the agreement on trans-boundary water sharing issues is an encouraging indicator of a better climate of relations between the two Asian nuclear powers. China and India have also agreed to study the possibility of an economic corridor that would run through Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar). Although this would assist in improving trade, transport and communication links, thus far efforts towards regional economic integration have proved difficult. 

While the agreement is making headline news in India, in China the coverage has been more restrained. Both sides have reservations on the pact's practical significance. There is still little consensus on what constitutes the border, making the likelihood of future skirmishes a near certainty despite the moves to improve communication, including a hotline between high ranking officers. China and India went to war over their disputed territories in 1962 and relations soured this year when the two armies engaged in a three-week long standoff in the part of Kashmir claimed by India. 

Nevertheless, the visit and the agreement signed should be seen as part of a wider bid to thaw relations. Besides the border issue, both China and India have much to gain from wider cooperation on several trans-boundary issues, including defence cooperation, intelligence sharing and people-to-people contacts. On trade and investment China and India need to maintain momentum and increase opportunities for substantive strategic dialogue if they want to deepen economic relations and achieve the pledge to increase two-way trade to $100bn a year by 2015, given that last year trade between the two countries fell 10% to $66.6bn.

Like the meeting of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and US President Barack Obama this week, where no breakthrough deals were expected, steps towards normalizing relations after a tense period are no small feat. These agreements and more regular high-level visits will, at the very least, assist in stabilizing a much broader quadrilateral network of security and diplomacy between China, India, Pakistan and the United States.

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