By Victor Mallet in New Delhi and Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
India and China signed a new agreement to ease tensions along their disputed Himalayan border on Wednesday, even as Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, admitted that the two Asian powers would take time to resolve their differences.
Indian officials have accused China’s People’s Liberation Army of repeated incursions across the so-called Line of Actual Control in both the western and eastern Himalayas.
This year, about 30 PLA soldiers camped for three weeks 18km inside what had been regarded as Indian-controlled territory in Kashmir, prompting India to threaten to take “every possible step” to defend its interests.
In July, India decided to create a new army “mountain strike corps” of 50,000 troops to protect its border with China in the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed by China.
“This is not an easy issue and will take time to resolve,” Mr Singh told Chinese media at the start of a state visit to China this week.
After meeting Li Keqiang, Chinese premier, in Beijing on Wednesday, Mr Singh said they had agreed that peace on the border must remain the foundation for growth of the India-China relationship as negotiations on the border dispute continued. “This will be our strategic benchmark,” he said.
Mr Li said the relationship between the two countries, which account for more than a third of the world’s population, and their emerging economies was “the most important bilateral friendship in the world”.
The agreement on “Border Defence Co-operation”, the fifth such deal since 1993, commits the two armies to “maximum self-restraint” if they come face to face in a disputed area and obliges them to “prevent exchange of fire or armed conflict”.
One clause, Article VI, appears to allow troops to cross into disputed areas at will. “The two sides agree,” it says, “that they shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.”
Uday Bhaskar, an Indian defence analyst, said even the use of the word “border” to describe the 4,000km frontier between the two was awkward. “The fact of the matter is that there is no border – which is why we have the problem,” he said.
Chinese analysts agreed that the latest pact was little more than an interim solution aimed at avoiding an accidental war breaking out between the two sides.
“So many of the current problems arise from the line of actual control and both sides have a different understanding which means even after the new agreement is implemented there will still be conflicts and contradictions,” said Huang Yinghong, assistant professor of Asian and Pacific studies at Sun Yat-sen University. “When the political situation changes it is likely we will see the issue being used again to stir up trouble.”
The two countries have pledged to increase two-way trade to $100bn a year by 2015 but last year trade between the neighbours actually fell 10 per cent to $66.6bn.
Indian exports to China, its biggest trading partner in 2011, fell 20 per cent last year, while Chinese exports to India, China’s seventh-largest export destination, fell about 5 per cent.
The latest cross-border agreement was “better than nothing,” but not enough to put overall relations on a firm footing according to Wang Dehua, director of the Center for India Studies at Tongji University. “They need to solve this because it has not only already affected general diplomatic relations and mutual trust but also economic development. Chinese businessmen want to go to India but they are not confident to do so [because of strained relations].”
China humiliated India in a border war in 1962, and since then China has reinforced its position as the stronger of the two both militarily and economically