India and China call off border talks in row over Dalai Lama speech

India and China postpone talks on border disputes at last minute. NATO forces clash with local Serbs in northern Kosovo. Afghan forces take over security in new areas, and a Maoist rebel leader is killed in eastern India. All this in today's security briefing.
Radu Nikolaus Botez
30 November 2011

On Friday, India and China called off a high-level meeting aimed at discussing the border dispute between the two countries. According to an article published in the Indian Express, a newspaper, the talks, expected to start at the beginning of this week, were cancelled due to China’s opposition to the Dalai Lama’s participation in the Global Buddhist Congregation, a first-time get-together of prominent Buddhists representing three different strands of the religion with the objective of formulating a common position on several issues and of forming a unified Buddhist body at the end of the conference. The border talks were to be held at the same time as the congregation in New Delhi. Although it seems that India made some concessions to China, offering to shift the conference to a different venue and assuring Beijing that no Indian leader would share a platform with the Dalai Lama, China reportedly asked for the congregation to be called off altogether - a demand New Delhi did not agree to. Officials from both sides have played the issue down by saying that scheduling difficulties led to the postponement of the talks.

The presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile in India has been a constant irritant in relations between New Delhi and Beijing in the past.

Reacting to the recent spat, an editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper close to the Communist Party, said that ‘[c]urrently, India is a bit pushy in its relations with China. The country appears to be highly interested in facing off with China’, while also stating that ‘[b]oth countries should stay calm and not take small issues to a level of strategic hostility.’

Earlier this month, a report said India plans to increase the troop presence along the border with China by 100,000 soldiers. In a response to the news, an article in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, an army newspaper, said the move shows that India is ‘starting to treat China as a de-facto competitor’.

The openSecurity verdict: The recent developments add to the tensions that have intensified between the two states over the past months, most notably due to India’s decision  to go ahead with the exploration of oil and gas resources on the basis of an agreement with Vietnam in waters disputed between the latter and China in the South China Sea. In addition to this, the recent East Asia Summit in Bali, where several states, including India, have called for a multilateral solution to territorial disputes in the region, contrary to China’s position on the issue, has further strained ties between the two Asian powers. While these developments seem to indicate a downward trend in India-China relations, as pointed out by one commentator, they may just, as most spats between the two countries, reveal the complex nature of the relationship that has persisted for decades.

It has become somewhat of a cliché to ask whether India and China will clash as they ‘rise’ or whether they will find a way of cooperating, although most commentators seem to agree that the relationship is rather characterized by conflict and cooperation. A set of issues, such as the border dispute, China’s advances in the Indian Ocean through cooperation with rim-states and Chinese infrastructure projects in the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, are sustaining suspicion and mistrust in New Delhi, not least due to the media’s presentation of these issues. However, defence cooperation, put to a halt in August 2010 after Beijing refused to issue a visa to an Indian army general supposed to visit China, will resume next month, as Indian external affairs minister SM Krishna made clear after the postponement of the border talks. At the same time, economic relations are flourishing: the first Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) between the two countries took place earlier this year and bilateral trade is expected to reach the envisaged target of $100 billion by 2015.

While the latest developments suggest that India is becoming more assertive vis-à-vis China – some commentators are arguing that the military capabilities to back a more assertive position are lacking and, thus, that such a position is not sustainable – this is not likely to influence the direction of the relationship; at best, it could remind China to take India seriously, but Beijing knows quite well, at least since India’s 1998 nuclear tests, that New Delhi is to be taken seriously.

Relations between India and China are unlikely to change directions any time soon but will see ups and downs as any relation between two countries of similar weight and with similar ambitions.

New clashes between NATO forces and Serbs in northern Kosovo

On Tuesday, clashes between NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) and Serb protesters in northern Kosovo, where Serbs form the majority, left between 30 and 50 people injured, two of them being KFOR soldiers. Protestors attacked the international peacekeeping force with small weapons and stones, while soldiers responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons according to reports. The incident took place as KFOR troops tried to dismantle a roadblock, established by local Serbs as a reaction to Pristina’s attempt to control the border with Serbia.

In July, Pristina deployed ethnic-Albanian police forces to control the border post with Serbia as the local Serbs in charge of the border were believed to ignore a ban imposed on imports from Serbia. Clashes between the forces and local Serbs left one police officer dead, leading to the intervention of KFOR troops to calm the situation. Local Serbs and KFOR have clashed repeatedly over roadblocks in the past months, underlining the instability of the situation in northern Kosovo, which is also causing frictions between Belgrade and Pristina.  

Afghan forces to take more responsibility for security

On Monday, Afghan president Hamid Karzai announced that the country’s security forces will take over responsibility for security in 18 new areas, although no precise date for the transition has been proposed. Once the process finished, over half of the country’s population will be under the authority of the Afghan forces. While the list of areas features some parts of the relatively peaceful north, more critical areas, for instance in the southern province of Helmand, where troops can expect to be challenged by a considerable presence of insurgents, will also come under the responsibility of the national forces. However, several shortcomings in terms of capabilities of the forces remain, accompanied by a lack of trainers on the side of the international coalition that could provide assistance. Illiteracy, which is estimated at around 90%, has been identified as one of the main issues that limit the forces’ effectiveness.

The move, which is the second phase of the handing over of security following an earlier one initiated in July, comes as foreign troops are starting to withdraw from Afghanistan, a process NATO allies have agreed to complete by the end of 2014. On the same day, France announced it would withdraw 200 soldiers as a result of the transfer of security to Afghan troops. 

Maoist rebel leader killed in India

On Thursday, Mallojula Koteshwara Roa, a top Maoist leader known as ‘Kishenji’, was killed  by security forces along in the border area between the states of West Bengal and Jharkhand in eastern India. The Maoists have claimed Rao did not die in the gun-battle between state forces and the rebels, but that he was killed in a ‘fake encounter’, referring to a staged extrajudicial killing. While a post-mortem report ruled out a fake encounter, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has asked its investigation unit to probe the rebel leader’s death.

In July, the government of West Bengal had appointed a group of interlocutors to discuss the possibility of peace talks in the decades-long conflict. As the government stepped up security operations against the rebels in the last months, prospects for a peaceful solution looked dimmer. Following the killing of Rao, the interlocutors announced  they would withdraw from the process as they are ‘helpless and [as] it is not feasible to continue the initiative in the context of the emerging scenario.’

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