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The Straits Times says

Asian giants should serve as exemplar

Amid the white-knuckle military situation on a Himalayan trijunction involving China, India and Bhutan, any high-level contact between Asia's giants, the main protagonists of the high-altitude drama, is a good sign. That it should have involved China's State Councillor Yang Jiechi and India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval - designated special representatives of their nations for border talks - is particularly welcome, even if it took place on the sidelines of a conference of Brics security chiefs. The worrying point is that it has taken five weeks for the two nations to have this first high-level contact.

Ahead of the meeting, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the most senior Chinese official to comment on the situation, had said the solution to the problem lay in a "conscientious Indian withdrawal". His Indian counterpart, Mrs Sushma Swaraj, said on Thursday that only a mutual pullback would be acceptable after China's "unilateral" action to change the status quo. While it is normal practice to make maximum demands at the start of negotiations, the current tension was undeniably sparked when Indian troops moved in to help the Bhutanese army resist China's attempt to build a road on a dirt track in territory claimed by Thimphu. New Delhi, which has chafed at what it calls "aggressive" Chinese patrolling of the border in recent years, says it has treaty obligations to help its neighbour.

While rifles have been pointed downward, there has been pushing and shoving between troops. In so remote a place and with tempers running high, there is no knowing what could happen when hundreds of troops face off within 150m of each other. An exemplary approach to resolving border tensions would be a sequenced withdrawal, followed by meaningful negotiations.

However, the muscular style of governance at home, favoured by the top leadership of China and India, makes it hard politically to appear pliant in the global arena. President Xi Jinping has a key party congress ahead of him, and Mr Narendra Modi faces elections, possibly next year.

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Untethered territorial nationalism being a stand-out risk in Asia, the world would look to China and India to serve as an exemplar in the wise management of border issues that might take a long time to work out peacefully. If a better, more culturally-attuned dispute-resolution model is to ever emerge out of Asia, it would surely be one that its two giants have tested and given their imprimatur to.

Conflict as a means of establishing claims should never be an option. Strategists are only too aware that the deterrence levels built up by military powers make it nigh impossible for any single giant to impose its will on another, without suffering enormous consequences itself. The impact on the region as a whole would be grave too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2017, with the headline 'Asian giants should serve as exemplar'. Print Edition | Subscribe