In traditional Chinese opera, performers employ a theatrical device known as bian lian or "face-changing", where the artist wears layers of masks and, with every flip of his head, changes his mask in rapid succession to reveal a seamless range of emotions. The speed at which the masks change and the fluidity of the movements (watch one nifty performance here) are a measure of the artistic excellence of the performer.
Chinese cultural historians frequently fret that the art of bian lian is dying out in modern China, given the inadequate appreciation among newer, and rather more prosperous, generations of Chinese people. But that fear, it appears, may be overstated. One only needs to look at the high-art performance of Chinese diplomats to know that the "face-changing" art form is alive and well.
Barely a month ago, Chinese troops set off alarm bells in India by occupying what was notionally Indian territory in the Ladakh region. The mask that they then wore, while flashing placards warning Indian troops that they were on Chinese territory, was of bare-naked belligerence. Indian leaders, from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh downwards, responded initially with airy dismissal of the "localised" problem before waking up to the gravity of the incursion.
It subsequently needed the sotto voce threat of a cancellation of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid's visit to Beijing to discuss the specifics of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang upcoming visit to India for the mask of borderline hostility to fall off China's face.
Barely a month later, however, China's bian lian diplomats are showcasing a new mask: one of sweet reasonableness. Earlier this week, Qin Gang, the head of the Information Department in China's Foreign Ministry, told Indian journalists in New Delhi that in his estimation, India and China now needed to "redouble efforts" to press ahead with negotiations on a "framework" to settle the Sino-Indian border dispute "in a fair, reasonable, and mutually acceptable" fashion.
The official Chinese media, which typically echoes the Communist Party line, has suddenly given itself over to syrupy prose about a "win-win" relationship.
The Indian side too is reciprocating with equal alacrity. India's External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said that India too was keen on an early settlement of the boundary issue. Such a settlement, he added, would advance the "basic interest" of both the countries and ought, therefore, to be "pursued as a strategic objective" by both the countries.
All this bonhomie has triggered speculation that a deal is in the works to settle the Sino-Indian border dispute, which has dragged on for far too long.
According to media accounts, China has offered a draft Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), which India is studying. India, in turn, has suggested that both sides eliminate the grey areas or "differing perceptions" of where the Line of Actual Control runs.
It is of course true that having the border dispute fester for so long has not served India well. The frequent eruption in border tension, with reports of incursion by Chinese troops in one sector or another of the long border between the two countries, additional creates an element of mistrust that impairs the overall relationship.
But, as columnist Ajai Shukla points out, much of the blame for the delay in resolving the boundary dispute rests with Beijing, which has "dragged its feet". Through 15 rounds of the Joint Working Group and Experts Group meetings, Shukla writes, China has "refused to exchange maps with India in which both sides mark their perceptions of the Line of Actual Control along the Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh borders." That ambiguity has allowed China to imprint its footprint deeper and deeper into India, he notes.
Reading the tea leaves, strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney points to the underlying reason for China's face-changing initiative to fast-track the "Framework" arrangement. Beijing, he reckons, is pushing a frontier accord that, in the name of Himalayan peace and tranquility, would "freeze India's belated, bumbling build-up of border defences and troop levels while preserving China's capability to strike without warning."
In his estimation, Beijing is now stepping up the pressure on India to sign on for a border agreement in order to stop India from "plugging (the) gaps in its border defences." To end the standoff following the recent Chinese incursion, he notes, India dismantled vantage fortifications that were capable of providing early warning of Chinese troop movements. The draft BDCA, on the other hand, "aims to advance broader Chinese interests and ensure that the PLA retains the option to strike at a time and place of its choosing."
But the risk is that, Indian officialdom, which seems excessively keen to avoid even giving voice to prickly issues, will seize any respite offered by the Chinese side - even if it falls short of adequately protecting India's strategic interests. As diplomat Kanwal Sibal notes, Salman Khurshid's recent unctuous statements vis-a-vis China "imply that India can live with Chinese border intrusions, that they convey no political message to India, that the public anguish at home can be disregarded as exaggerated, and that such incursions will not be allowed to disrupt the growing relation with China..."
All this is not to say that residual Indian suspicions should be allowed to impede any progress in the border talks. But it is important to get the sequencing of the entire exercise just right. The Chinese offer to agree on a "framework" for resolving the boundary dispute should, as Shukla notes, be taken up only after completing the painstaking process of defining where the boundary runs. Once the border is settled, and trust is engendered, India won't have as compelling a need to retain heightened levels of troops or press ahead with border infrastructure as it does today.
While conducting hardball negotiations with the erstwhile Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, US President Ronald Reagan used frequently to invoke a Russian proverb that guided his approach in the talks: "Doveryai, no proveryai" (Trust, but verify). As Indian officials get to see an abrupt change of masks on the faces of Chinese diplomats within the space of a month, they might do worse than abide by that same principle. Any resolution of the border despite will perforce need concessions on both sides, but in the eagerness to seal a deal, we mustn't end up lowering our guard.