With Indian and Chinese officials showing new keenness to resolve border issues ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's expected May visit to Beijing, a Chinese strategic expert on Tuesday gave a sharp reminder that China will not make many concessions, telling India that a "breakthrough" would be impossible without concessions from India in Arunachal Pradesh.
Responding to comments made by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to reporters during her 1-2 February visit to Beijing suggesting that Modi and President Xi Jinping, as two strong leaders, may enable an "out of the box" approach to solving the border dispute, strategic affairs expert Lan Jianxue told the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, "If there is an 'out-of-box solution', it is highly likely a breakthrough over the eastern part of the border, which contains the most controversial area between China and India".
Lan, who earlier served in the Chinese embassy in New Delhi and is an expert on India-China relations, said the "illegal McMahon Line ... is at the heart of the boundary dispute''.
"This is a line that China has never accepted. If India won't make concessions or adjustments over the Line, there will be no suggestion whatsoever that the two sides are any closer to agreeing."
His comments reiterate the Chinese view that a boundary settlement will require adjustments in all sectors - western, middle and eastern. India sees China as occupying at least 38,000 sq km of what should be Indian territory in the Aksai Chin region in the western sector, and will demand a settlement on that front.
China has, since the late 1980s, voiced claims to 90,000 sq km in the eastern sector in Arunachal Pradesh.
Lan cautioned that "it might be too soon to anticipate that this solution will be reached in May during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first visit to China since assuming office". He said the Modi government had shown "a tougher attitude" by beefing up border patrols and pushing long overdue moves to improve infrastructure.
While he expressed optimism that Swaraj's comments showed that India was "making efforts in showing flexibility and creating a favourable atmosphere on resolving the issue", he added, "However, to this day, the Indian government has not given us a reply or any signal of goodwill for adjustment over this issue. In the light of this, the ball is in India's court to adopt a more proactive approach" - suggesting that an adjustment in the eastern sector was China's starting demand.
At the same time, China has shown no inclination towards even discussing India's claims over Aksai Chin, even officially claiming that "there was no dispute" in the western sector and the boundary disputed was only 2,000 km long - not even recognising the more than 1,500 km disputed in the western sector.
Lan claimed that China "used to offer a 'package proposal' for settling the issue, which requires each side to make a compromise, yet it was turned down by India." It was unclear if he was referring to former leader Deng Xiaoping's reported offer of a "swap" settlement along the status quo, that would see both sides more or less holding on to their claims with minor adjustments - China keeping Aksai Chin and giving up claims in the east.
Lan said, "We hope that the two parties can reach a consensus based on not only mutual understanding and accommodation, but also a strong will of showing flexibility as well as innovation in the near future.
"Now that Swaraj has put forward the potential 'out-of-box solution' this time," he added, "we have every reason to expect that the logjam could be broken and a new beginning could be made. But it remains to be seen what dedication Modi will put into a practical settlement for the bitter territorial dispute."