China-India relations are in a state of limbo. There is no progress but no deterioration either, at least on the surface. Despite frequent meetings between the two sides, India and China have not made much progress on their border stand-off. There are still more than 60,000 troops on each side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border in regions disputed between the two neighbors, and the potential for an accidental resumption of conflict cannot be emphasized enough.
India’s Minister for External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on July 7 in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting. According to a statement released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) after the Bali meeting, the Indian minister raised the border issue and “called for an early resolution of all the outstanding issues along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh.” Jaishankar used the opportunity to reiterate the importance of maintaining momentum and “complete disengagement” in order to “restore peace and tranquility in the border areas.” He called on China for full compliance with the various bilateral agreements and protocols agreed to previously, as well as the different “understandings reached between the two Ministers during their previous conversations.” The two ministers also agreed to continue conversations through different channels including through senior commander meetings.
Jaishankar nevertheless restated the need for “three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests.” These were earlier stated by the Indian minister at the 12th India-ASEAN Ministerial Session of the Delhi Dialogue in June.
However, analysts are concerned that there may be an important omission in the MEA statement. It is not clear if the Indian foreign minister presented the standard Indian formulation to his counterpart about the need for peace and tranquility on the border to his counterpart, or whether India has dropped this particular formulation, which would represent a climb-down from the earlier Indian position.
According to the statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang spent much of his time with Jaishankar speaking about China’s concerns regarding the Ukraine crisis, which sounded more like China’s talking points on Xi Jinping’s new security proposal called the Global Security Initiative. The statement went on to say that China “opposes exploiting the situation to incite Cold War mentality, hype up bloc confrontation, and create a ‘new Cold War.’”
There was a second statement issued by the Chinese foreign ministry, which highlighted a statement from Wang that India and China “have maintained communication and exchanges, effectively managed differences, and bilateral relations have generally shown a recovery momentum.” The statement noted that Wang said that India and China “should take concrete actions to follow through on the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries that ‘China and India are partners, and are not threats to each other but opportunities for each other’s development.’”
A troubling aspect of the Chinese statement comes from the fact that it says that Jaishankar said that there has been “positive progress in aspects such as safeguarding stability along the borders, promoting practical cooperation and facilitating personnel exchanges.” That there is no mention of the linkage between the normalcy on the border and the peace and tranquility in the relationship is worrisome. The statement’s attribution to Jaishankar that “India will continue upholding strategic autonomy and an independent position on international affairs” is particularly concerning since these are not mentioned by the Indian statement.
China’s statement on the June 22 meeting between Wang and the Indian ambassador to China, Pradeep Kumar Rawat, is similar. The statement attributed to Rawat a comment that “India will firmly pursue an independent foreign policy, and is ready to work with China to follow through on the strategic consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, strengthen communication, properly handle differences, enhance mutual trust, and promote better development of bilateral cooperation.” Wang used the opportunity to also propose its “four-pronged perseverance,” including persevering in “the important strategic consensus” arrived at by the two leaders.
China may score well on rhetoric, but the reality is that after more than two years, there is still a large number of troops on the border. The 16th China Corps Commander Level Meeting was held at Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on July 17, after a gap of four months. A joint statement on the Indian MEA website noted that the two sides agreed that “the resolution of remaining issues would help in restoration of peace and tranquility along the LAC in the Western Sector and enable progress in bilateral relations.”
The stated Indian position has been that until and unless there is peace and tranquility on the border, overall China-India relations cannot much progress. So far, India has remained reluctant to engage China normally in the bilateral context, although China-India engagement in regional or other forums can be characterized as normal. The recent BRICS Summit and SCO meetings illustrate this.
While the overall atmospherics between India and China may have improved, there is a lot left to be desired in terms of progress on the ground. Even as these talks were taking place, China has been flying fighter jets close to the Sino-Indian border to get a sense of the Indian defense preparedness to respond to any Chinese adventurism. Government sources speaking to the media late last month said, “The Chinese fighter jets including the J-11 continue to fly close to the Line of Actual Control. There have been instances of violation of the 10 Km Confidence Building Measure (CBM) line in the region in recent times.” The Indian Air Force has been reportedly monitoring the situation and responding in a “calibrated manner.” The recent spate of air intrusions began on June 24-25 when the Chinese fighter aircraft “flew very close to a friction point in eastern Ladakh.” While responding to a question at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing, the spokesperson said that “China always conducts normal activities in the border areas in accordance with relevant agreements signed between China and India.”
China’s statements that India and China are not threats to each other should be reassuring, but its repeated aggressive moves do not give India much confidence that China means what it says. This lack of confidence in China and the resulting suspicion are only likely to grow given the Chinese adversarial behavior on the ground.