China may not want status quo ante on the eastern Ladakh border, but it seems to be suggesting that Sino-Indian relations as such, can return to the earlier period, where confidence-building measures (CBM) helped manage the border dispute, even while the two countries continued to maintain normal relations in other areas.
At his annual press conference on the occasion of the meeting of China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress, Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to take the high ground when he declared that “China and India are each other’s friends and partners, not threats or rivals. ” He did not comment on the recent disengagement or the incidents of 2020.
Why Commentary From China Is Harping On Restoring Sino-Indian Ties
In an extensive reply to a question, he said that the two sides should “stop undercutting each other, and that the boundary dispute was not the be all and end all of the China-Indian relationship, it was “a problem left over from history”, an old Chinese formulation on the border issue. Both countries were actually friends and partners and suspicion should not cloud their relationship.
He went on to add “that the two sides manage disputes properly and at the same time expand and enhance cooperation to create enabling conditions for the settlement of the (border) issue.”
In recent months, commentary from China — both official and unofficial — has harped on the importance of restoring the Sino-Indian relationship to its pre-Galwan days.
It seems to suggest that the Indians need to understand the importance of detaching the border dispute from the other aspects of Sino-Indian relations.
The problem, as the Indians see it, is that that was exactly what was done in 1993 when India signed the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA). But that process had come crashing down in 2020 when the CBMs — to maintain peace and tranquility on the border — failed and resulted in a wider breakdown of the relationship.
How 2020 India-China Conflict Upended Confidence-Building Measures
Between 1993-2020, the BPTA and its associate agreements on confidence-building measures in the military field of 1996, the 2005 protocol on implementing the 1996 agreement, and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013, worked well and kept peace on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
But the events of 2020 upended this arrangement.
Wang Yi and the Chinese would have it that all of what happened was the fault of the Indian side. Yet, we have no explanation from them as to why in April, they massed forces in the LAC and intruded across the LAC in Galwan and blocked Indian patrols from reaching the Indian-claimed LAC at Finger 8 in the Pangong Tso area, and massed forces opposite Indian positions in Gogra, Hotsprings and Demchok and blocked Indian patrolling in the Depsang area.
Wang Yi did not touch upon the recent disengagement of forces from the Pangong Tso area.
Nor did he hark back to the events of 2020, choosing to merely claim that “the rights and wrongs of what happened in the border area last year are clear.” But going by Chinese accounts they are anything but that.
The Chinese Had No Business Being Where They Were On The Galwan
In a press briefing on 20 June 2020, the Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian had claimed that Indian troops had crossed into the Galwan river valley which was entirely Chinese territory, and blocked the patrols of the PLA border troops on 6 May 2020 and triggered the sequence of events that led to the clash on 15 June that year.
India may have played a role in triggering the Galwan incident, but the Chinese had no business to be where they were on the river, clearly on the Indian side of the LAC.
Since this was an area that had never before had a problem, it is clear that what had been done was a pre-meditated act on the part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
This was then followed up by repeatedly claiming that the Chinese LAC extended to the ‘estuary’ of the Galwan or the point where it enters the Shyok river. Actually, there is sufficient evidence to show that the last seven or eight kilometres of the Galwan river, as it enters the Shyok, is on the Indian side of the LAC. That is the reason why they have located Patrol Point 14 there, and have been visiting it since the late 1970s.
China’s Studied Nonchalance On Events Of 2020
Wang Yi, in his Sunday press briefing, continued the themes he had raised in his conversation with Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on 26 February when the two had a telephonic conversation. He told Jaishankar that “there has been some wavering and backpedaling in India’s China policy, and practical cooperation between the two countries had been affected.”
He said that with the disengagement in the Pangong area completed, it was imperative to sustain the momentum, “further ease the situation and improve the border management and control mechanisms.”
In turn, Jaishankar had made it clear that since there was agreement between both sides that peace and tranquility was essential for developing bilateral relations, there was need to “work towards early resolution of remaining issues”.
The tone and tenor of Wang Yi’s remarks reveal a studied nonchalance about the events of 2020.
This is evident from the fact that the Indian side looks at the situation very differently. In December 2020, in an online interaction with the Lowy Institute, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that the violation of bilateral pacts by China has had “very significantly damaged” the India-China relationship, and the Chinese were yet to give a clear explanation for their actions in eastern Ladakh last year. He said it was unrealistic to have a situation on the border and expect normal relations in other areas.
Why India May Have No Option But To Ease Curbs On Chinese Investments
Following the disengagement, there were reports in the Chinese media that India was likely to ease curbs in investment from China. It may be recalled that India had curbed Chinese investments even before the Galwan incident. Indian media has, however, reported that New Delhi was unlikely to do so in a hurry.
But India may not have too many options. According to reports, despite the border troubles, China has once again emerged as India’s biggest trade partner in 2020.
India’s dependence on Chinese heavy machinery, telecom equipment has led to a ballooning of the trade deficit at USD 40 billion. This is despite bans on several items like TVs, air conditioners and special duties on solar panels and anti-dumping duties on a variety of goods. So, it has been reported that while the government may not have an open door on Chinese investments, it will be willing to approve FDI proposals from China on a “case-by-case” basis.
Why India Cannot Isolate From Chinese Economy Yet
China’s economy continues to make a strong showing. The assessment is that it has mostly met the targets it had set for its 13th Five Year Plan which ended in 2020, and is set to take up an entirely new set of challenges with the 14th Plan, which will be approved by the NPC this month.
It is the only large economy that showed positive growth in 2020. Figures show that China’s exports jumped 61 percent in the January-February period amidst a rising global demand for manufactured goods.
In such a climate, it is unlikely that India can isolate itself from the Chinese economy immediately.
Pragmatism may be the advisable course, one that focuses on building up national capacities, before tilting at windmills abroad.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)