China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, will visit India on Friday, according to Bloomberg. Relations between New Delhi and Beijing remain cold since the spring of 2020, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pushed into five unheld areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh and prevented Indian border guards from patrolling some disputed areas, which they used to, as per common arrangement.
The areas, in themselves, are not particularly significant. They are largely in the high-altitude and inhospitable region of Ladakh, where there is no population. They have limited military utility. But the Chinese action of not only occupying the areas but backing their action by a display of military force was a clear act of coercive diplomacy that forced India to react. In the process, the two armies clashed in Galwan river valley leading to the deaths of 20 Indians and, reportedly, five Chinese personnel. The Indian side also built up a considerable military force to match the Chinese deployments.
The Chinese actions were in violation of the existing confidence-building measures adopted in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012, and destroyed the regime of trust and cooperation that marked the policing of the LAC and the even tenor of Sino-Indian relations.
Wang Yi Has Always Had an India Connect
Since then, there have been repeated rounds of negotiations that have succeeded in getting the PLA to vacate the ground in Galwan, Pangong Tso, and, to some extent, in the Kugrang river valley near Gogra and reconfiguring them as “no-patrolling zones”.
Wang Yi has always had an important India connect. In the early 2000s, as Vice-Foreign Minister, he led the Chinese side on the negotiations over the status of Sikkim, which the Chinese eventually recognised as a part of India.
Right through the 2020 crisis, he played an important role. Within two days of the 15 June incident, India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, called him and protested the incident “in the strongest terms”. He said that even as efforts to resolve the issue were ongoing, “the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC” and this had eventually resulted in the clash.
After the failure of the two armies to work things out in Galwan, he and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval intervened in early July to effect a 3-km zone of separation there.
The meeting between Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar on 11 September 2020 in Moscow gave political guidelines for a disengagement plan. The five-point joint statement spoke of concluding new CBMs.
Speaking at the All India Conference of China Studies in January 2021, Jaishankar acknowledged that Sino-Indian ties were under “exceptional stress”. He said that the determining factors for better relations were the three “mutuals” – “mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests”. This February he said that India’s ties with China remain “at a very difficult phase” and that “the state of the border will determine the state of the relationship".
But thereafter, Wang, along with the rest of the Chinese bureaucracy, has adopted the line that the boundary issue needed to be delinked from the general tenor of Sino-Indian relations. Speaking at the customary press conference at the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2021, he said that boundary dispute was “not the whole story” of the relationship between India and China. The two countries were “each other’s friends and partners, not threats or rivals”.
Meeting the Chinese Halfway
The gulf in the positions of the two sides became evident in the remarks at a September 2021 meeting between Jaishankar and Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) ministerial meeting at Dushanbe. Jaishankar called for an early resolution of “remaining issues” along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and asked the Chinese not to look at their ties with India through the perspective of its relations with third countries.
Wang Yi simply ignored the “early resolution” bit and said that he wanted the Indian side to meet the Chinese “halfway” and promote “continued stability of the [border] situation, and gradually shift from emergency response to normalised management”.
Wang’s mission now appears to be both – a delayed fire-fighting job as well as an effort to see if there was any room for Beijing to exploit the gap between the positions of India and the West on the issue of Ukraine.
Differences between India and its partners in the Quad have surfaced over denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. New Delhi’s aggressive purchase of oil from Russia, even as Russian bombs rain down on the country, is being viewed with concern.
All through, the Russia-India-China grouping, led by their respective foreign ministers, has been conducting its meetings as before. They met in September 2020 in Moscow, and last November, with India as the chair, the three met in a virtual format and adopted an extensive 35-point joint statement.
The document outlined, to an extent, their joint world view – critical of the conflict in Yemen, supportive of Syria, Palestine, and reconciliation in Libya and the Korean peninsula. Besides, they were supportive of the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in relation to Iran, the ASEAN consensus on Myanmar, and a “truly inclusive” government in Afghanistan.
But the statement was silent on the Indo-Pacific, where there are important differences between India and the other two who view the concept as not being truly “inclusive”.
No Normality Without LAC Resolution: India
India has taken the position that the best way of returning the 2020 genie back into the bottle is patient diplomacy instead of an open confrontation. But the country has also made it clear that there could be no return to normality unless the Chinese withdrew their blockade in the remaining areas of eastern Ladakh.
Speaking at the NPC press conference on 7 March 2022, Wang admitted that Sino-Indian ties had suffered setbacks. He said that New Delhi should work with China to uphold the strategic consensus that neither side was a threat to each other and that their independent policies can promote development and rejuvenation. He called upon the two sides to move bilateral ties forward on the right track.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)