India @ G20: Why Did PM Narendra Modi Not Meet China’s Xi Jinping To Mend Ties?

Following US-China Diplomatic Cues, Can India and China Stop Cold-Shouldering Over Its Border Dispute in Ladakh?

4 min read
Hindi Female

The first in-person meeting of President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali, begs the question: Why was there no similar meeting planned between Xi and Prime Minister Modi.

The leaders of India, China and the US have had a number of bilateral meetings with their counterparts of various participating countries but there was no India-China meeting.

When it comes to issues, bilateral and multilateral —they are no less important between India and China as in Beijing and Washington. If the Chinese leader has not met Biden since he was elected President in November 2020 neither has he met Modi in person since the Chennai summit of 2019.

Why Xi-Modi Bilateral Meet Seems Far-Fetched

There were expectations that following the pullback of Chinese and Indian military forces from PP15, near Gogra Hotsprings in eastern Ladakh, on the eve of the SCO summit in Samarkand in September, there would be a Xi-Modi meet.

But though both the leaders were present at the in-person SCO summit, there is no record of their direct meeting or, for that matter, even an exchange of greetings between them. For the record on Tuesday, according to reports, the two leaders did manage to greet each other in Bali.

Tensions between the US and China have been high on Taiwan, the US export ban, issues relating to Ukraine, and so on. But following the Xi-Biden summit, there is a distinctly calmer atmosphere. Both leaders seem to have understood the seriousness of the situation and gone out of their way to dial back their tough rhetoric.


India-China Border Clash Deepens Fault Lines

The situation between India and China remains fraught with tension. Though the two sides have worked out a pullback in three of the five areas of eastern Ladakh where the Chinese had established blockades in 2020, there has been no movement in by far, the more important Depsang area where Indian forces are prevented from patrolling 900 sq kms of territory it claims.

That the situation remains unchanged was confirmed by Army Chief Manoj Pande who said on Saturday that the situation in Ladakh is “stable but unpredictable.” He went on to add that as far as the PLA’s force levels are concerned “there has been no significant reduction.”

India and China are on the same side, as it were, when it comes to  Ukraine, but India is very much aligned to the United States’ goals in the Indo-Pacific and routinely conducts military exercises with the US and its allies like Australia and Japan, such as the ongoing Malabar exercises off Japan.

Can New Delhi and Beijing Call It a Truce?

Clearly, the difference is that where the time appeared to be ripe for a fruitful summit between China and the US, it does not appear to be so for New Delhi and Beijing. Speaking last week at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reiterated that “Unless there is peace and tranquility in the border areas… unless there is an observance of agreements and no unilateral attempt to change the status quo… the situation can not be, and is not, normal.”

US and China do not directly confront each other anywhere and even their tensions over Taiwan are an outcome of exaggerated fears in the US, rather than any substance. As of now, Beijing lacks the military capacity to intervene in Taiwan.

Besides, any such intervention could lead to China getting involved in a war with the US and Japan which could derail any Chinese military plans. In other words, to attack Taiwan, the Chinese would have to pre-emptively neutralise US and Japanese capabilities or risk having them intervene and to the detriment of the Chinese.

Modi probably feels that he has burnt his fingers in indulging in summitry with Xi. The two “informal summits” of 2018 and 2019 were billed as a major reset of Sino-Indian relations, yet in 2020, China did not hesitate to violate long standing agreements to mass troops on the LAC and deny Indian forces patrolling rights in a number of areas where the claims of both sides overlapped.

Both Leaders Need To Step Up on Diplomatic Front

By hiding the seriousness of the developments in eastern Ladakh and managing the media effectively, Modi did not face the kind of virulent criticism that confronted Nehru after the 1959 Kongka La incident. In part, this also had to do with the domestic focus on the devastating COVID crisis that hit the country and took the lives of millions.

Even now, the government has not revealed the extent of territory denied to Indian patrolling in the Depsang bulge. Few official details have been provided about the Galwan incident itself, especially the number of soldiers that had been taken prisoner at that time and the circumstances in which India lost 20 soldiers.

Being military adversaries and neighbours require India and China to adopt a similar posture to which Beijing and Washington have done i.e. to set up guard-rails in their relationship to ensure that things remain in control.

In the past two years, the diplomatic heavy lifting has been done by their respective foreign ministers—Jaishankar and Wang Yi, it is time that their heads of government, namely Modi and Xi also step forward and take their share of responsibility of managing Sino-Indian affairs.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)

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