External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has done the right thing by taking the media into confidence on the outcome of the talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Till this point in time, the visit had been shrouded in some secrecy. Given the state of relations between India and China, there was an understandable desire on the part of the government to play down the visit. At the same time and for the same reason, it was important to take the public into confidence about its outcome.
Jaishankar has said that after three hours of talks with Wang and after an “open and candid” discussion on issues ranging from the border situation to Ukraine and Afghanistan, the two sides had “added clarity in regard to various aspects of our bilateral relations”. As for the resolution of the border issue, it remained a “work-in-progress” and the aim of the talks had been to expedite the process.
No Clarity on the Border Issue
These were the third in-person talks between Jaishankar and Wang since April 2020, when Chinese forces simultaneously moved into five unheld areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and blocked their Indian counterparts from patrolling up to the extent of their claims, as had been the practice till that time.
These areas are the Depsang plains, Galwan, the Kugrang river Valley and Gogra, the north bank of Pangong Tso and the Charding-Ninlung Nala area. To back up their action, the Chinese had also deployed some 50,000 troops and their equipment near the LAC.
In response, India had made matching deployments. And it had also taken up forward positions along the heights south of Pangong Tso, near Spanggur Tso.
Subsequent talks between the two countries, including those between Wang and Jaishankar, had led to disengagement in the Galwan valley, Pangong and Spanggur Tso areas by February 2021, and a limited pullback near Gogra.
But repeated rounds since have yielded no results in relation to the other areas, especially the significant Chinese blockade in Depsang, which is denying Indian patrols access to some 900 sq km of territory. Both sides also continued to maintain significant forces near the LAC.
It is not clear whether the Jaishankar-Wang meeting of yesterday arrived at any substantive decisions on the issue of disengagement along what the Indian side euphemistically calls the “remaining areas” along LAC in eastern Ladakh.
If there has been some agreement on the significant problem in Depsang, Kugrang river and the Charding Nala area, it is more than likely to be revealed in the coming days and weeks through the medium of the Senior Commander-level military-to-military talks that have been taking place since June 2020. On 11 March, the two sides had held the 15th round of their high-level military dialogue in the Chushul-Moldo meeting area near Pangong Tso.
What 'Normalcy' Means for India
The EAM referred to Foreign Minister Wang speaking “about China’s desire for a return to normalcy” and the importance of the larger picture of Sino-Indian ties.
But, said Jaishankar, he clearly emphasised to the visitor that while India wanted “a stable and predictable” relationship, normalcy would “obviously require a restoration of peace and tranquillity”. This, the EAM emphasised, had been “the foundation of stable and cooperative ties” between the two countries.
From the outset, the government had taken the view that it would use diplomatic means to seek the disengagement of troop deployment along the LAC followed by a de-escalation of the additional forces that had come to the area. It has never quite spelt out the specific areas of Chinese ingress. At one level, it has denied that the Chinese had, indeed, even occupied additional areas along the LAC, “unilateral attempts to alter the status quo” in Ladakh. On the other hand, it has insisted that the Chinese side “take appropriate steps in “the remaining areas to restore peace and tranquillity”. But the essence has been a Chinese pullback from the areas they occupied in April 2020.
The government had gone out of its way to make Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit as low key as could be. This was not unnatural, since from the outset, the Indian side had maintained what Jaishankar told the Munich Security Conference in February, that “the state of the border will determine the state of the relationship”. Earlier, in January 2021, the EAM had said that the China-India relationship had to rest on “three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interest. This is a formulation he repeated again yesterday.
From the time the Chinese leadership realised that the Galwan deaths had darkened the mood of the Indian public on China, its officials have been vainly trying to separate the issues related to the border dispute with relations in other areas. But even as Sino-Indian trade has continued to flourish – it grew 43 per cent in 2021– relations have not been normal.
What Did Wang and Doval Talk About?
An additional problem has been that the tough Chinese handling of COVID has prevented not only thousands of Indian students from returning to China to complete their studies, but also the movement of officials, businessmen and others to the country there has seen a general slowdown if not stoppage of exchanges in other areas. According to Jaishankar, Wang Yi has promised to take up the issue of the students with the relevant authorities.
As of now, we do not know the details of the discussion between Wang and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who are the two top officials of the two countries in dealing with Sino-Indian issues as the Special Representatives of their respective governments.
Recall that it was the Wang-Doval telephone conversation that finally succeeded in separating the forces in the Galwan area and creating a 3 km no-patrolling zone there in July 2020. According to reports, Doval, too, has told Wang that an “early and complete disengagement of troops” at the so-called “friction points” was the key to ties returning to normal.
China Wants the BRICS to be a Success
In the focus on the border, one thing may have gone unnoticed in relation to Wang’s visit. It is quite likely that its real purpose was to prepare the ground for India’s attendance at the BRICS summit to be held in Xiamen, China, in June this year.
The summit has a special significance given the global upsurge against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. China has strongly supported Russia and would like to ensure that the summit is a success.
However, the big question mark it confronts is as to whether Prime Minister Modi, who hosted the virtual summit of the outfit in 2021, would be willing to participate in it given the current estrangement with Beijing. For this reason, China has probably deemed it important to actively seek India’s support to make the summit a success. This has an interesting parallel with the 2017 situation, when a similar predicament may have aided the Chinese to agree to settle the Doklam problem in order to smoothen the path to the BRICS summit that was also held in Xiamen in September 2017.
We can only speculate. But the BRICS summit, to be followed by the important 20th Party Congress that is likely to see Xi Jinping elected as General Secretary for a third term, could well trigger a satisfactory resolution of the eastern Ladakh issue with the Chinese pulling back from the “remaining areas”.
More likely, they will seek a formula similar to the one applied till now in the Galwan, Pangong Tso and Spanggur Tso areas – a pullback and the creation of a “no patrolling zone” in the area.
(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.)