The state of India-China ties is so parlous that any bilateral engagement between the two generates curiosity about what might be in the offing, and the results often underscore the fact that there is no getting away from the downward spiral.
For decades, India and China managed to delude themselves and the world that their challenges are surmountable and that cooperation on wider global issues would be the antidote to bilateral differences, which continued to grow amid widening capability differentials. Now, as this façade is cracking under the weight of Chinese intransigence, New Delhi and Beijing are struggling to get the modalities of their bilateral engagement back on track.
Last week, external affairs minister S Jaishankar met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Dushanbe. And the outcome of the dialogue once again underscored the fundamental divergence between the approaches of the two nations. For New Delhi, it is China’s attempts at unilaterally changing the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that is at the heart of the problem, and, therefore, India insists that broader bilateral ties can only develop after full restoration of peace and tranquility along the border. As Jaishankar outlined, the continuation of the existing situation in eastern Ladakh was visibly impacting bilateral ties in a “negative manner”.
The disengagement around the Pangong lake areas in February, following a series of military and diplomatic talks to resolve the standoff, was supposed to generate conditions for resolving other outstanding issues, but Beijing seems to be in no real hurry to move forward. As a consequence, problems remain unresolved in disputed areas such as Depsang, Demchok, Gogra and Hot Springs.
Though the two foreign ministers agreed to hold the next round of military dialogue at the earliest to discuss all the remaining issues and seek a mutually acceptable solution, it’s not readily evident what the way forward is going to be. The next round of dialogue will only have meaning if the understanding arrived at, in earlier exchanges, is adhered to.
Last year, in September, on the sidelines of another SCO conclave in Moscow, India and China had reached a five-point agreement for the resolution of the border problem; this included quick disengagement of troops and further steps to restore peace along LAC. But China’s approach contradicted the letter and spirit of the pact.
During his recent meeting with Jaishankar, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, while agreeing that “relations still stay at a low level, which is not in the interest of either side”, insisted that the border dispute should be kept “in an appropriate position” and it should be addressed while both sides looked to “expand the positive momentum of bilateral cooperation and create favourable conditions for resolving differences through negotiation”. He repeated the usual Chinese trope that bilateral interaction “should still be seeking mutual benefits and complementarity, pursuing healthy competition and avoiding confrontation”.
So while New Delhi wants the boundary issue to be resolved first, China wants to focus on other areas of cooperation and is in no hurry to move forward on the contentious issue.
From Moscow, where India and China had laid out the parameters to sort out the border issue last year and which led to de-escalation at Pangong Tso, to Dushanbe, the trust deficit has only increased. In fact, there seems to be a long-term reorientation in Indian and Chinese force postures along LAC.
In the absence of a diplomatic way forward, the military domain is becoming the most important instrument. China is busy building bunkers and permanent structures as well as moving additional forces, tanks and long-range artillery to the LAC. India is responding in kind with a much-needed structural shift away from Pakistan to China in its defence policy. As troops and materiel amassed along the LAC grow, the border becomes ever more volatile, making it the “new normal” for the two neighbours.
Soon after the Jaishankar-Wang Yi meet in Dushanbe, Jaishankar’s statement at the International Conference on Regional Connectivity of Central and South Asia, in Tashkent, also made it clear that sovereignty issues will dominate the discourse on China.
Targeting China and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, he argued that “respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity are the most basic principles of international relations”, and that connectivity must be based on economic viability and financial responsibility, and should promote economic activity and not create debt burdens. India has been one of the most vocal critics of the Chinese model of connectivity projects and has no plans to tone it down.
Recognising the failure of the earlier model, which privileged the appearance of normal bilateral ties at the expense of moving forward on difficult matters, Indian policymakers are now clear that without peace and tranquility along the border, the bilateral relationship can’t really move forward. For its part, Beijing’s insistence that the boundary dispute should not be privileged is a product of its past success, where it could continue to keep up the pressure on the border even as other aspects of engagement developed to its advantage. As this impasse continues, there is a real danger of India-China ties moving rapidly to a point of no return.
Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College London and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, DelhiThe views expressed are personal