Wang Yi’s Visit to Delhi, Border talks and the Future Prospects

Wang Yi’s Visit to Delhi, Border talks and the Future Prospects

By – Bhupendra Kumar;

The Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi landed in New Delhi on an unannounced visit on March 24, 2022. This was the first major visit from China since the violent clash in Galwan valley occurred along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in April 2020. Improvement of relations, following the Wuhan summit in April 2018, and the Mamallapuram summit in 2019 along with various diplomatic attempts to bridge relations following the Doklam standoff have derailed, bringing bilateral relations to its lowest point in nearly three decades. 

Though bilateral relations have been frozen, both countries have interacted on certain occasions. Both foreign ministers met on the side-lines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s  meeting in Moscow in September 2020, and Dushanbe in July and September 2021. Discussions on the early resolution of issues concerning the LAC in Eastern Ladakh were a ubiquitous presence in all the meetings, although the efforts seemed rather unsuccessful. Further, there have had fifteen rounds of talks between senior commanders seeking the resolution of the relevant issues along the LAC in the Western sector. 

Amidst the status quo, the border dispute continues to be fraught with mistrust and suspicion between both countries, necessitating a careful examination of the significance of Wang Yi’s visit in relation to India-China border talks. The visit involves both bilateral and multilateral implications for future cooperation and conflict between both countries. Bilaterally, concerning border talks, Wang Yi proposed India to disengage from PP 15 and move back to the Karam Singh Post between PP16 and PP 17 which has been rejected by India signifies a stalemate in the India-China border talks. The paper has firstly revisited the previous 15 rounds of China India Corps Commander level meetings and their significance in India-China relations. Then the paper discussed the recent visit of Wang Yi. 

India China Corps Commander level Meetings 

The first rounds of talks between India and China, following the bloody brawl on 15 June 2020, divisional commanders’ level talk took place on 18 June 2020. Initial talks yielded no progress as both countries continued to ramp up infrastructure and military deployments surrounding the areas. 

The second and third round of corps commanders’ meetings occurred on 22 June and 30 June 2020 respectively. In the third round of talks, both India and China discussed modalities for disengagement from all friction areas in eastern Ladakh. Meanwhile, a discussion took place between special representatives National Security Advisor of India, Ajit Doval and Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi. 

The fourth round of corps commanders’ talks took place on 14 July 2020. The fifth round of corps commanders’ level meetings happened at Chushul Moldo Border Personnel Meeting (BPM) amid a stalemate in Pangong Tso. On the development of the talk, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said that there had been some progress but the disengagement process had not been completed yet. He noted that Chinese troops would ‘sincerely’ work for ‘complete disengagement and de-escalation and full restoration of peace and tranquillity along the border areas at the earliest as agreed during talks between NSA Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.  

On August 29-30 2020  another provocation by the Chinese military was thwarted by the Indian Army. India occupied several strategic heights on the southern bank of the Pangong lake in eastern Ladakh. Before the sixth round of military talks, EAM Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met in Moscow in September 2020, and agreed to implement a five-point agreement, which sought quick disengagement of troops and the adherence to all agreements and protocols on border management to restore peace along the LAC.

The joint press release of the sixth round commanders’ meeting on September 22, 2020 stressed implementing the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries strengthening communication on the ground, avoiding misunderstanding and misjudgement refraining from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground, not sending troops on the frontline. 

The seventh round of Corps Commander took place at Chushul on 12 October 2020. Importantly, it was the first senior military-level talks following Beijing’s comments that it has ‘not recognised’ the Union Territory of Ladakh. More importantly, in the seventh round of Corps Commander-level talks, China pressed for the withdrawal of Indian troops from several strategic heights around the Southern bank of Pangong lake. The eight-round India and China talks, led by Crops Commanders, sought a mutually acceptable timeline to disengage from friction points along the LAC in eastern Ladakh.  

The ninth round of the Corps Commanders level meeting was held on the Chinese side of the Line of Control in Moldo on 24 January 2021. India and China agreed to push for early disengagement of the frontline troops. Both sides held military and diplomatic discussions and agreed that the area between figure 3 and figure 8 would become a no patrolling zone temporarily. India handed over the heights of the Kailash Range at Pangong Tso.

Before the tenth corps commander meeting, a crucial meeting occurred between two foreign ministers in Moscow on the sidelines of Moscow, where both leaders arrived at a five-point approach to resolve the border issue along the LAC. It prescribed that their troops “should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. Indian military strategist Maj. Gen. Prof GG Dwivedi termed the process of dialogue on the very line of the Chinese policy of talking and fighting simultaneously (yi bian dan-yi bian da).

The joint press statements of the 10th round of the China India corps commander meeting appraised the smooth completion of disengagement of frontline troops in the Pangong Lake area. The 11th round of the India-China Corps Commander level meeting exchanged views for the resolution of the remaining issues concerning disengagement along the Eastern Ladakh, eventually, it would also pave the way for the two sides to consider de-escalation of forces. The meeting did not appear with any conclusive outcomes as could be observed from the joint statements. The focus of the talks centred on the disengagement from the Patrolling Point (PP) at Gogra and Hot Springs. It is important to note that in earlier talks Pangong Tso issue has been resolved. By the conclusion of  the 11th Corps Commanders meeting, it has been observed, , that the PLA in a graduated manner of disengagement had gained an upper hand as India had vacated the Kailash Range. 

The 12th round of corps commander level meeting on July 31, 2021, sought to talk about troops disengagement at patrolling points (PPs) 15, 17, and 17A in the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La area before the two countries opt for de-escalation. After the joint press release of the 12th round meeting, the Indian government released specifying disengagement at PP 17A on 06 August 2021. It is pertinent to be noted down that the PLA has been blocking Indian patrols in their traditional PPs-10, 11, 11a, 12, 13 since April 2020. The outcome of the talks though welcomed by the Indian strategic community, sections within the strategic community expressed concerns over the possible price India would pay in terms of buffer zone creation, loss of patrolling rights, and border infrastructure development.        

The 13 rounds of Corps Commander talks occurred at the Chushul-Moldo border on 10 October, 2021. The Indian Side conveyed its dismay over unilateral attempts of the Chinese side to alter the status quo– one in the Barhoti sector of Uttarakhand and another in the Tawang sector in the Arunachal Pradesh. Both sides stressed over maintaining communication and stability on the ground. It is important to  note that the fresh rounds of talks have taken place over three weeks after EAM S Jaishankar conveyed his counterpart Wang Yi for resolving the remaining issues in Eastern Ladakh on the side-lines of the SCO Summit in Dushanbe on 16 September 2021

The 14th round of Corps Commander level talks occurred at the Chushul-Moldo border on the Chinese side on 12th January 2022, where the Indian side sought early disengagement in all friction points especially Hot Spring (Patrolling Point 15), including resolution of issues in Depsang Bulge and Demchok. An important observation appeared from General M M Naravane who raised concerns over ever-increasing infrastructure apart from the deployment of a large number of PLA forces in Eastern Ladakh.  

In the latest 15th round of the China-India Corps Commander level meeting on the Chushul-Moldo border on the Indian side on 11th March 2022, India pushed for a resolution of remaining friction points in eastern Ladakh.

Above detailed discussions of previous senior corps commanders’ meetings indicate China continues to have the upper hand in talks as the PLA has been blocking Indian patrols yet in their traditional PPs-10, 11, 11a, 12, 13 since April 2020. Earlier, India handed over the heights of Kailash Range at Pangong Pso, and many military strategists objected to it. Now, Wang Yi in his visit to Delhi proposed to disengage from PP 15, which has been rejected by India. Next, the implication of his visit over borders talks and other critical areas have been analysed. 

Differing Stances of Both Countries in Border Areas

The outcome of the visit highlights the polar stances of both countries on border demarcation. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar clarified that China’s deployments in border areas since April 2020, which violate the 1993 and 1996 border agreements, act as a major stumbling block between the two neighbours. It has been quite evident that the Doklam stand-off of 2017 and the more recent Galwan crisis highlighted complete disregard towards the bilateral peace and tranquillity agreements related to the border areas. Given the recent downward trajectory of diplomatic initiatives to resolve the border dispute, the visit of Wang Yi is critical since it reflects the current position of China on the border issues with India. 

The Chinese side stated that border resolution should be placed “at a proper position” in bilateral relations between New Delhi and Beijing, however, they also mentioned that it should not become a necessary precondition for bilateral relations. Wang suggested the three-point approaches that special representatives of India and China could look upon, with the key components of the approach entailing that boundary questions should maintain communication and exchanges;  a shift from emergency response to regular management and control of the border issues should be pressed for as soon as possible, and commitment to properly managing the border issues to seek a fair and just solution must be undertaken. India’s response to the Chinese proposals have been quite consistent since the border skirmishes in April 2020, where it stated that the onus of normalising border relations lies with Beijing. 

In the press briefing, that followed the meeting with Wang Yi, EAM Jaishankar asserted that normalcy in bilateral ties cannot be reconciled given China’s deployments since April 2020 hindering the restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border area. It is pertinent to note that the PLA has been utilizing the military technique of ‘salami slicing’ , which involves gradually encroaching on disputed territories by extending Chinese infrastructure and presence in these regions. China is renowned for applying this stratagem in the South China Sea and across its borders with India and Bhutan. Therefore, India has conveyed a firm message to Wang Yi that the current situation in border areas will not be compromised.  

On the question of Ukraine, both agreed on the importance of an immediate ceasefire, as well as a return to diplomacy and dialogue. Further, questions pertaining to QUAD and security in the Indo- Pacific were not raised. In March 2022, Mr Wang Yi raised the issue of Kashmir in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting, raising eyebrows in New Delhi. India publicly condemned Beijing and expected China to follow an independent policy that should not be influenced by other countries, specifically alluding to Pakistan. 

Significance of the Visit

This visit has several key aspects. First, as mentioned earlier, by terming border issues ‘at a proper position’, China intends to normalise future bilateral relations despite it continues to build up along the Line of Actual Control. However, tensions were further heightened as China had consciously placed Qi Fabao to carry the torchlight in Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Qi was involved in the Galwan valley face-off that resulted in the death of several Indian soldiers. Added to it, the Chinese insistence on the Indian pullback from Hot Springs signifies that China will continue to be aggressive in matters relating to border disputes. This Chinese policy poses a significant challenge to India, which wants China to respect earlier commitments to bring peace along border areas. 

Second, at the upcoming BRICS summit meeting, which is proposed to take place on 23-24 June this year in China, Beijing intends to invite the leaders of member-states for an in-person meeting. This is significant, as commented by India-China expert Professor Srikanth Kondapalli in JNU, the visit mainly seeks multilateral cooperation amidst freezing bilateral engagements. The official notification regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence at the BRICS after the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has recently been announced. India has agreed to attend a virtual summit of BRICS. Earlier there has been questions about whether India would continue multilateral engagement at the BRICS summit in the same vein. 

Third, in the fast-changing geopolitical circumstances, China has been making several diplomatic manoeuvres in light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and post the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. This could be seen as an attempt to influence and shape the regional security order. The visit of Wang Yi to several South Asian and Central Asian countries preceded the hosting of the third meeting of foreign ministers of Afghanistan ‘s neighbouring countries comprising of delegations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan which took place on the 30th and 31st of March 2022 in China. The meeting was convened with the vision to maintain stability in the region post the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. India was a notable absentee from the dialogue. Earlier, the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue for Afghanistan occurred in November 2021, where representatives from India, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan engaged as China and Pakistan refrained from participation.  

Conclusion

To conclude, Wang Yi’s visit to India and other South Asian countries brings three crucial observations regarding Beijing’s foreign policy in the region. Firstly, amidst the mounting Russia-Ukraine crisis, and lingering border tensions between India and China, the visit seeks continuity in border talks, without improving the ground situations along the border areas where it continues to have adopted a confrontational posture vis-a-vis India. As Wang Yi in his visit to India, proposed India to disengage from PP 15 and move back to the Karam Singh Post between PP16 and PP 17 which has been rejected by New Delhi, simply affirms Beijing’s intransigence attitude toward border talks with India.

Secondly, it signals the continuity of close multilateral cooperation among BRICS members and India particularly amidst the Russia-Ukraine war. Though, India has accepted Beijing’s invitation to the proposed BRICS meeting in June 2022, its future implications are still to be unfolded. Thirdly, though not distinctly related, as the visit coincides with Wang’s visit to other South Asian countries, it reveals China’s long-term objectives after the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan where Beijing seeks unhindered progress of its flagship programmes of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Overall, the paper reflects that as far as India is concerned, China has yet to take concrete steps to improve relations with India which has ebbed since April 2020. 

Bhupendra Kumar completed his M. Phil and PhD from the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies Jawaharlal Nehru Interests. His research interests are foreign policy behaviour, diplomatic relations of Pakistan with India and the United States, personality and diplomacy, China, Global Governance, and climate change politics. 

Maldives- China relations: A Multidimensional Cooperation in the Indian Ocean

Maldives- China relations: A Multidimensional Cooperation in the Indian Ocean

By – Shalini Singh;

Introduction

Maldives is a small archipelago nation that holds a crucial geo-strategic location in the Indian Ocean region. Influence over Maldives has emerged as a new bone of contention between India  and China. The Southern and the Northern parts of the island have three sea lanes of communication, which are the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Hormuz (West Asia), and Strait of Malacca (Southeast Asia) that are pivotal for maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. Since its Independence in 1965,  Maldives has maintained cordial relations with India. Beijing, however, has only recently entered the fray, indicating its long-term goals in the Indian Ocean region through its Maritime Silk Road.

Friendly relations between Maldives and India witnessed uncertainty during the reign of former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom between 2013-18. President Gayoom favoured a pro-China policy that made Beijing’s entry in the Indian Ocean very swift. The presence of China in its backyard i.e. the Indian Ocean, has made India anxious about maritime security in the region where it has historically maintained the upper hand. After hostile relations in the northern part of the mainland, India is worried about the increasing engagement of China with the Maldives as well as Sri Lanka through investments, infrastructural projects, and trade agreements that are consolidating Beijing’s presence in the region.

Maldives: Crucial ‘Pearl’ of China’s Maritime Strategy

Maldives and China have enjoyed cordial relations since establishing diplomatic ties in 1972. The two nations have collaborated over a wide range of issues covering trade, defence, housing development projects biodiversity preservation and climate change.  In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Maldives, highlighting the emerging importance of the Indian Ocean and Maldives in China’s foreign policy. Xi was accompanied by a 100-member business delegation. He advocated the idea of increasing connectivity between China and Maldives by proposing the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) (a part of the Belt and Road Initiative – BRI). The Gayoom regime agreed to participate in the initiative since it provided a major boost to sectors such as tourism, trade, culture, and infrastructural development.

The Xi-Yameen talks held in September 2014 yielded the following outcomes:

  1. Housing Project of the Maldives—Phase II to be financed through concessional loan financing by the government of China,
  2. Laamu Atoll Link-Road, to be constructed through non-reimbursable aid financing by the Chinese Government,
  3. An MoU on the construction of the Malé–Hulhulé Bridge Project,
  4. Contract agreement on the expansion and upgrading of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport,
  5. An MoU on the tourism infrastructure development project,
  6. An MoU on the Greater Malé power station project,
  7. An MoU on marine cooperation,

In December 2014, the China-Maldives Joint Committee on Trade and Economic Cooperation signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to bolster the MSRI stratagem. The second meeting of the Joint Committee in September 2015 resulted in another MoU to initiate discussions on a free-trade area. Moreover, China is also involved in other projects that include renewable energy projects, housing development projects, airport construction, building special economic zones, and building telecommunication networks. 

Maldives is central to China’s Indian Ocean strategy. Maldives is a part of the MSRI through the Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project, or IHavan , which is located on the northernmost island. The project passes over the seven-degree channel that holds a key geostrategic location since it connects major shipping routes from Southeast Asia and China to West Asia and Europe. China has strategically placed a project in the region to take advantage of the US$18 trillion worth of goods transported across the seven-degree channel annually.

China  also manipulated diplomatic relations with Maldives to further its rebalancing strategy  in the Indian Ocean region. Given the recent strengthening of bilateral ties between the two countries, China aimed to replace the United States of America as a more reliable ally and consolidate itself as Malé’s all-weather friend. Also, China has India as a major competitor in in  Maldives. However, the upward trajectory of bilateral relations between China and Maldives faced its biggest hurdles in 2018 as Ibrahim Solih was elected President. The Soleh regime adopted a pro-India approach built on a “multifaceted, mutually beneficial partnership” Consequently, Maldives  retracted from the Joint Ocean Observation Station to be built by China located in Makunudhoo in North Western Maldives.   These developments rung alarm bells in Beijing.

However, China and Maldives have tried to maintain  relations by cooperating in different fields. In February 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit marked five agreements between both countries:

  1. Agreement on Mutual Visa Exemption between the Maldives and the
  2. Agreement of Economic and Technical on Grand Aid focusing on the development of key areas such as social, livelihood, and infrastructure projects.
  3. Letter of Exchange on the Feasibility Study of Management and Maintenance of China-Maldives Friendship Bridge,
  4. Implementation Contract for China Aided Micro-Grid Sea-water Desalination Project in the Maldives was signed.
  5. Agreement on Establishing a Hospital Assistance and Cooperation Programme

India- Maldives Relations  

Maldives’ India First policy has reaffirmed cooperation between both the nations. The establishment of  a joint working group on counterterrorism; countering violent extremism; de-radicalization; coordinated patrolling; aerial surveillance; exchange of information, and capacity building for maritime security in the region are areas that have reaffirmed bilateral relations between the two countries. New Delhi is further seeking to participate in climate change projects in the Maldives through the United Nations Framework Convention on climate change and the Paris Agreement.

In 2019, India provided $1.4 billion dollars as budgetary support to the Maldives besides an $800 million Line of Credit signed in March for “people-centric and socio-economic projects including water and sanitation for many islands”. India has also provided grant assistance equalling $5.5 million for the implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects and a cash grant of $ 6.9 million for the implementation of community infrastructure, access to education, and environmental protection. Moreover, Maldives was also the first country to receive Covid-19 vaccines from New Delhi in January 2021. 

India’s relations with Maldives have always been multidimensional based on mutual respect and transparency.  Bilateral ties include cooperation in areas such as economics, climate change, health, and counter-terrorism. India has viewed the Maldives as a strategic neighbour in South Asia. 

India has provided soft loans to Maldives in a bid to assist development. New Delhi has offered funds for infrastructure that include a cricket stadium and a hospital in Hulhumalé, a $300 million port project in Gulhifalhu, the redevelopment of an airport at Hanimaadhoo, and water and sewerage projects on 34 islands. Transparency and lenient repayment clauses are two of the most stand-out features about assistance from India. 

However, the domestic opponents of the current Solih government have  launched a “India Out ” campaign, accusing New Delhi of undermining Maldives’ sovereignty by stationing military personnel in the country and persistently seeking a naval base.  The anti-India entities have been reassured by the Solih regime about India’s honest intentions and how New Delhi has been Maldives’ closest ally and a trusted neighbour.

QUAD and Maldives – scope of delicate yet strategic cooperation

In April 2021, Maldives welcomed Quad for the greater cooperation and stability in the Indian Ocean. This statement opened the scope of collaboration between the QUAD nations and  Maldives. India, which is one of founding the pillars of QUAD, is already a close ally of the island nation. Other members of QUAD have also initiated efforts to strengthen bilateral relations with the country. In February 2022, Australia announced the establishment of a High Commission in the Maldives and investment of $36.5 million over five years in the region. India also welcomed the US-Maldives military agreement titled “Framework for a Defence and Security Relationship” for deeper engagement and cooperation along with maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean.

Japan also shares cordial relations with the Maldives. In November 2020, Maldives and Japan announced the Economic and Social Development Programme.  The Government of Japan provided a grant worth 800 million Japanese Yen (USD 7.6 million) to the Maldivian Coast Guard, the Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre, Sub-Regional Centres, and Vessels.

Since Maldives shares friendly relations with all signatories of QUAD, there is scope for collaborative initiatives. In 2021, Japan and India were ready to collaborate in Sri Lanka for the development of the East Coast Terminal project. However, Sri Lanka unilaterally scrapped the deal and threw India and Japan out of the project without any discussion. However, since Maldives share cordial relations with both Japan and India bilaterally, there’s a huge potential for collaborative developmental plans by both the countries in Maldives. 

India or China?

China’s two Ocean strategy has gained momentum ever since the announcement of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Even though the primary vision of the BRI focused on coastal cities such as the development of the Gwadar Port and the Hambantota Port. Recently, the focus has  shifted towards landlocked countries. China has denied the notion of “Indo- Pacific” as geographical concept constructed by the US and its allies to strategically target and hamper its presence and collaboration with the countries in the Indian as well as the Pacific Ocean. However, China’s increasing interest through investment projects in the Indian Ocean since the dawn of the 21st Century can’t be ignored. Both the oceans are home to China’s SLOCs – commercial and energy supply routes. 

The Malacca Strait is a major concern for China as a majority of its imports pass through the strait. China’s overdependence on Malacca has resulted in a dilemma within the Communist Party. The possible scenario of a blockade on imports has provoked China to take a proactive yet defensive approach in the region.  And Maldives’ dormant approach towards China has kept its multitude of investments in the country in the backseat. Chinese Infrastructure projects, initially seemed lucrative however they have come at the cost of stringent repayment clauses. Maldives’ central bank states that the government owes $600 million to Beijing. Further, loans worth $900 million were issued to private Maldivian companies under sovereign guarantees that warranted the Maldivian government to repay the loans if the lender companies were unable to pay back their loans. Moreover, the projects funded and developed by the Chinese have lacked transparency since the Maldivian government is not involved in contract distribution and price negotiation.

India, on the other hand, has  been Maldives’ all weather friend, not focused on economic interests. This is what makes India- Maldives’ relations special and makes their bond stronger. Despite the regime changes, the level of mutual respect and understanding between the two nations will continue as long as they maintain the policy of non-interference and cooperation. India, through its Neighbourhood First policy, must continue to engage with the Maldives to further its cooperation in different sectors. In the long run, India cannot deny China emerging as a major actor in the Indian Ocean  region, but constructive use of smart power with a focus on a diverse range of issues crucial to both countries, will help India strengthen its position in the region.

The Maldives needs to balance India and China and must not favour either. Even though MSRI is crucial for Maldives’ development, India has been its long-term ally in the neighbourhood. standing beside like an all-weather ally with all the cards on the table and no hidden cost. Economic benefits are not the only thing that has kept their relations strong. China, will need to extend its cooperation in more than just developmental projects to strengthen its relations  with Maldives. 

Shalini Singh is currently working as a Junior Researcher and Copyeditor​ at the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). Earlier, she has worked with the National Maritime Foundation as a research intern and Political Risk and Threat Intelligence Analyst Intern with Horizon Intelligence. She has also worked with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment as a Research Intern and Field Investigator. In addition, she has worked as an editor with Alexis Foundation and Hindustan Publishing Corporation. Her core interests lie in Energy Security, International Institutions, and China’s presence in Africa and the Middle East.