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.
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.