June 2023

Talking tough

Amid an ongoing and bloody border row, India’s Defence and External Affairs Ministers have expressed their displeasure to their Chinese counterparts during an SCO meeting in New Delhi. Amit Agnihotri  reports

India has read the riot act to China and told it bluntly that close ties willnot be possible until there is peace at the border.

The frank message was initially conveyed by India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to his Chinese counterpart Gen Li Shangfu at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation conference in India. Days later, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar delivered thesame messagetohis Chinese counterpart Qin Gang.

Jaishankar, a former career diplomat, greeted the visiting foreign ministers with folded hands, while Rajnath Singh offered a warm handshake to the visiting defence ministers yet only welcomed Gen Shangfu with a curt ‘Namaste’ to signal his displeasure,sayingcategorically that improving relations between India and China was dependent upon peace on the border.

Singh also said that all issues at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border, needed to be resolved in accordance with existing bilateral agreements and commitments and reiterated that while violation of existing agreements had eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations, disengagement at the border would logically be followed by de-escalation.

India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with Gen Li Shangfu
Relations are strained while LAC standoff remains unresolved

After his meeting with Qin Gang, Jaishankar tweeted to say that the discussion had focused on resolving outstanding issues and ensuring peace and tranquillity in the border areas.

The SCO meeting between Jaishankar and Gang was their second one over the past two months; the Chinese foreign minister had visited India in March to attend the G20 foreign ministers meeting at which Jaishankar had again told Gang that the longstanding border dispute in eastern Ladakh has caused ‘abnormal’ relations between India and China.

Once again, the Chinese defence and foreign affairs ministers tried to bluff through, talking peace and claiming that the situation on the India-China border was generally stable and that the two sides ‘should take a long-term view, place the border issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations, and promote the transition of the border situation to normalized management.’

‘It is hoped that the two sides will work together to continuously enhance mutual trust between the two militaries and make proper contributions to the development of bilateral relations,’ said a Chinese foreign affairs ministry statement.

Noting that both India and China were neighbouring and important developing countries, Gen Shangfu said that the two nations ‘share far more common interests than differences’, and that they should view bilateral ties ‘from a comprehensive, long-term and strategic perspective, and jointly contribute wisdom and strength to world and regional peace and stability’.

As expected, the comments were received in India with suspicion as relations between the two Asian giants have been strained since April 2020 when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops deliberately violated the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh.

Meanwhile, the bloody Galwan Valley clashes in June 2020 that led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and at least 5 PLA troops, took India-China relations to a new low.

Despite several rounds of talks between the senior army commanders of the two sides,the border row recently entered its fourth year raising questions aboutChina’s real intention in militarising the LAC zone.

After more than two dozen rounds of diplomatic and military talks, however, the two sides have pulled back frontline troops from both banks of Pangong Lake, Gogra and Hot Springs, but have been unable to make headway on withdrawal at more tricky friction points in Depsang and Demchok.

Nonetheless, Gen Shangfu’s visit to India has aroused suspicion, being the first by a Chinese defence minister since the June 2020 clashes in Galwan Valley, and taking place days after senior army commanders from both sides held the 18th round of talks to ease tensions along the LAC in eastern Ladakh.

Rajnath Singh offered a warm handshake to the visiting defence ministers yet only welcomed Gen Shangfu with a curt ‘Namaste’ to signal his displeasure

During military talks, the two sides agreed to maintain security and stability along the LAC and work out a mutually acceptable resolution of outstanding issues–­­­something they have been putting off since the LAC confrontation erupted in 2020. 

India accuses China of violating the various peace pacts signed between1993-2013, designed to allow the two countries to negotiate border disputes peacefully and prevent tensions from escalating.

The pacts included Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas in 1993; Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in 1996; Protocol on Modalities for the implementation of the Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in 2005; Agreement on the establishment of a working mechanism for consultation and coordination on India-China Border Affairs in 2012; and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2013. 

Distrust within the India-China relationship has been an issue since the 1962 war when the Asian Dragon took military control over vast tracts of frozen land in the Aksai China area, but bilateral ties plummeted further after the 2020 Galwan clashes.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Gen Shangfu said that the two nations ‘share far more common interests than differences’

Besides the issue of trust, there are other significant sources of discord in the bilateral relationship; earlier this year, India’s trade deficit with China passed the $100 billion mark for the first time, giving the Asian Dragon an unfaireconomic advantage. According todata released by the Chinese customs department, India-China trade for 2022 was $135.98 billion, showing an increase of 8.4 percent over $125 billion in the previous year.

Data also shows that China’s exports to India were $118.5 billion, an increase of 21.7 percent over the previous year, while China’s imports from India were $17.48 billion–down from $28.1 billion in the previous year –­­­a decrease of 37.9 percent.

Indeed, India regularly expresses its disapproval of over $65 billion worth of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects–part of the Belt and Road Initiative, in areas illegally occupied by Pakistan, viewing them as China’s attempts to interfere in South Asian geopolitics.

India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar
LAC clash: Jaishankar calls out China for breaking the unilateral pact

It’s for this reason that India issued a strong rebuttal and asserted its territorial integrity in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir soon after China decided to boycott the G20 Tourism Working Group meeting in Srinagar, saying it was a disputed area. Meanwhile, in a message to China, India stressed the same point at the G7 meeting in Japan.

Lastly, India has also been concerned about the ‘string of pearls’ strategy pursued by China over the past two decades, through which it has made inroads into India’s sphere of influence in South Asia, acquiring infrastructure projects in smaller nations such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues