A day before meeting his Chinese counterpart on March 25, India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar spoke at St Stephen’s College, his alma mater. While he mostly touched on the everyday implications of India’s foreign policy on citizens in general, he also briefly hinted at India’s current outlook on the China question: the nature of ties and, more significantly, challenges from India’s big northern neighbour.
Jaishankar was quick to identify that such contingencies could have a wide range of options as part of a prudent policy, but all of them should be backed by wide “deterrence” and “capability”. In more specific terms, he was clear that in its current ties with China, the diplomatic response from India cannot afford to lose sight of the security angle and military challenge seen in the last two years.
He told his audience, “Where China was concerned, the diplomatic interactions that are going on in parallel to the military stand-off since May 2020 illustrate that foreign and defence policies are really joined at the hip.”
Less than 24 hours later, Jaishankar’s interactions with the visiting Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, had the imprint of this emergent view in New Delhi. In recent weeks, China has been trying to reach out to India in a bid to revive bilateral dialogue, particularly in view of the Russia-West face off triggered by the Ukraine war and the need to host the Indian prime minister at the summit-level BRICS meet (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) later this year.
The Indian side, however, isn’t ready to believe in any idea of the restoration of normalcy until the de-escalation and disengagement process from the two-year-old military standoff in the Ladakh sector reaches a satisfactory outcome.
At the post meeting press conference, Jaishankar said that to the Chinese foreign minister that bilateral relations had been “disturbed as a result of Chinese actions since April 2020”. In what was a clear expression of India’s assessment on the ties, Jaishankar pinned down the “not normal” nature of the relations to the presence of a large number of troops there [on the border] in contravention of “agreements”, referring to the 1993 and 1996 pacts. This was an “abnormality”, in his words, so the “restoration of normalcy will obviously require restoration of peace”.
This was a response to the Chinese line of separating the border standoff issue from the normalisation of ties. China’s view has centred around the idea that the Line of Actual Control standoff could be placed in “an appropriate position” in the broader sphere of bilateral engagement. India isn’t reconciled to this idea of side-stepping, interpreting “appropriate position” as making the issue peripheral to the bilateral process. Along with Jaishankar, in his own meeting with the visiting minister, India’s national security advisor Ajit Doval also expressed India’s disapproval of the Chinese intent to decouple the normalisation of ties from the LAC standoff.
In the last two years, India’s external affairs minister and their Chinese counterpart have met thrice in different countries (Moscow in September 2020, Dushanbe in July and September 2021), besides having numerous telephonic conversations. However, bilateral visits to each other’s capitals were stalled. In the meantime, both countries have held 15 rounds of military talks and eight diplomatic discussions on the border standoff.
The outcome until now, as India’s official assessment puts it, is still a “work in progress” and is held back by a “slower pace than desirable”. At the level of talks between foreign ministers, the disappointment over the sluggish talks found voice in India’s response as well as the centrality of diffusing border tensions in any plan of normalising India-China ties.
Apart from this key concern, other immediate irritants also surfaced. Before Wang Yi arrived in Delhi, India had already on his remarks at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meet. India had taken exception to his “uncalled for” comment on the Kashmir issue and saw it as an avoidable interference in the country’s internal affairs.
In the meeting with Wang Yi in New Delhi, Jaishankar conveyed India’s concerns about such statements and stressed that China needs to look at India in an independent frame, and delinked with what relations China has with other countries. Jaishankar’s thinly disguised point was about Pakistan when he talked about the expectation that China should follow “an independent policy in respect of India, and not allow its policies to be influenced by other countries and other relationships”.
As a move to reset bilateral engagement, and particularly in the build-up to the BRICS meet, the Chinese foreign minister’s wish to be granted an audience with the prime minister wasn’t fulfilled. A section of the Indian media that India declined the request with a polite “no”. In diplomatic signalling, New Delhi is suggesting that the bilateral ground is troubled with too many fault-lines now to merit any summit-level involvement.
In other ways, it could be a strategy to buy time while seeing how the talks on the LAC de-escalation and disengagement move in the weeks to come. In the emerging scenario, India could watch out for this satisfactory progress, if not breakthrough, in the military-diplomatic talks before the process gains momentum at the apex of political leadership. While India has been reiterating three “mutuals” – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity, and mutual interest – as the guiding force of its view on engaging with China, the Chinese side, as Wang Yi put, has its own three tenets of ties in “taking a long view, working with win-win mentality, and cooperative posture”.
The phrasing of policy platitudes, however, can’t be a substitute for the hard facts of the border stand-off, regional power play, and geopolitical moves that both countries have to negotiate.
In unequivocally expressing that India can’t reconcile normal bilateral ties with the border standoff triggered by Chinese military action, India had its moment of diplomatic clarity with the visiting Chinese foreign minister. Before he left for Nepal, Wang Yi couldn’t be in any doubt about India’s unwillingness to decouple the normalisation of relations from a satisfactory resolution of the LAC standoff. While the hope of any breakthrough message from the visit has been belied, it’s amply clear that India is in for a long haul and hard-nosed diplomacy on the LAC question. Denying the summit-level audience to the visiting minister fits into that diplomatic template.
For China, exploring the bilateral patterns in the wake of the possible Ukraine war realignments seems as much a driver as the need to host a proper summit-level BRICS this year. Both remain a work in progress, as does the slow progress of LAC talks.
Newslaundry Events: From The Media Rumble to NL Chats and webinars, updates and details on latest Newslaundry events.