China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi landed in New Delhi for a two day visit on March 24 that was kept low profile with official acknowledgement from the Indian side coming as late as on March 25 once talks between the two Foreign Minister’s had commenced through a tweet.
By then Mr Wang Yi had already held talks with the National Security Advisor Mr Ajit Doval. Doval and Wang are Special Representatives of leaders of their countries for resolution of the boundary issue, though there have been no talks for the past two years the last round, 22nd held in December 2019.
Apparently, preparations for the high level visit the first by a Chinese dignitary to India after the standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in April 2020 were clearly not adequate. No working agenda appears to have been exchanged and thus there was no joint statement.
Ministries on both sides issued separate briefings [India by the External Affairs Minister [EAM] Dr S Jaishanker] or statements [China]. While there was no joint press conference, but there may have been preparations made for one if the media briefing by Indian EAM is anything to go by.
Wang did not meet the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi as expected for a dignitary of his standing. Indian Prime Minister has been meeting ministers visiting New Delhi from significant countries such as the United States in the past. While there was speculation that Mr Wang may meet Mr Modi this did not happen.
Here is a review of the reason why there was not progress during the visit and five reasons why the visit did happen?
Why Not First?
There is no doubt that reason for the, “cold shoulder,” treatment to Mr Wang Yi was due to continued standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. Despite 15 Rounds of Talks between Senior Commanders there has been no breakthrough in restoration of the status quo as of April 2020 - the bottom line for India.
This was made very clear even before Mr Wang arrived in Delhi and was clarified by Dr S Jaishanker during his media briefing on March 25th.
Dr Jaishanker said, “I was very honest in my discussions with the Chinese Foreign Minister, especially in conveying our national sentiments on this issue. The frictions and tensions that arise from China’s deployments since April 2020 cannot be reconciled with a normal relationship between two neighbours”.
“We have had 15 rounds of talks between Senior Commanders and progress has been achieved on several friction points from the disengagement perspective. This needs to be taken forward since the completion of disengagement is necessary for discussions on de-escalation to take place,” he added.
There is also the larger issue of China clearly violating multiple agreements with India on maintaining peace and tranquility on the border and Dr Jaishanker stated this in the following terms with reference to Ukraine but equally applicable in the India China context.
He said, “I laid out India’s principled approach to international relations based on respect for international law, UN Charter and sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. Disputes should be resolved without use or threat of use of force. Nor should there be attempts to unilaterally change the status quo”.
“Where India and China are concerned, our relationship is best served by observing the three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests,” he added.
China on the other hand as expected sought to play down importance of the standoff on the LAC. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Ministry statement on the visit highlighted the need for the two developing countries in times of global flux to “strengthen communication and coordinate positions, safeguard their legitimate interests and the common interests of developing countries, and make their respective contributions to promoting world and regional peace and stability”.
The Chinese statement further added that, “Wang Yi said that as mature and rational major developing countries, China and India should place the boundary issue in a proper position in the bilateral relationship, and should not use the definition of the boundary issue or even affect the overall development of the bilateral relationship”.
The Chinese statement reiterated the need for peace and tranquility and, “normalized management and control on the basis of disengagement, and take effective measures to prevent misunderstandings and misjudgments”.
Interestingly the Chinese statement also emphasized on rule of law and UN Charter possibly in the context of Ukraine. The Statement said, “They believe that multilateralism should be adhered to, the UN Charter and international law should be abided by, and disputes should be peacefully resolved through dialogue.”
If there was no prior understanding between India and China on continuing normal relations in tandem with LAC standoff, why then did Wang Yi visit New Delhi, where he was possibly treated almost as an unwelcome visitor of sorts.
There could be Five reasons for the same as summarized below-
Complexity of the geopolitical situation emerging after the Ukraine crisis and division of the West and Russia could be the first.
While so far China and even India has sided with Russia a fellow BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and RIC partner, Delhi is also seen to be closer to the United States and the West. While Dr S Jaishanker in his media briefing stated that QUAD and Indo Pacific was not discussed, this is expected to have been may not be in specific terms. Testing India’s approach to the Ukraine crisis at the highest level may be one reason for Wang landing in Delhi.
Secondly attempting to get India adopt a compartmentalized approach leaving the border standoff on the sidelines while progressing other tracks may be another. Here China lacks the perception of political sensitivity of the issue in India. With the main opposition party the Congress harping on the loss of territory very strongly each time China is raised. But the China’s policy of perseverance may have led them to make another attempt.
Thirdly is issue of management of sanctions. Chinese Statement highlighted that this was discussed and even claimed that India too was concerned over the same. The statement said, “….and they are seriously concerned about the impact of unilateral sanctions on the world economy and supply chain security”. The briefing by the Indian External Affairs Minister did not mention that this issue was discussed.
Fourthly holding of the BRICS Summit this year. China hopes to have the same held physically. Mr Wang Yi is expected to have extended an invite to Prime Minister Modi for the same.
But presently the BRICS is divided on the Ukraine crisis. Russia is directly involved in a war in Ukraine, while Brazil has opposed the invasion, India, China and South Africa have been abstaining at the UN Security Council and General Assembly as applicable.
Will India be amenable to participate in a BRICS Summit with Russia being an invitee and much pressure likely to build up from the US not to do so is a question that Mr Wang may or may not have directly sought answers from his counter part, Dr Jaishanker. Nevertheless, the Chinese may have made their own assessments.
Fifthly, China is due to hold the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party this year, where President Xi Jinping will be looking for an unprecedented third tenure.
Clearly harmonious relations with India and a tranquil border will be in Xi’s interests even as reports of resistance building up to his continuance has been reported by close observers of the China scene.
Conclusion High Stakes for China in Wang Visit
Given factors stated above, it is evident that there are high stakes for China in the Wang visit to India despite clear lack of preparations and an “unwelcome,” atmosphere.
Will the Wang visit lead to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) being directed to pull back from the advanced positions occupied on the Line of Actual Control remains to be seen?