Welcome back to The India China Newsletter.
Apologies for the two-month absence. I’ve spent quite a bit of time these past few weeks, particularly over the Chinese New Year holiday, on the road, which has been fantastic - travel within China, I’m happy to say, is back to how it was pre-Covid.
This issue will look at Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s visit to India, and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s recent interview and detailed comments on relations with China, and what they tell us about where things stand between the two countries.
Today (March 1), China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang arrives in New Delhi for the G20 foreign ministers' meeting, which is tomorrow (March 2). This is the first high-level visit from China since Wang Yi's in March 2022, which, in of itself, captures the state of relations and the freeze that’s still prevailing.
Qin Gang, the new Foreign Minister, has been on a flurry of diplomatic activity - part of a broader effort, it appears, to start Xi Jinping's third term on the front foot, also coinciding with China's 'opening up' after three years of zero-Covid. In New Delhi, a bilateral meeting between Jaishankar and Qin Gang on the sidelines is a possibility, as also between Qin and NSA Ajit Doval. Qin may be appointed State Councillor at the National People’s Congress session which opens on Sunday, which would also make him the Special Representative, along with Doval, in the border talks. It will be interesting to see what comes out of his trip, which this newsletter will watch closely this week.
The bottom line: As much as Beijing is trying, with several countries, to use the new third term to start afresh - note the recent thaws with Australia and Japan - a major thaw with India appears unlikely for now, unless there is a significant change in Beijing's posture on the border.
This is not impossible - never say never - but the way Beijing has been dragging its feet on restoring the status quo on the LAC, while continuing, in official media, to highlight its developing of forward infrastructure along the border, suggests its unlikely.
At least, both sides are now talking in person, after three difficult years, which is a good thing. Last week also saw the first significant visit from India to China in three years, when Joint Secretary (East Asia) Shilpak Ambule visited Beijing. This, in India’s readout, struck me as being cautiously upbeat:
The two sides reviewed the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Western Sector of India-China border areas and discussed proposals for disengagement in the remaining areas in an open and constructive manner, which would help in restoration of peace and tranquillity along the LAC in Western Sector and create conditions for restoration of normalcy in bilateral relations.
Also last week, Jaishankar's long interview with ANI's Smita Prakash, where he spoke on China in some detail, caused a bit of a stir in India — specifically, his comments on China being a larger economy being reason for India “to not pick a fight”. Cue lots of uproar, and Rahul Gandhi calling out his "cowardice" .
Beyond this statement - for what it’s worth, I thought it was hardly controversial and pretty much basic common sense, and the uproar, in fact, spoke to me more about the broader sense of denial when it comes to China - I thought it’s worth going over the rest of his responses on China, which somewhat got lost in the din over this particular remark.
I thought they were quite revealing about how New Delhi looks at relations at the moment, where they are headed, and also how the China relationship has become wound up in domestic political debates, which, it seems, will likely be an increasing factor going forward, as well as a possible constraint on New Delhi and how it crafts ties with China.
Here, anyway, are the relevant bits on China that caught my eye [edited for clarity, you can find the full interview here:
Q: On reports saying India has lost 1,000 sq km to China (since April 2020) and criticism of the government’s silence":
A: I think they are deliberately misrepresenting the situation. I will give you two specific examples. Remember the hullabaloo about the bridge being built on Pangong Tso. I will tell you when the area first came under Chinese control. The Chinese first came there in 1958 and captured it in October 1962. And you are going to blame the Modi government in 2023 for constructing a bridge which the Chinese captured in 1962? And you don't have the honesty to say that's when it happened?
I’ll give you another example. There were border villages which have come up in Longju, where there was a clash [in 1959]. This is smoke and mirrors. It’s almost like 1962 never happened. And why didn't you [referring to the Opposition/Congress] build that border infrastructure? Look at the budget. During the Modi period, the budget has gone up five times. Until, 2014, it was roughly 2 to 4000 crore, today it’s, 14000 crore [$1.7 billion]. If you look at roads built, bridges built, they have doubled, tripled. We know the underlying thinking earlier was we leave it like that so the Chinese can't come inside. Personally, I wouldn't get into a blame game but if you want to whitewash all that happened and say everything happened after 2020, I will have to call you out.
Q: Is China now the biggest threat and are we in a quasi war like situation?
We are legitimately building our border infrastructure because they have built their border infrastructure. In my view, we should have done it 25 years ago.
Q: So that means we are reactive?
Not at all. They are the bigger economy. What am I going to do? As a smaller economy, I'm going to go pick a fight with a bigger economy? It’s not about being reactive, it’s about having common sense. Secondly, bear in mind we had an agreement you are not supposed to bring the military to the border in large numbers. So by that logic of yours, I should be the first to break that agreement?
Q: Why not? Why are we always the ones not breaking the agreement and it’s the other side that does?
A: I think you need to take a considered view of this. Why do we reach agreements? Because it’s in our interest to stabilise a border or a situation. It’s not out of love or affection or sentiment that we do it. It’s cold calculation and common sense. Our agreements with China were reached in 1993, 1996… I'm not getting into which government, I try to avoid this whole debate. I don't like in foreign policy, maybe because I've been so long in this field, that ‘these people are right and those people were wrong.’ I don't think it serves the nation. But if I do find others are playing a political game where everything is being blamed on the present dispensation and an entire history is begin whitewashed, that history has to come out.
On the question of breaking agreement for not, generally as a rule, sensible countries do not. What do you need most in international relations? If you have a reputation as a country that breaks agreements, what do you think is the worth of your agreements?
Q: But where has China kept agreements with any country?
A: From 1993, 1996 to 2020, was the agreement observed or not? So how can you say the agreement is not worth the piece of paper? I don't think signing the agreements was wrong. I disagree with you. Those agreements were signed because at the time we needed to stabilise the border. And they did stabilise the border, please also note that.
Q: Why can't we come to an agreement [with China] after so many rounds of talks?
A: Because when any other country’s claims are not reasonable you will not come to an agreement. You have to look at what is being discussed [not just the number of rounds of talks].
If I was to sum up the China situation - please do note this whole narrative that the government is on the defensive and we are being accommodative - I ask people, if we are being accommodative, who sent the Indian military to the LAC? We have the largest peacetime deployment in our history on the China border, we are keeping troops there at a huge cost with great effort. We have increased infrastructure spending five times during this government. So tell me, who is the defensive, accommodative person? The question you should ask is who is telling the truth, who is playing footsie with history.
There’s quite a lot to digest, but some brief takeaways:
- India is underlining again what it’s been saying for 2+ years now, that the ball is in China’s court on where things go, and it is contingent on China restoring things to where they were in April 2020
-India apparently also isn’t entirely giving up hope on the border architecture - the past agreements etc - that helped keep the peace for so long, but in the eyes of many observers have either been entirely rendered irrelevant by China’s actions, or are at least past their shelf-life and need updating (we haven't heard much on how New Delhi’s views on this, and we also don’t know to what extent the on-going military-level and WMCC talks are coming up with ad-hoc arrangements, such as buffer zones, that are in their own way updating the past methods of managing the border)
-I agree with the point that objecting to Chinese infrastructure on the Chinese side of the LAC (such as the Pangong Tso bridge) is a little pointless. At the same time, I would also add there was no clarity on the first question on how much territory has been lost since April 2020. But it seems to me that providing clarity on that, however, has become an increasingly difficult proposition, and that, coupled with other references throughout the interview, underline how politicised the China issue has become and one seized upon by the opposition to show the government’s weakness. While there’s always been politics to some extent - just Google Narendra Modi’s strident attacks on the previous government during the 2013 Depsang stand off, there was little “national interest” or showing a united front back then in what he had to say then - I do think it’s risen to an altogether higher degree which will exercise new constraints on how the relationship goes forward. I couldn’t agree more that “cold calculation and common sense” - and not “sentiment” - should more than anything drive how we look at relations including managing the border, but in this current context seems they will likely be in shorter and shorter supply.
Thank you for reading this update on where things are, just as Qin Gang arrives in India today. This newsletter will be back soon with takeaways from the visit.
CYA. Doesn't state what India's long term objective visavis China - andLAC defined with inherent dangers of escalation or settle border which will bring peace not just tranquility.
There is no clarity on what card India holds on any kind of talks or negotiations - military or political. May be how economic cooperation with peace in the background to highlight win win for both, eco disparity notwithstanding, is the only redeeming possibilty.
At his level some vision for the future is expected. May be we really don't have one. So simply knee-jerk fire fight.
I disagree with your thesis that the Foreign Minister’s comment about relative size and strength of the Indian economy (vis-a-vis China) was perhaps unsurprising. Does it serve Indian interests by publicly telegraphing our relative weakness? Seen this way, it seems like an unfortunate comment or worse a diplomatic gaffe.