Why Wang Yi's visit may not mean a reset for India-China relations
Welcome to The India China Newsletter.
This issue looks at Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to India on Friday.
Wang flew in to Delhi on the evening of Thursday, March 24, following a surprise stop in Kabul, post a three-day stay in Islamabad. He had talks with India's NSA Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on Friday, March 25, before flying out to Kathmandu to complete his grand South Asian tour.
This being the first visit from Wang after the border crisis that began in April 2020, there has understandably been a lot of attention on it. The broadly similar stands of India and China on Russia's invasion of Ukraine - yes, broadly similar, although as we have seen Delhi trying to distance itself a little bit from Beijing's position and not wanting to be bracketed with China on this - added to even more attention on the visit, which I’ve noticed has been seen by some observers as possibly heralding a major change in the recently strained relationship.
In this newsletter, I'll explain why a major "reset" -- that much beloved and overused but usually misleading prism! -- is an unlikely scenario. I'll lay out what the likely road ahead is for the relationship and where India-China ties stand after Wang's visit.
The visit itself began in somewhat unusual circumstances -- there was no announcement by either side and no photos or videos of Wang's arrival in Delhi airport which was very low key. While this was seen by some observers as India putting out a cold reception or not being very enthused about the visit, it was actually Beijing that requested both (that is, no announcement and no coverage of the arrival). Wang's visits to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal were also not announced beforehand. My guess is security concerns behind the Kabul leg prompted the secrecy behind the whole South Asia tour.
On to the readouts - so what did India and China have to say about the visit? What were the points of agreement and where did they diverge?
The first thing we should note: there was no joint statement or joint press release. That in itself tells you there was no real political breakthrough.
Secondly, India did not put out a single formal statement on the visit, which I thought was also striking. India did, however, hold a press briefing by Jaishankar. China, in contrast, put out no less than three statements on the visit: a readout of the Wang-Jaishankar talks, a readout of the Wang-Doval talks, and one on Wang's comments to Doval and his "three point proposal" for relations.
I'll share below what struck me as the main points from India’s briefing and the three statements on the main issues. I would separate these issues into two:
1) The border (bilateral)
2) Ukraine and the BRICS Summit that China is hosting (multilateral)
For those interested in seeing these in their entirety, you can find a full transcript of Jaishankar's briefing here and you can find the three Chinese statements here, here and here.
What they said on the border issue
The language suggests there was no forward movement. Jaishankar underlined what has been India's stand:
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. I would describe our current situation as work in progress, obviously at a slower pace than desirable and my discussions with FM Wang Yi today were aimed at expediting the process….
The impact of the tensions in the border areas on the overall relationship has been visible in the last two years. This is only natural since peace and tranquillity in the border areas have been the foundation of stable and cooperative ties. Indeed, we have agreements that were designed explicitly to strengthen this foundation and prevent the kind of situation that we are seeing today. 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. Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke about China’s desire for a return to normalcy, while also referring to the larger significance of our ties. I was equally forthcoming that India wants a stable and predictable relationship. But restoration of normalcy will obviously require a restoration of peace and tranquillity. If we are both committed to improving our ties, then this commitment must find full expression in ongoing disengagement talks....
Now, the point is that, so long as there are very large deployments in the border areas, which are violative of the 1993 and 1996 agreements, clearly the border area situation is not normal. So, the main point which again, I've spelt out at some length in my statement, is we have a situation where peace and tranquillity in the border areas has been disturbed. So, the situation there is not normal. The situation there is not normal, if peace and tranquillity is the foundation of, you know, the basis of how we are going forward, then, obviously, that is also disturbed. So, the answer in that sense is, if you ask me, is our relationship normal today? My answer to you is no, it is not. And it cannot be normal, if the situation in the border areas is abnormal. And surely the presence of a large number of troops there, in contravention of agreements is abnormality.
Contrast this with what Wang Yi said, during his meeting with Doval, which was also a reiteration of the Chinese side about the border being put in an “appropriate place”:
Wang Yi said, as the two largest developing countries and representatives of emerging economies, China and India should walk steadily on the path the two countries have chosen, keep the development of bilateral relations on the right course, bear in mind a long-term perspective and join hands to make respective contributions to peace and stability in the region and beyond. To this end, Wang Yi put forward a three-point approach.
First, both sides should view bilateral relations from a long-term perspective, adhere to the strategic judgment made by the leaders of the two countries that "China and India pose no threat but offer development opportunities to each other", and place the differences on the boundary issue in a proper place in bilateral relations.
Second, both sides should view each other's development with a win-win mentality, and forge a sound interaction model, so as to achieve mutual benefit and win-win results at a higher level and in a wider range.
Third, both sides should participate in multilateral processes with a cooperative posture, step up communication and coordination, support each other, send more positive signals for upholding multilateralism, and inject more positive energy into improving global governance.
On Ukraine and the BRICS Summit that China is hosting this year
I would guess these are both th main drivers for why China wanted this visit to happen. Before coming to what Wang and Jaishankar said, this is what Hu Shisheng, an expert on India-China relations at CICIR in Beijing, told me ahead of the visit (you can read the whole interview here):
India’s stand is very similar to China’s. We are very clear on what have been the fundamental reasons behind this current humanitarian crisis. We know that the Western world is not completely innocent and has some ulterior motives. Both China and India don’t want to see a much weakened, much isolated Russia, which means a more vulnerable regional and global order. At least in the Ukraine crisis, both India and China have many commonalities. We had better discuss this to see what we two can do for ending this crisis. We both have stakes in a stable and not so isolated Russia. Many Chinese scholars don’t believe India will follow the policy of the U.S. and its allies against Russia. It just does not serve the national interest.
Over the past week, a clip from the Indian news anchor Arnab Goswami (normally fairly hawkish on China) launching a tirade at the US has been going crazily viral in China. I've had half a dozen people send me clips on WeChat (and each of those clips had 100,000 plus view).
China’s Embassy in France also tweeted out the said viral clip:
It seems fairly obvious that Russia and China want to convey the impression that there is a fairly broader coalition than that group of two on Ukraine, and China certainly doesn't want to be isolated and lumped with Russia. So it was interesting to see Jaishankar try and put some distance between where India and China stand on Ukraine (how much this will convince many in the West is another question as long as both continue voting in the same way and publicly adopting largely similar positions on not openly condemning Russia and not being in favour of sanctions, although the one significant difference in their stands India hasn't blamed the US and NATO in the way China has).
Here's what Jaishankar said:
Regarding Ukraine, well, I would say my most, sort of, accurate characterization would be that, you know, Mr. Wang Yi presented the Chinese understanding, the Chinese view of the situation developed there and the developments pertaining to it, and I presented the Indian view. I think, the Indian view, many of you may have heard me speak about it yesterday in Parliament as well. And obviously what he said was his view and what I said was my view, but where we had a common element was that both of us agreed on the importance of an immediate ceasefire, as well as a return to diplomacy and dialogue.
Here's what Wang Yi said:
Wang Yi said, as two neighboring ancient civilizations and the two largest developing countries and representatives of emerging economies with a combined population of 2.8 billion, China and India are two main forces in promoting multi-polarization of the world, economic globalization, diversity of civilizations, and democratization of international relations. As the world is entering a new phase of turbulence and transformation, the two countries should strengthen communication, coordinate stances, safeguard respective legitimate interests and the common interests of the developing countries, and make respective contributions to peace and stability in the region and beyond.
The two sides also exchanged views on the prevention and control of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and multilateral affairs, and agreed that multilateralism should be upheld, the UN Charter and international law should be abided by, and disputes should be settled peacefully via dialogue. The two sides also expressed grave concerns over the impact of unilateral sanctions on the global economy and supply chain security….
Both countries should participate in multilateral processes with a cooperative posture. This year and the next will witness "Asia Moment" in global governance. China will host the BRICS summit, and India will host the summits of the Group of Twenty and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. If China and India speak with one voice, the whole world will listen; if the two countries join hands, the whole world will pay attention. The two sides should step up communication and coordination, support each other, send more positive signals for upholding multilateralism, and inject more positive energy into improving global governance.
Wang's comments, for me, show that for China the priority is BRICS and getting India on board on multilateral issues where it sees India as useful. There isn't however any clear suggestion to me of a different approach to the border just yet.
Snehesh Philip at The Print has another excellent report on the border question, and how it figured in the visit:
Sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint that while Wang was pitching for closer Sino-India ties, especially in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, while also seeking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation in the proposed BRICS summit to be hosted by China later this year, India stuck to its own demands — easing of tensions at the LAC. NSA Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar made it clear to Wang that for normalisation of relationship, peace and tranquility has to prevail at the LAC, said the sources.
However, there has been no word yet from the Chinese on the LAC situation.
Meanwhile, sources said during the meet, Wang invited NSA Doval to visit China for carrying forward the Special Representatives talks on border issues, but Doval plainly said that this could only happen after “immediate issues are resolved successfully”. Sources explained that the immediate issue that Doval was talking about was disengagement and eventual de-escalation at the LAC.
According to the sources, of the five friction points that developed since May 2020 — Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, Kailash range, Gogra, Hot Springs (Patrol Point 15) — four have seen disengagement.
The sources pointed out that only PP 15 is still left, and even though it can be easily achieved — since only a small fraction of troops are in face-off — China has been hesitant, despite having agreed to pull back in July 2020, soon after the Galwan clash.
Sources said that the immediate issue that Doval was focussed on included de-escalation too, rather than just pull back of troops from PP 15. This is because while soldiers are no longer in a face-off at earlier dispute points, large scale deployment continues on either side.
At all locations, a buffer zone has been created at the disputed sites to ensure that troops remain away from each other. However, this also meant that while troops have pulled back, they remain concentrated just two-three kilometres away from the friction point.
Sources said that the aim is that once the disengagement takes place at PP 15, the two sides will carry out gradual de-escalation which would mean that over 50,000 additional troops pulled in since the stand-off began, will go back to pre-April 2020 locations along with their equipment.
Only once the situation has stabilised to this effect would it be considered that we have reached a normal level, and further talks over pending issues can be discussed in detail, sources said.
As reported by ThePrint earlier, tensions between the two countries at Depsang Plains is not being considered as part of the “immediate issue”, because that tension predates the current friction that began in 2020. Sources said the Depsang Plains issue has been under discussion at both military and diplomatic level for long and is of extreme importance. The Chinese have been blocking Indian patrols, which go by foot beyond the feature called the Bottleneck area or Y Junction, in Depsang. However, it is not a part of what India is seeking when its says going back to April 2020 status.
I've noticed some observers see the trip as the start of a grand reset. I see at least three different scenarios. A reset in my view is among the unlikelier ones.
1. Likely: It's possible that India and China cooperate on the multilateral, so Prime Minister Modi goes to China for BRICS and President Xi comes to India for the G20 and SCO summits next year. That wouldn't surprise me at all. However, as long as the border situation continues with massive forward deployments and China's continued beefing up of forward infrastructure which we have seen unabated since early 2020 and before -- how does that square with Wang's statements on "speaking in the same voice" and so forth? -- I find it hard to see the broad dynamic of the relationship changing significantly.
In this scenario, the securitized border situation continues, India and China exchange visits and cooperate when it comes to multilateral summits, but the bilateral dynamic remains more or less the same, which also means continued restrictions on Chinese investments in India and so forth.
2. Less likely Scenario 1: "A Reset" made possible by China completely pulling back its intruding troops in PP15, both India and China agree not just on disengagement but de-escalation, the Special Representatives on the boundary question meet, and bilateral relations return to what they were -- if not in 2019 as the huge loss of trust over the last two years will not dissipate any time soon -- but to a much healthier place than 2020-2021.
3. Less likely Scenario 2: We see further transgressions and new fronts opened up along the LAC and more skirmishes or clashes and relations deteriorate further, back to how they were in the worst period of 2020.
What strikes me is that in all three scenarios to a large extent the ball is in China's court and its actions along the border will, in my view, decide the trajectory of relations more so than India's. I say that because India's stand on the LAC disengagement is pretty clear -- Delhi has publicly said on many an occasion what it wants, which is a return to the status quo before the transgressions of April 2020.
I asked Hu Shisheng about this, and wouldn't this suit both countries if they both agree that the current state of ties suits neither? Here is what he said:
Q: What do you see as the big obstacle for LAC disengagement? Why, in your view, is China not willing for a return to status quo, which would seem to be in the interests of both sides?
A: What is the status quo? According to the Chinese understanding, the status quo had better be the November 7, 1959, status quo. However, obviously, India will not accept it. So, in this case, the so-called status quo is a much blurred concept. My personal view is that if there exist not a few grey areas between the two respectively claimed LACs, such a status quo would be very difficult to define.
The insistence on the 1959 status quo - which China has sought to enforce unilaterally since April 2020 - goes against its earlier commitments in the 1993 and 1996 agreements on maintaining peace on the border. We are still none the wiser about why Beijing decided to do that, no less than 6 months after Xi Jinping visited India, and whether it anticipated the response from India and the derailing of ties we have seen since. Perhaps it didn't.
It will also be worth observing how the domestic political situation in China may or may not impact these three scenarios. The 20th Party Congress, when Xi will begin a third term, will take place later this year in November. We may also have the BRICS Summit, should it be held physically in China as Beijing seems to want (the COVID-19 situation in China is another uncertainty given the current outbreaks, but the Winter Olympics showed Beijing has perfected the closed loop for such events), may be in September or thereabouts.
Would those two necessitate - as we saw with the Doklam crisis in 2017 and the BRICS Summit in Xiamen that year - a tactical pullback on the border and peace on the border in 2022? Or is this an entirely different scenario - as well as a different China that, as the slow-moving talks over the past two years have told us, appears to be in no mood to give ground along the border and prepared to live with the current state of relations?
One thing that the relationship has taught us of late is that predicting the trajectory is a fool’s errand. If you had told me, while I was reporting on Modi’s visit to Wuhan in April 2018 and Xi’s visit to Chennai in October 2019, that we would in June 2020 see the worst violence on the border since 1967, I’d have been skeptical.
That's it for this issue. Thanks as always for reading. This newsletter will continue to track how ties unfold in this interesting year.