India-China Relations: Still Bogged Down

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India-China Relations: Still Bogged Down

After the April 27 meeting between the Indian and Chinese defense ministers, the two sides failed to issue a joint statement — a telling clue as to how the meeting went. 

India-China Relations: Still Bogged Down
Credit: Depositphotos

India and China had two meetings in the last week, but it does not appear to give much hope that the relations between the two countries are recovering. If anything, it illustrates that there is no progress whatsoever.

The first meeting was the India-China Corps Commander level talks that were held on April 23 to address the border standoff, the 18th such meeting since the confrontation began and four months since the previous meeting. The second meeting was between Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart, General Li Shangfu, who was in India for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) defense ministers meeting, held in India on April 27-28. 

As for the meeting between military commanders at the border, going by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs press release and media reports that cite officials who spoke on background, India and China are miles apart in terms of disengaging their military forces. These forces have been concentrated at the border in unprecedented strength and on high alert for three years now. A Ministry of External Affairs press release on the military talks said that the two sides had “a frank and in-depth discussion” in order “to restore peace and tranquility in the border areas, which will enable progress in bilateral relations.” 

According to media reports, two sides exchanged “proposals and counter-proposals” during the military talks, with the Indian side pushing for disengagement of forces “at the strategically-located Depsang Bulge area and the Charding Ninglung Nallah (CNN) track junction at Demchok as the first step” that can then lead to gradual de-escalation and disengagement of the 50,000 troops deployed in eastern Ladakh, a key area of confrontation. 

According to another Indian media report, the meeting “failed to make headway on the contentious issue of the Depsang Plains and de-escalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.” Sources in the Indian defense and security establishment also told the media that there was “no breakthrough” in the current round. The Indian side insisted on de-escalation along the LAC and “easing of tensions in the Depsang Plains.” 

Other media reports, citing government sources, noted that “legacy issues along the LAC such as Depsang Plains and Demchok will be discussed in subsequent meetings and at the political level.” The military-level discussions were focused on “confidence-building measures and avoiding confrontation at the borders in the coming months.” Of course, confidence-building measures can be useful in minimizing the conflicts but it was not a lack of understanding or agreements or commitments that led to the Galwan conflict. It isn’t clear that more confidence-building measures are needed to return to the status quo or minimize the potential for a conflict. 

After the lack of progress at the military level talks, all eyes were on the Chinese defense minister’s meeting with Singh on April 27. That the two ministers did not produce a joint statement and issued independent versions of their meeting says a lot about how the exchange went.

According to the Indian statement, the Indian minister stated that “all issues at LAC need to be resolved in accordance with existing bilateral agreements and commitments.” More tellingly, Singh “reiterated that violation of existing agreements has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations” and that “disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation.” The minister also made it conditional that the “development of India-China ties is premised on prevalence of peace and tranquility at the borders,” which has been an insistence on the Indian side in the last few years. External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar has also made this point repeatedly. 

On the other hand, a Chinese Defense Ministry statement made it seem like the meeting was business as usual. It claimed that “as major neighboring countries and important developing countries, China and India share far more common interests than differences.” Li said that India and China “should view bilateral relations and each other’s development from a comprehensive, long-term and strategic perspective,” and the two can “jointly contribute wisdom and strength to world and regional peace and stability.” Importantly, he also claimed the India-China border situation to be “generally stable” with the two sides maintaining communication through both diplomatic and military channels.

More interestingly, China appears to be reiterating its old formulation of putting border issues on the back burner and focusing on other aspects of the relationship. The statement said the two countries “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 engagement.” China is clearly in no hurry to settle the border confrontation, and India’s strategy to hold the larger relationship at risk is having no impact. 

While tensions may have eased up on a few locations along the LAC, there continues to be large-scale troop deployment, to the tune of 50,000-60,000 troops on each side, armed with armored and artillery equipment. The potential for accidental conflict under such circumstances cannot be ruled out. Aside from the possibility of accidental conflict, locals complain of lost territories. According to Konchok Stanzin, a local politician who represents Chushul in the Ladakh Hill Development Council, during this winter, “the pastures in Phurtsog Karpo, Phurstug Nakpo, Helmet Top, Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Rezang La, Richen La and Mukpa Re have been out of reach of grazers.” Writing in a journal, he reportedly said that “most of these places were under the Indian military during an offensive operation (Operation Snow Leopard) in August 2020, but had to be vacated during the Pangong Tso disengagement process with the PLA.” He claimed that “this has taken a heavy toll on livelihoods as 90 percent of the local population is dependent on livestock. Their life has become more difficult.” The salami-slicing tactics that China has adopted vis-a-vis India have cost the locals in the border areas. 

Given the state of play with no progress on the border issues between India and China, the Indian Defense Ministry is placing its focus on infrastructure development as a priority. In early March, Singh convened a meeting of all stakeholders, which included top union ministers and other government officials including National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Chief of Defense Staff General Anil Chauhan, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, and Army Chief General Manoj Pande. Other government officials from the Indian states that share a border with China including Uttarakhand, Ladakh, and Arunachal Pradesh were also present at the meeting. The meeting focused on the development of infrastructure all the way from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, both physical connectivity and communication nodes, aimed also at creating more employment opportunities for the local population in these areas. Both sides appear to be digging in for the long haul.