India and China have been locked in a heightened state of tension since the border conflict flared up in May 2020. The two militaries have yet to disengage fully. In fact, there has been disengagement of forces only in a few places along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Multiple rounds of military and diplomatic talks over the last three years have yielded little on the ground.
The last round of military talks was held in April 2023 prior to Chinese Defense Minister General Li Shangfu’s visit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) defense ministers’ meeting in Delhi. The April iteration, the 18th round of talks, was held after a four-month gap following the 17th round, which was held in December 2022.
That there was no official statement on the outcome of the 18th corps commander-level talks reflects the lack of progress and the rigidity of positions on both sides. There was reportedly no breakthrough in the 17th round of talks either.
At the end of May, the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) met and the two sides stated that they will hold military commander’s talks at “an early date,” but the two sides have not made much progress even in terms of holding the next round of talks.
Still, there is currently a wave of optimism about China-India relations as President Xi Jinping might travel to India for the G-20 summit in September. The hope is that the summit can provide an opportunity at the highest level to discuss bilateral relations. This comes against the backdrop of a late July meeting between Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in South Africa. According to a statement released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Doval during his talks with Wang conveyed that the Galwan conflict of 2020 had “eroded strategic trust and the public and political basis of the relationship.” The Chinese readout, on the other hand, laid emphasis on the so-called “important consensus on stabilizing China-India relations” reached between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Modi on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia last year.
The Indian statement was concise and raised issues around the border and territorial issues to make it clear that “peace and tranquility in the border areas” is an essential component to bringing normalcy in the bilateral relations. Doval highlighted “the importance of continuing efforts to fully resolve the situation and restore peace and tranquility in the border areas, so as to remove impediments to normalcy in bilateral relations.” The only area that both the Indian and Chinese statements had in common was agreement that their “bilateral relationship is significant not only for the two countries but also for the region and world.”
China’s statement went beyond the bilateral into philosophical aspects of grand strategizing. Beijing urged that India and China “should adhere to the strategic judgment of the leaders of the two countries that they do not pose a threat to each other, and they are each other’s development opportunities, truly implement the consensus on stabilizing bilateral relations into specific policies, and translate them into concerted actions by various departments and fields, enhance strategic mutual trust, focus on consensus and cooperation, overcome interference and difficulties, and promote the return of bilateral relations to the track of healthy and stable development at an early date.”
Without making any direct to reference to the United States, China nevertheless went on to criticize Washington by saying that it “will never follow the same path as some countries to seek hegemony and is ready to work with developing countries, including India, to promote multilateralism and the democratization of international relations.” These words ring hollow in the face of China’s continued undermining of the global and Asian international orders that are rooted in respect for international law, flouted by China especially in the Indo-Pacific. Wang’s statement that China “believes that a multipolar world free of hegemony and characterized by equality and order will surely come” is unlikely to appease New Delhi.
Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has reiterated on multiple occasions that until there is peace and tranquility on the border, there cannot be normalcy in China-India bilateral relations. In April this year, at the time of the China-India military talks, a government official who spoke to media said, “At the military talks, it was made clear India wants disengagement, de-escalation, and de-induction of the over 50,000 troops each forward deployed by both sides with heavy weaponry like tank, artillery and rocket systems in Eastern Ladakh.” The same official added that this was essential for any progress in the bilateral relations, saying that the “no war, no peace situation will continue with the bilateral relations remaining in a limbo.”
Irrespective of the formats of bilateral talks between India and China, which have included direct talks between the foreign ministers of the two countries, there has been no meaningful progress in the advancement of peace and stability on the border or in the overall relationship. Despite recent reports about a possible rapprochement between India and China on account of a possible visit to India by Xi, the chance of a breakthrough is quite low.
There is also a sense that much of the Indian effort at achieving some semblance of normalcy in the relationship is driven by domestic considerations because the Modi government does not want another major conflict before the general elections next summer. Nevertheless, engaging in multiple avenues of outreach is unlikely to lead to better results; they haven’t yet.