Express View on India-China Defence Ministers’ talks: A fragile peace
The meeting between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu saw both sides reiterating their positions, highlighting the persisting gap in the respective perceptions about what went wrong in Ladakh in 2020, its resolution, and how to move forward peacefully from there. This was the first meet between the defence ministers of the two sides since September 2020 when Singh met Li’s predecessor in Moscow. Singh’s sternly worded message to Li was spelt out in a Ministry of Defence statement: He “categorically conveyed that development of relations between India and China is premised on prevalence of peace and tranquility at the borders”; “all issues at the LAC need to be resolved in accordance with existing bilateral agreements and commitments”; “the violation of [these agreements] has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations”; “disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation”. In tone and substance, it was a strong assertion of India’s position that matters had not been resolved yet, that the resolution had to come through the comprehensive set of agreements on border management arrived at after painstaking negotiations that Beijing had signed on to but violated. It also made clear that unless there was de-escalation following disengagement — the deployment on the Chinese side is now at permanent levels with infrastructure and hybrid villages — the situation could not be normalised.
For his part, Li brought the message that as far as China was concerned, the situation at the LAC has been resolved and it is time to move on to normalise bilateral relations. According to a statement from the People’s Liberation Army on the talks, the Chinese defence minister said “the situation on the China-India border is generally stable”; “the two sides are in communication via military and diplomatic channels”; they “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 normalised management”. Stable is not the word to describe the situation at the LAC, going by the continued barring of Indian patrols in the strategic Depsang Plains and in Demchok by China, its attempt to take territory in Tawang through a midnight raid last December, and its renaming exercise of places in Indian territory. “Fragile”, as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar described the situation recently, seems to be more appropriate.
It now seems that India-China positions on the border issue are frozen along these two irreconcilable positions. Delhi no longer uses the words “return to status quo April 20, 2020” in formal communication, but Beijing needs to realise that the creation of buffer zones at the so-called friction points in eastern Ladakh was not a resolution, but a step to prevent unintended consequences. India may be trading more with China than it has done in the past, but that should not be misunderstood by Beijing as “normalisation” of bilateral relations.