EVER since China intruded across the LAC in Ladakh at several points in April 2020, India has, correctly, taken the position that these actions were unacceptable. As of now, while China has disengaged from some of the intrusion points, it has not done so from all. India has also emphasised that normalcy cannot be restored to India-China relations unless peace and tranquillity are restored to the border. Thus, it has clearly established a linkage between the border situation and the overall India-China relationship.
China has sought to convey that India is no longer inhibited by the 2020 border events. This is out of sync with what Foreign Minister Jaishankar has stated.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has articulated the Indian position on several occasions on the incursions. The country’s political and strategic classes have been supportive of government’s stand on the Chinese incursions, including on the linkage between the restoration of normalcy in bilateral ties and need for peace to prevail on the border. And, for that, a reversal of incursions on all the points is essential.
Jaishankar met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Indonesia on July 7. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement on the same day on this important interaction. It noted that Jaishankar ‘called for an early resolution of all the outstanding issues along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh’. Jaishankar also emphasised to Wang Yi the need to abide by bilateral agreements, protocols and understandings which they had previously reached. Referring to the larger India-China relationship, he mentioned the need to observe ‘the three mutuals — mutual respect, mutual sensitivity, and mutual interests’. The MEA statement, though, did not mention that Jaishankar conveyed to Wang Yi that the LAC has to be peaceful and tranquil for the overall bilateral relationship to become normal. If the MEA statement inadvertently failed to mention a crucial Indian position on the Chinese incursions, though Jaishankar conveyed it to the Chinese side, it was a grave omission; but if Jaishankar deliberately did not mention it, it raises the question if India is changing its approach on this significant issue.
This is underlined by the fact that Jaishankar specifically mentioned the linkage in his meeting with Wang Yi in Delhi on March 25. After the meeting, he said, ‘The impact of the tensions in the border areas on the overall relationship has been visible in the last two years.’ He went on to say that the ‘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.’ He also mentioned ‘the three mutuals’ in the briefing as a basis for India-China relations.
Again, in an address to the 12th edition of the Delhi Dialogue in June, he stressed ‘the three mutuals’, but also stressed the linkage between restoring peace and tranquillity along the border and restoring normalcy in India-China ties. He said, ‘The state of the border will be reflected in the state of the relationship.’ This succinct observation captures the basic Indian position. That Jaishankar included this comment in an address to what he himself mentioned is ‘for India the foremost ASEAN-centred Track 1.5 Forum’ and in the presence of some of his ASEAN counterparts indicates that he deliberately wanted ASEAN to take note that Chinese actions on the border were unacceptable, would not be overlooked by India and that it would not be business as usual with China unless it took remedial steps.
A clarification on the Indian position after the MEA statement of the Bali meeting is now all the more necessary because of the contents of the Chinese statement on the meeting. It mentioned that Jaishankar told Wang Yi that the ‘two sides made positive progress in aspects such as safeguarding stability along the borders’ and ‘…stands ready to work with China to release a clear signal to push for an improvement in bilateral ties and turn the consensus and vision of the two leaders into reality’. By putting these words in Jaishankar’s mouth, China sought to convey that India was no longer inhibited by the events of 2020 on the border and was willing to take the relationship forward. This was out of sync with what Jaishankar had consistently emphasised.
The Chinese have vastly improved infrastructure on their side of the LAC. This would enable them to rapidly move forces. Consequently, India has now no alternative but to deploy financial resources to further improve infrastructure on its side of the LAC. China’s overall approach towards India is to continue to downplay the border issue while stressing other aspects of the relationship. Whatever it may state on stabilising the situation along the LAC, India simply cannot overlook its April 2020 action. The agreements of the 1990s relating to the maintenance of peace along the LAC cannot be relied upon in the future.
This situation has profiled the Chinese strategic challenge starkly. While diplomatic and military-to-military negotiations need to continue to reduce tensions, they cannot lull India’s political and strategic classes from the need to coalesce all aspects of national endeavour to augment India’s collective strength to effectively prevent Chinese adventurism. This requires that the ebb and flow of political jockeying not be allowed to come in the way of the country’s strategic needs. It is also essential for social peace to prevail and the current ideological contestation not be allowed to upset social harmony. Indeed, social peace is a strategic asset; its absence offers a potential avenue for inimical foreign forces and entities to harm India’s interests.
In diplomacy, positions are sometimes modulated if important high-level meetings may be in the offing. This is done to create a positive environment for the leaders. However, such attempts cannot be at the cost of doubts creeping in, inadvertently or deliberately, on fundamental positions.
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