THE meeting between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart Gen Li Shangfu on April 27 in New Delhi and the gist of their deliberations are of considerable significance for a number of reasons. The first is the form and content of the meeting and the divergent positions that the two ministers took on the most contentious issue in the troubled bilateral relationship — the long-festering territorial dispute that flared up in Galwan along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in June 2020.
It is instructive to note that while India and China have held 18 rounds of talks at the Corps Commander level, the April 27 meeting is the first such interaction between the Defence Ministers of the two nations since the Galwan clash of mid-2020. The relationship between the two Asian giants has become so brittle that the Singh-Li bilateral meeting was scheduled under the larger umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Eurasian security grouping whose rotating chairmanship was assumed by India in September 2022.
The Defence Ministry press release issued after the meeting was terse and noted that “the two ministers had frank discussions about the developments in the India-China border areas as well as bilateral relations” and added that, “The Raksha Mantri categorically conveyed that the development of relations between India and China is premised on prevalence of peace and tranquillity at the borders. He added that all issues at the LAC need to be resolved in accordance with the existing bilateral agreements and commitments. He reiterated that violation of the existing agreements had eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations and disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation.”
This is indeed a ‘frank’ statement by the Indian Defence Minister and the use of the phrase ‘categorically conveyed’ also seeks to reiterate the message of a resolute government that will not be cowed down by a larger neighbour. The local media played up the stern message that was ostensibly conveyed to Beijing, and the fact that Rajnath Singh did not shake hands with his interlocutor was emphasised by a section of the media. This was a petulant interpretation which tried to muddy the reality that appropriate courtesies were indeed exchanged — even if they may not have exuded warmth and bonhomie.
The Indian position on Galwan, often articulated by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, is that this incident has led to a ‘disturbed’ bilateral relationship that is not normal and that the onus lies on China to restore the pre-Galwan status quo. To that extent, Rajnath Singh was conveying the same message to his guest, though the return to the pre-Galwan situation was not mentioned in the official statement. However, the view from Beijing is very different.
The 18th round of India-China military talks concluded on April 23 with no breakthrough of any kind, but for an anodyne reference by India in a statement which referred to ensuring ‘security and stability’ along the LAC. The fact that there was no joint statement, unlike after the 16th and 17th rounds of talks, is an indicator that the bilateral relationship remains brittle. In Beijing, the foreign office made a bland reference to an in-depth exchange of views and expediting resolution of relevant issues.
It is relevant to note that the Chinese government conveyed its assessment of the Singh-Li talks through social media, where it was stated that the Chinese Defence Minister termed the LAC situation as ‘generally stable’ and that from Beijing’s perspective, the bilateral relationship was normal. Thus, the inference is that China is now sanguine about the new post-Galwan status quo, having tactically consolidated its position along the LAC and India is expected to accept the new normal along the LAC.
The Modi government adopted a position of deliberate ambivalence in the immediate aftermath of the Galwan clash and tried to assert that India had not lost any territory to China; it had also not acknowledged the reality that India had forfeited certain patrolling access in the Ladakh region. This obfuscation and reticence by Delhi have emboldened Beijing, which is also aware that notwithstanding Galwan and calls from some Indian quarters to minimise trade and ties with China, bilateral trade has increased in absolute numbers; the trajectory remains robustly positive and the imbalance is in China’s favour.
It is evident that India, having assumed the charge of two global groupings, the G20 and the SCO, has prioritised the current diplomatic compulsion, which is to ensure that nothing rocks the boat and that both summit-level meetings scheduled for later in the year proceed in a satisfactory manner.
If domestic political objectives dictated the immediate post-Galwan narrative that no territory had been lost along the LAC, the current reticence not to call out Beijing for its aggression is being shaped by a seemingly larger diplomatic objective — burnishing the ‘brand India’ image.
It merits recall that Rajnath Singh addressed the Army Commanders on April 19 and made a brief reference to the ‘current situation’ on the northern border. He added, “It is our ‘whole-of-government’ approach to ensure availability of best weapons, equipment and clothing to our troops, braving extreme weather and hostile forces to defend our territorial integrity.”
Alas, this commitment to ensuring the availability of ‘best weapons’ to the troops is not borne out by the budgetary support; the inventory gaps in all three services are glaring. The inadequacies were brought out in an objective manner in the Khanduri report (2018), but there has been no credible attempt to effectively redress the gaps. The war in Ukraine has only exacerbated the inventory gaps and this is a cause for concern.
A comprehensive White Paper on the Chinese challenge to India’s core security interests and the policies that need to be adopted by the ‘whole of government’ is imperative before the bugle is sounded for the 2024 General Election.
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