India and China held the 17th round of Military Corps Commander Level meeting on December 20,2022. While both sides agreed to maintain peace and stability on the border and seek a resolution to the current standoff in remaining friction points and keep channels open for dialogue, it did not break through the impasse between the two sides. The non-resolution of the impasse is a worrying sign for the India-China relationship as the standoff drags on for more than two and a half years. Amid already tense situation, soldiers from both sides clashed in the Tawang Sector of their boundary in Eastern Himalayas on December 9th.
Particularly, China’s diplomatic efforts to bring back the relevance of diplomacy in the Post-20th Party Congress and Post-Covid19 period with the US, Australia, the Philippines, S Korea, and Japan have ignored any such signals to New Delhi. In addition, India is approaching general elections in 2024 and political parties are beginning their campaigns and preparations. India-China border tension will be a major issue among the opposition parties, which may push Narendra Modi-led Bhartiya Janata Party government to act tough. This raises a serious question about the prospectus of resolving the Ladakh standoff and its implications for India-China relations and beyond.
The 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which ensured Xi Jinping’s relatively smooth transition to a third term at the party-state’s helm, raised serious questions about China’s foreign and security policies. The report to the Congress by Xi Jinping and the ongoing leadership reshuffle indicate that Chinese leadership is preoccupied with internal and external security amid rising tensions with the US in security, economic sector, and advanced technologies. While security remains a top priority, the Chinese leadership has moved abruptly to discard the “zero Covid policy” it pursued since the early 2020 in its efforts to revive struggling economy.
Since the 20th Party Congress, Beijing hosted German Chancellor Scholz, Vietnamese leader Nguyen Phu Trong, held bilateral talks with US and several countries during the Bali Summit in November 2022. It has also held diplomatic talks with Australia to mend ties and revive economic relations, which have deteriorated since early 2020 triggered by Australia’s demand for an international investigation into the outbreak of Covid19 in Wuhan, China. Additionally, Japan and Yoon Suk Yeol-led new government in South Korea have also signaled their intent to engage China. While security and military situation in East Asia remains fragile, these efforts show a desire to cool down tensions in their efforts to deal with struggling economies in the Post-Covid period.
Amid the diplomatic flurry, the Chinese leadership has been mute about its relationship with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping shared pleasantries, without formal talks, during the Bali G20 Summit on November 15, 2022. Previously, both leaders did not even share such moments during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in September 2022. This is in sharp contrast to personal and political relationship both leaders shared prior to May 2020, when they met frequently, both bilaterally and at multilateral forums. Although foreign ministers have met few times during the period since May 2020 at multilateral forums, Wang Yi’s short visit to India, as part of his itinerary to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, in March 2022 could not break the impasse.
Recently, in his address to a symposium in Beijing on December 26, China’s outgoing Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred to India-China relations merely stating China’s willingness for “steady and sound growth” of relationship with India and reiterated previous positions on the current impasse on the border talks. Similarly, newly-appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s widely commented article emphasized status quo, without elaborating on it.
The lack of contacts at the top level and signals do not portend well. The current phase in India-China relationship is at its lowest in many years since the early 1990s, when both sides started to build a stable relationship characterized by a range of agreements to manage border tensions, continued talks to ultimately resolve the boundary question, and increasingly build sound economic relations, people-to-people contact, and cooperation in other areas such as climate change, science & technology, and trade issues in international forums like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and climate change negotiations.
This consensus, foundational to their relationship in post-1980s period, is under severe stress. India has stressed that the relationship cannot be normal until the border is peaceful, which indicates frustration and a perception, with widening trust gap, in New Delhi over Beijing’s tendency to use the border tensions as a chip to pressurize India for its foreign policy choices, particularly its relationship with the US. However, India has not escalated the border tensions to other realms, except indirect provisions to scrutinize investments from China and banning apps, and continued to cooperate in multilateral forums, namely the COP27 in Sharm-el Sheikh in November 2022, SCO and other forums.
This raises questions over China’s calculations about its India policy, which are increasingly entangled with their geopolitical and strategic competition in South Asia and beyond. Consequently, border standoffs are not mere tactical issues and matters of differing perceptions of the LAC. To break this impasse, political push at the top is what they need now or else they stare at a longer stalemate in the relationship.
Author Details: Dr. Devendra Kumar is an independent researcher based in New Delhi India and specializes in China Studies and India-China relations.