Chinese foreign minister and state councillor Wang Yi landed in Delhi on Thursday, the first high-profile visit by senior officials of any of the two nations, post the Ladakh standoff. Though there has been no comment by the Indian foreign office spokesperson on the agenda for the visit, Wang Yi is likely to meet National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Friday.
Post the two foreign ministers meeting in Moscow in September 2020 and November 2021, there has been no other interaction. These two meetings as also 15 rounds of border talks have failed to resolve the standoff, though there is tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Indian deployment and display of aggressiveness in the capture of the Kailash Ridge have conveyed the message that India is capable of thwarting Chinese misadventures. India being nuclear powered has limits to which it can be pushed.
Between 2020 and now, there have been multiple changes in the global scenario. The Quad has become effective and Indian reservations on angering the Chinese by upgrading the Quad are now history. China is aware that the Quad is aimed at curbing its influence in the region. AUKUS, another security agreement aimed at containing Chinese threats, has been initiated and more recent is the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions. The Beijing Olympics, which India boycotted at the last moment, as also its neutral stand on the Russia-Ukraine war conveyed that India has an independent foreign policy and will not be influenced despite being a member of forums with the US and China. It will act based on its own national interests.
With the receding of the pandemic, virtual summits are being replaced with in-person ones. Forthcoming summits include the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) leaders’ summit in China later this year, alongside which would be the RIC (Russia, India, China) summit. These summits involve heads of state and without the presence of one, the summit would be a disaster. Indian determination in avoiding summits where the host nation acts against its interests has been evident in the failure of Pakistan to conduct the SAARC summit since 2016.
India has made it abundantly clear that normalisation of relations is not possible with a tense border. Unless China withdraws to its pre-April 2020 positions, India will not engage in diplomatic parleys. If China continues to maintain a pro-Pakistan stand on Kashmir, India too can and should take a strong position on Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. India has blocked multiple Chinese apps and also restricted their investments. While trade continues, diplomatic ties between the two nations remain in cold storage. Multiple comments by the Chinese foreign minister to separate border standoff from trade and diplomacy have been ignored.
Statements by the Indian foreign minister in global forums including in the recently concluded Quad meeting in Australia and the Munich security conference highlighted the strong Indian viewpoint. The message conveyed was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be unwilling to attend any summit organised by Beijing, making it redundant, impacting Chinese global standing, unless the border scenario ends. The onus of resolving the border is now with the Chinese, despite them blaming India for the current scenario.
Indian statements made during summits with the Japanese and Australian PMs have further cemented the Indian stand. As the Indian foreign secretary recently stated, “We also made it clear that until and unless we had a resolution of the issues involved [and] there was peace and tranquillity in the border areas, we could not consider the relationship to be business as usual.” Another stumbling block in India-China relations is the future of approximately 12,000 Indian students stranded at home post the onset of the pandemic. Unless China displays consideration, India would be unwilling to normalise ties.
Further, US pressures continue on both nations to criticise Russia for its actions. China, having witnessed US sanctions on Russia, is aware that if it attempts a similar misadventure in Taiwan, it could face even worse penalties than that imposed on Russia, apart from military intervention. It has also realised that it cannot push any further into India and has limited choices, which are maintaining the status quo and let relations stagnate or withdraw and restore ties.
China, which signed a ‘no limits’ treaty with Russia, is now in a bind. It cannot dump Russia, nor can it ignore the impact of sanctions, in case it decides to support the Russian economy. India adopting a similar neutral stand in the conflict indicates that Asian powers have commonality in approach and hence, it may be ideal for both nations to collaborate. It is therefore likely that the visit could signal an end to the standoff and enhanced diplomatic engagements.
India does not seek another meaningless visit where promises are made and remain unfulfilled. India does not require Chinese support in any arena and hence can play the tough card. It is China that desires the presence of Prime Minister Modi for its major summits and also desires India to display a neutral position in the Quad. India would expect the visit to result in a near replica of the Doklam crisis which was resolved just prior to the BRICS summit in Xiamen.
India must seek to reduce its trade dependency on China as the balance of trade has shifted largely in China’s favour. While most aspects can be handled, reducing dependency on API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients) is a matter of concern. Currently India imports almost 75 per cent of its API from China. These need diversification. Unless India reduces its dependency, it will be compelled to trade despite the worsening of relations.
India must insist that the visit ends the current standoff and leads to normalisation of relations. India must not bend on its stand. It is now on a firm footing and must not back down.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.