The visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi could be summarised in the following words: “He came uninvited, was snubbed, and returned with actionable points.”
Wang Yi arrived on Thursday night and unlike other dignitaries of his stature, was forced to move through the normal arrival lounge at the Delhi airport rather than the Air Force station. This sent the first message that India considered him unwelcomed. There was no announcement on Wang’s visit based on a request from the Chinese government. This gave the impression that China was not expecting any gains to flow from the visit. Possibly China had gauged the Indian viewpoint.
On Friday, Wang Yi met National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar before departing for Kathmandu. While Jaishankar is his counterpart, the NSA and Wang are Special Representatives for resolution of the border. While attending the OIC summit in Islamabad, Wang had commented on Kashmir, following which the Indian foreign office had issued a rebuke. The EAM raised his unwarranted comments in his meeting with Wang. Evidently, India did not take his remarks well and conveyed the same.
It is reported that Wang Yi’s request for a meeting with the prime minister was denied. Wang invited both EAM and NSA to visit Beijing but both turned it down till resolution of the standoff. There was no press conference involving the Chinese foreign minister, though a joint statement was released. India maintained firmness in its approach to restoration of ties, despite Chinese request of segregating the standoff from normalising relations. All told, the impression conveyed was that nothing major, apart from exchange of views, was achieved during the visit.
As per reports, Wang Yi projected that “the two sides should put the differences on the boundary issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations and adhere to the correct development direction of bilateral relations”. The Chinese statement also mentioned, “China does not pursue the so-called unipolar Asia and respects India’s traditional role in the region. The whole world will pay attention when India and China work hand-in-hand.”
It was signalling that while talks on resolving the LAC continue, bilateral ties, currently in cold storage, must be revived. Further, the Chinese were conveying that they accept India’s regional interests and support them. The two nations currently have a common approach to the Russo-Ukrainian crisis.
Quoting Lan Jianxue, head of the Department for Asia-Pacific Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, the Global Times mentions: “Some Indian media outlets said India's ties with China cannot be normal until the border dispute is addressed. That mentality is improper.” The article added, “If India can follow China's approach, viewing the border dispute in a pragmatic and rational way, and focusing its efforts on promoting the common interests of the two countries and seeking common ground, bilateral relations between the two countries will go more smoothly.”
An article in the Hindustan Times quotes Liu Zongyi, senior fellow at the South Asia and China Centre of Shanghai Institute for International Studies, as saying: “The border issue is only an issue in bilateral relations. It should not become a prerequisite for the development of bilateral relations, nor should it become a bargaining chip for India to coerce China.” Desperation on segregating the standoff from bilateral relations was Wang’s paramount intention and it backfired.
The Indian perception was the opposite. Smooth relations were offset by intrusions of the PLA. Therefore, restoring relations is dependent on restoration of status quo. If India accedes to Chinese demands and places the standoff along the LAC on the backburner, then it will signal acceptance of Chinese salami slicing, which will continue at regular intervals. Willingness to place bilateral ties at risk till complete withdrawal would send a firm message of rejection of this strategy. It would also confirm that any incident on the border will impact bilateral ties. Further, ignoring the LAC standoff for normalising ties could be political hara kiri for the current dispensation as it would be taken to the cleaners by the opposition.
Evidently Chinese concerns are on the participation of the Indian prime minister in the forthcoming BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and RIC (Russia, India and China) summits, both of which would be held simultaneously later this year. With relations on the backburner it is unlikely that Prime Minister Modi would attend. In such an eventuality, the two organisations could become defunct as SAARC has and the onus for which would be on China. Wang’s proposals were rejected, and the Indian message on the attendance of the prime minister conveyed forcefully.
In China, the foreign minister has a lower rank and status than the Central Military Commission (CMC), which controls the armed forces and determines resolution of the LAC. Therefore, Wang can neither comment nor confirm early resolution of the border without clearance from the CMC. The final decision would be made after military-level talks are approved by the CMC. It would involve directions from Xi Jinping. Wang was possibly sent to gauge Indian reactions and propose options for normalcy, without referring to the standoff. Evidently, he failed.
In summation, the visit appears to be the commencement of diplomatic initiatives being led by China to bring India-China ties to normal enabling it to successfully conduct the BRICS and RIC summits. India is aware of Chinese intent and is raising the stakes. It has placed the onus of resolution of the standoff on China and insisted that this precede any diplomatic parleys. Further, for the prime minister, to attend any meeting in Beijing, with the ongoing standoff could result in political pushback and would be unacceptable. The game has begun, with China playing its first card and being rebuked. How and when the next card will be displayed is to be watched.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.