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Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

Beijing’s overture is welcome but Delhi must continue to insist on de-escalation in Ladakh and a plan to settle the border

Delhi must make the most of the Chinese outreach to push not just for a de-escalation in Ladakh, but also for a quick, time-bound diplomatic settlement of the border issue, which has only become more complicated in the last two years.

India-China talks have never been easy even in the best of times. But Delhi must make the most of the Chinese outreach.

The likelihood that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi might travel to India as a part of a multi-nation swing through South Asia later this month injects new possibilities in what has been a problematic two years for India-China relations. If it takes place, it would be the first high-level visit between the two countries since China’s ingress across the Line of Actual Control into areas claimed by India in eastern Ladakh, unilaterally pulling out of several bilateral agreements between 1993 and 2013 on peaceful management and resolution of the border issue, and avoidance of military conflict at the LAC. The Galwan clash in which 20 Indian soldiers died took bilateral relations to the lowest point they have been in three decades. The two sides have held 15 rounds of military commander-level talks to defuse the tensions in that region, with mixed results on disengagement at some “friction points” but not at others, and no breakthrough yet on the Indian larger demand for the restoration of status quo ante, that is, the situation as it existed in April 2020, including access to traditional patrolling points in the Depsang Plains. Also worrying for India is the unprecedented levels of infrastructure building activity and military posturing by the People’s Liberation Army close to the LAC on the Chinese side.

Against this background, any peaceful engagement, especially at the political level, between India and China is always welcome as it is an opportunity to improve the relationship. As reported by this newspaper, the Chinese side has also proposed other engagement, including a “civilisational dialgoue” and interactions between business and the film industries of both sides. Wang’s visit — proposed to be followed by a return visit to Beijing by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar — also comes at a time of massive shifts in the international order arising out of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beijing, like Delhi, but for different reasons, is walking an international tightrope between its “no limits” friendship with Moscow and its global economic interests, now under threat from the US-Europe sanctions against Russia. In this sense, the proposed, but yet unscheduled engagement, could throw a challenge to Delhi’s mandarins. On February 4, when President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping met in Beijing, their lengthy joint statement included a substantial mention of BRICS, and the “deepened strategic partnership” between its members (India is a member too). Beijing is to host the summit this year, and is also in the chair of the trilateral Russia-India-China forum. At a time of fast evolving geopolitical jostling, it would suit Beijing to play host to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for these meetings.

However, for Delhi, bilateral concerns with Beijing will need to remain the primary agenda of any engagement. India-China talks have never been easy even in the best of times. But Delhi must make the most of the Chinese outreach to push not just for a de-escalation in Ladakh, but also for a quick, time-bound diplomatic settlement of the border issue, which has only become more complicated in the last two years.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on March 18, 2022 under the title ‘Opening a window’.

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First published on: 18-03-2022 at 03:47:45 am
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