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Frozen India, China ties on a drift into fourth year with no end in sight

The relationship has remained frozen since May 2020 when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) amassed troops in eastern Ladakh that led to a deadly clash between the two militaries at the Galwan Valley in June 2020, resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese military personnel.


By PTI

December 28, 2023


Frozen India, China ties on a drift into fourth year with no end in sight


With Beijing remaining intransigent on the withdrawal of additional troops deployed by the PLA since the deadly border clash in 2020 in eastern Ladakh, India's bilateral ties with China remained frozen in 2023 with no forward movement on the horizon despite several rounds of diplomatic and military talks.


The relationship has remained frozen since May 2020 when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) amassed troops in eastern Ladakh that led to a deadly clash between the two militaries at the Galwan Valley in June 2020, resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese military personnel.


In the words of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, the Chinese literally brought tens of thousands of soldiers in full military preparation at the border in Ladakh in violation of all bilateral agreements.


The ties between the two countries after the two high-profile informal summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping remain frozen and India has made it clear that peace and tranquillity at the border is the sine qua non for the overall development of bilateral ties.


"There has been no significant de-escalation or de-induction of additional troops deployed by both sides since mid-2020, even during winter months of four consecutive years," former Indian Ambassador to China Ashok Kantha said, commenting on the present state of Sino-India ties.


"Thus, the situation in border areas in Eastern Ladakh remains seriously disturbed due to unilateral actions taken by China," Kantha, who made two visits to China in recent months and interacted extensively with the Chinese think tanks on India-China relations, said in an email interview to PTI here.


As the ties remained frozen, India may have to maintain 'strategic patience' in its engagement with China to break the logjam, Kantha, who is also the Honorary Fellow and former Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi said.


Amid the prevailing tensions, the two countries held 20 rounds of Corps Commanders level talks besides the diplomatic channel called Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) and completed disengagement from five areas.


"Through difficult negotiations, there has been disengagement of troops at five 'friction points', though only after the deadly clash in the Galwan Valley," Kantha said.


"These understandings on disengagement have involved the creation of 'buffer zones' partly on our side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and denial of access to our troops to several patrolling points they were visiting earlier," he said.


Talks, however, are deadlocked over disengagement in the Depsang and Demchok areas as the Chinese argue that they are legacy issues that happened well before May 2020.


"As a result, the situation in border areas in Eastern Ladakh remains seriously disturbed due to unilateral actions taken by China," Kantha said.


He pointed out that there is a basic divergence in the positions of the two sides.


While India has maintained that there cannot be restoration of normalcy in its relations with China as long as the state of the borders remains abnormal, China continues to press India to delink the border issue and bilateral relations and work for normalcy.


Thus "the immediate prospects for the resolution of the current border impasse and hence return to normalcy in India-China relations are thus not looking bright", he said.


For its part, China seems to be keeping a close watch on the evolving political scenario in India in the run-up to the upcoming general elections for a deeper engagement.


"We may perhaps consider a more intensive and strategic dialogue with China, which goes beyond discussions on the nitty-gritty of disengagement of troops between the border commanders," Kantha said.


India has a complex relationship with China which calls for closer engagement at the diplomatic and political level, he said.


"Even the Chinese scholars recognise the need for a reset in ties but the key issue is the terms of a new modus vivendi (arrangement or agreement allowing conflicting parties to peacefully coexist peacefully with or without final settlement of the issue) between the two countries, as the old equilibrium has clearly broken down," Kantha said.

He advocated "strategic patience" in dealing with China.


"We cannot afford to opt for quick-fix solutions which will undermine our position on the ground. We must safeguard our perception of the line of actual control while investing in border infrastructure and enhanced deterrence. We must exercise strategic patience while quietly seeking greater stability in relations with China," he said.


Kantha said there is no alternative to a broad stance of engagement with China as it is India's largest neighbour.


"However, any such engagement has to be tempered with a heavy dose of realism, deterrence and balancing of China, recognising that it is our primary strategic challenge," he said.


About his interactions with Chinese scholars, Kantha said the dominant view in China is now increasingly looking at India through the lens of its strategic rivalry with the US and believes that India has been co-opted in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, which, they believe, is meant to contain China and slow down its rise.


"There is also a disinclination to address our concerns on the border issue in a substantive manner. We do not see any keenness on the part of China to address structural challenges in the relationship even beyond the border question," he said.


He also pointed to China's "tactical outreach to the US, EU, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Australia to restore greater stability in those relationships" and there is no evidence of a similar reaching out to India.


The absence of President Xi at the G20 summit in New Delhi and the fact that the post of the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi has been lying vacant for the last 14 months convey their own signals, Kantha said.


Also, post-coronavirus pandemic, China is turning more inward and less sure of itself.

"One got the impression that we are today dealing with a more inward-looking China, which is assertive yet anxious, a country which is less sure of itself even though it continues to pursue its ambitions goals," he said.


However, Ladakh tensions have not dented bilateral trade as China's trade with India continues to boom, crossing a record USD 124.26 billion in the 11 months of this year.


China's exports to India totalled USD 124.26 billion while India's exports to China stood at USD 16.99 billion so far, according to the Jan-Nov, 2023 data released by China's customs.


Ironically amid the continued chill in the bilateral relations, China's trade deficit with India in the 11 months already crossed USD 90.28 billion, historically the highest and is expected to touch USD 100 billion.



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