India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Bali where both are attending the G20 foreign ministers meeting in Indonesia. The two foreign ministers have met several times since the military confrontation in Ladakh, however, India and China are no nearer to getting a complete withdrawal of troops to positions held by each side before April end 2020.
Significantly, the meeting between the two ministers took place a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly wished Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama on his 87th birthday and made it public in a tweet.
Though the Dalai Lama has lived in India since he fled Tibet in 1959, New Delhi has not used his stay as a diplomatic weapon to irritate China. Government leaders have always been discreet about meetings with the Dalai Lama. But since the 2020 stand-off in Ladakh, India is re-calibrating its position. The Prime Minister wished the Dalai Lama last year and has done so again. Not that this will make much of a difference in Tibet, but it will irritate China and send home the message that if Beijing does not care about Indian sensitivity, New Delhi can do the same. China regards the Dalai Lama as a renegade and a splittist and protests each time the spiritual leader visits the US or Europe. The bottom line is that India-China ties continue to be in deep freeze, despite in-person meetings between foreign ministers or Prime Minister Modi attending the recent virtual BRICS summit hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chances of a complete resolution of the latest India-China stand-off appear dim. The Chinese have already withdrawn from a number of friction points, but have so far resisted clearing out of Depsang and Hot Springs. Depsang and Hot Springs are both of strategic value to the PLA, and the Chinese, while ready to talk, are in no mood to vacate so far. Some analysts believe that not much progress can be expected till the National Congress of the Communist Party of China is over. The stakes are high for President Xi, as he aims to be selected President for a third term. He cannot afford to be seen to be soft on India or the west.
India and China have diametrically opposite views on the 2020 clash. India has repeatedly said that it cannot be business as usual till the Chinese go back to positions before the crisis began. China on the other hand wants to place the border dispute on the backburner and continue to move forward with diplomatic and economic ties. China was harking back to the past, when India and China decided to continue engagement at every level, and allow Special Representatives, appointed by both governments to try and resolve the border dispute. The long standing dispute was not to affect economic and political relations. This was no longer acceptable to India after 20 of its soldiers died in Galwan on May 15. Now the Modi government is firm that unless all areas occupied by the Chinese in the Ladakh region are vacated, normal ties cannot be restored.
During his hour-long conversation with Wang Yi, Jaishankar again reiterated New Delhi’s position. `` EAM called for an early resolution of all the outstanding issues along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. Recalling the disengagement achieved in some friction areas, EAM reiterated the need to sustain the momentum to complete disengagement from all the remaining areas to restore peace and tranquillity in the border areas,’’ the MEA said in a statement issued after the meeting on Thursday.
India is in no mood to change its position at Beijing’s insistence. That was made amply clear when Wang Yi visited New Delhi on March 25 and tried to push China’s line on normalising ties. During today’s talks Jaishankar again spoke of abiding by bilateral agreements and protocols and made the point that "…that India-China relationship is best served by observing the three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests,’’ the MEA statement said.
Jaishankar and Wang Yi also discussed regional and global issues. Ironically, India and China are often on the same side in international forums when they bat for the developing world. However China’s muscle flexing across Asia and its predatory moves along the LAC in Ladakh has made it difficult for the two Asian giants to work together. In fact it is China’s action in Ladakh that pushed India to join the quad --the US, Japan, India, Australia—which Beijing regards as a move to contain China’s growing economic and political might.