How to end the China dispute
Intervention by top leadership with mutual respect can help lead to a positive trajectory
China’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, it is now clear that relations between Beijing and New Delhi are at their lowest point in many decades. If there was any doubt on this score, it was dispelled by external affairs minister S Jaishankar’s latest assertion that the “state of the border will determine the state of the relationship”. On the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the two sides have been unable to progress on the crucial issue of disengagement of frontline troops and de-escalation at several friction points, despite more than two dozen meetings between senior diplomats and military commanders.
It is disingenuous for Chinese leaders to talk of a positive momentum in bilateral relations when China has ramped up the construction of dual-use infrastructure not just in the Ladakh sector but also along stretches of the disputed border in Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan. No wonder then that Dr Jaishankar made it clear that India-China relations can return to a positive trajectory and remain sustainable only on the basis of mutual sensitivity, respect and interest. Dr Jaishankar reiterated an “Asian century” can only happen if India and China come together, while calling for regional initiatives based on consultations and transparent and viable connectivity ventures. With President Xi Jinping set to further consolidate his grip on power at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress later this year, Beijing’s aim appears to be to present the situation on the LAC as a fait accompli. This, in itself, is not surprising as China has implemented a similar policy to deal with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where it has even built artificial islands and ramped up military infrastructure while disregarding a 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In the Taiwan Strait too, China has sought to unilaterally alter the status quo with violations of the median line.
The impasse in India-China relations cannot be overcome by more talks through diplomatic and military channels, and possibly require the intervention of the top leadership of both countries. However, even here, it will be difficult for India to go back to something like the informal summits of 2018 and 2019, given that information which has emerged in recent years suggests China was preparing for its actions along the LAC at the time of the second such summit. Therefore, as Dr Jaishankar put it, the management of the fissures within Asia will require an adherence to established laws, norms and rules.