‘Our relationship isn’t normal’: Jaishankar’s blunt message to China’s Wang Yi
NEW DELHI/BEIJING: India on Friday pushed China for speedy disengagement of troops at all friction points in Ladakh sector in order to set the stage for de-escalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), where the disturbed situation continues to hold up normalisation of bilateral relations.
This was the message conveyed by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and external affairs minister S Jaishankar in their separate meetings with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi during his visit to New Delhi. The message was also a riposte to Wang’s reiteration of China’s stated position that the LAC standoff should be placed in its “proper position” while the two sides take forward ties in other spheres.
Wang, who began his unannounced visit late on Thursday and was the first senior Chinese leader to travel to India since the standoff began in May 2020, first held talks with NSA Ajit Doval and then met S Jaishankar for almost three hours. By the time Wang left India for Nepal on Friday afternoon, it was clear there had been no immediate breakthrough on the LAC standoff in his talks with his Indian interlocutors.
Jaishankar and Wang exchanged perspectives on the Ukraine crisis and both sides agreed on the importance of an immediate truce and a return to dialogue. Jaishankar explained why Wang’s remarks on the Kashmir issue at an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting in Pakistan earlier this week were “objectionable”, and also raised India’s terrorism-related concerns in the context of Pakistan.
In the context of the standoff in the Ladakh sector, Jaishankar referred to 15 rounds of military talks and eight rounds of diplomatic talks that resulted in disengagement at several friction points and said more needs to be done.
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“This needs to be taken forward since the completion of disengagement is necessary for discussions on de-escalation to take place. I would describe our current situation as work in progress, obviously at a slower pace than desirable and my discussions with [Wang] today were aimed at expediting the process,” he said at a media briefing.
Noting that peace and tranquillity in the border areas were the basis for stable and cooperative ties, Jaishankar said he was “very honest” in conveying “our national sentiments” that tensions created by China’s troop deployments since April 2020 “cannot be reconciled with a normal relationship between two neighbours”.
Responding to a question on whether the meeting with the Chinese minister amounted to a return to normalcy in bilateral engagements, Jaishankar emphasised that the situation is “not normal” because of large deployments of Chinese troops in violation of the 1993 and 1996 pacts on border management, and the peace and tranquillity in border areas being disturbed.
“So...if you ask me, is our relationship normal today? My answer to you is no, it is not. And it cannot be normal if the situation in the border areas is abnormal,” he said.
When Wang spoke about China’s desire for a return to normalcy, Jaishankar said he had told his Chinese counterpart that India too wants a stable and predictable relationship. “But restoration of normalcy will obviously require a restoration of peace and tranquillity. If we are both committed to improving our ties, then this commitment must find full expression in ongoing disengagement talks,” he said.
The standoff, and a brutal clash in Galwan Valley in June 2020 that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese troops, have taken bilateral relations to their worst point since the border war of 1962. Both sides have arrayed tens of thousands of forces along the LAC and the numerous rounds of talks have only resulted in disengagement on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake and at Gogra.
Jaishankar welcomed the “considerable progress” in the talks held so far but said “they haven’t sorted out the issue in entirety”. He added, “So, our effort today is to sort out the issue in entirety and deal with the disengagement. So that it then allows us to look at the de-escalation possibilities.”
People familiar with the discussions said the Indian side pushed for disengagement at all the remaining friction points in Ladakh sector, whereas the Chinese side appeared more focused on discussing the issue of India’s participation in a Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (Brics) Summit to be hosted by Beijing later this year and to gauge India’s position in the ongoing geo-political realignments and turmoil caused by the conflict in Ukraine.
According to a statement from Beijing on the Wang-Jaishankar meeting, the Chinese minister said the boundary issue should be placed in its “proper position” in bilateral relations, and not allowed to “define or even affect” the overall development of ties. The statement in Mandarin contended the armies of the two sides have “achieved disengagement in most areas” of Ladakh sector and “disengagement in the remaining areas should be completed as soon as possible”.
The two sides agreed on dialogue to deepen economic and trade cooperation, facilitate personnel exchanges and trans-boundary river hydrological exchanges, the statement added.
Jaishankar said the two sides exchanged views on the situation in Ukraine and the common element that emerged was both “agreed on the importance of an immediate ceasefire, as well as a return to diplomacy and dialogue”. He said he and Wang discussed the Chinese chairing of Brics and “they spoke obviously about hosting a summit at which they would like naturally the participation of all the leaders”, but he didn’t go into details.
The Brics Summit is expected to be held in the third quarter of 2022 and it is still unclear whether it will be in-person or a virtual meeting, people familiar with the matter said.
Jaishankar acknowledged he had raised Wang’s remarks at the meeting of foreign ministers of the OIC in Islamabad on March 22 and explained “why we found that statement objectionable”. He said he had “conveyed that we hoped that China would follow an independent policy in respect of India, and not allow its policies to be influenced by other countries and other relationships”.
Hours before Wang arrived in New Delhi, the external affairs ministry rejected his remarks at the OIC meet that endorsed the views of other countries on the Kashmir issue, and said China had no locus standi to comment on the matter.
According to a statement from the Chinese side, Wang proposed three ideas at his meeting with Doval – China and India don’t pose a threat to each other and differences on the border issue should be put in an “proper position” in bilateral ties; China doesn’t pursue a “unipolar Asia”, respects India’s traditional role in the region and the two sides should explore “China-India+” cooperation in South Asia; and both side should participate in multilateral processes such as Brics and G20 with a “cooperative attitude”.
People familiar with the matter said Doval pushed the need to take forward “early and complete disengagement” in the remaining friction points and to remove impediments to a natural bilateral relationship. The Indian side made it clear the continuation of the current situation is not in the interest of both countries and restoration of peace and tranquillity will help build mutual trust and ensure progress in ties.
The Chinese side invited Doval to visit China to take forward the work done by the Special Representatives on the border issue, and the NSA responded positively but stated he could visit after immediate issues are successfully resolved, the people said. In effect, India’s position remains that SR-level talks can happen only after a restoration of the April 2020 position along the LAC.
Jaishankar also strongly raised the “predicament” of Indian students who have not been allowed to return to Chinese universities because of Covid-19-related restrictions. “We hope China will take a non-discriminatory approach, since it involves the future of so many young people. Minister Wang Yi assured me that he would speak to the relevant authorities on his return on this matter,” he said.
The Indian side also raised trade and investment issues and pressed for fairer access to Chinese markets.
People familiar with the planning for the visit said Wang’s arrival went unannounced because the Chinese side insisted that the entire trip to the region be kept under wraps. They added no announcement was made by the Chinese side even though China’s state media was present for Wang’s arrival in New Delhi on Thursday evening.
Former ambassador Vishnu Prakash said it was good that a face-to-face dialogue had happened between the two sides in New Delhi. “However, one hopes that our Chinese friends recognise that sanctity of borders needs to be maintained for a conducive relationship. Both sides will benefit from a cordial relationship, especially given the geo-political flux,” he said.