India and China agree to hold early meeting of military commanders
India and China agreed on Wednesday to hold an early meeting of military commanders to resolve outstanding issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) even as foreign minister S Jaishankar bluntly told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that normalisation of bilateral ties depended on restoring peace in the border areas.
While conveying India’s position to Wang during their first in-person meeting since last September, Jaishankar made it clear that any unilateral change of status quo on the LAC was unacceptable. The two ministers met for an hour on the margins of a meeting of foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe.
The discussions “focused on the outstanding issues along the LAC in the Western Sector”, Jaishankar tweeted.
“Highlighted that unilateral change of status quo is not acceptable. Full restoration and maintenance of peace and tranquillity in border areas is essential for development of our ties,” he said in another tweet.
In an indication of some forward movement on the military standoff that began in May last year, Jaishankar tweeted that he and Wang had agreed on “convening an early meeting of the Senior Military Commanders”.
The external affairs ministry said in a statement that the ministers referred to the agreement reached at the last meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on June 25 to hold another round of talks between military commanders, and “agreed that this should be convened at the earliest”.
The statement added, “They also agreed that in this meeting, the two sides should discuss all the remaining issues and seek a mutually acceptable solution.” There was an understanding the two sides would “continue to ensure stability on the ground and neither side will take any unilateral action that could increase tension”.
Jaishankar recalled both countries had agreed that prolonging the existing situation on the LAC was not in the interest of either side, and said it was “visibly impacting the relationship in a negative manner”.
The meeting was held against the backdrop of reports of fresh tensions on the LAC, including a protest by Chinese troops and civilians against celebrations at Demchok on the Indian side to mark the birthday of the Dalai Lama on July 6.
Last month, India again blamed China’s actions of amassing troops in border areas and attempting to change the status quo on the LAC for the military standoff, and dismissed Beijing’s contention that New Delhi’s policies were to blame for the tensions. China has also called for the border issue to be delinked from other aspects of the bilateral relationship, such as trade and investment.
There has been lack of progress in disengagement and de-escalation of frontline troops following a limited drawdown on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in February.
Jaishankar and Wang had a detailed exchange of views on the current situation on the LAC and other issues related to the overall bilateral relations during their meeting, the external affairs ministry said.
Recalling their last meeting in Moscow, Jaishankar “emphasised the need to follow through on the agreement reached then and complete the disengagement, resolving the remaining issues along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh at the earliest”.
The two ministers had agreed on a five-point roadmap at the Moscow meeting, including quick disengagement of border troops, maintaining proper distance and easing tensions, and abiding by all agreements on boundary affairs.
Jaishankar pointed out to Wang the successful disengagement at Pangong Lake this year had “created conditions for resolving the remaining issues”, the statement said. “It was expected that the Chinese side would work with us towards this objective,” the statement said, adding that Jaishankar had noted the situation in the remaining areas was “still unresolved”.
Assessing the overall relationship, Jaishankar said maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas was the foundation for developing ties since 1988. “The attempts to change status quo last year that also disregarded commitments under the 1993 and 1996 agreements have inevitably affected ties,” he said.
He said it was in the mutual interest of the two sides to work towards an early resolution of the remaining issues on the LAC, while fully abiding by bilateral agreements and protocols.
Jaishankar and Wang have also spoken on the phone in February and April this year and there have been further rounds of diplomatic and military talks, but these contacts have not resulted in forward movement on disengagement at friction points such as Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang.
China’s People’s Liberation Army has continued the deployment of troops and heavy equipment on the LAC and inducted the army’s air defence units in its air force command chain, establishing a joint air defence system for the first time. It has also ramped up the construction and refurbishment of airports, helipads, missile bases and air defence facilities all along the LAC.
Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said the fact that the two foreign ministers met not because of a bilateral initiative but on sidelines of a regional gathering would indicate this was “more like a symbolic meeting than anything substantial that would contribute to the lessening of tensions”.
He added, “The goodwill generated through this meeting can only be sustained when the military commanders meet, which would reveal the true intentions of the Chinese side.”