Following Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s brief visit to India, the Chinese have so far put out two statements on Wang’s meetings, one with India’s National Security Adviser and Special Representative on the boundary issue Ajit Doval, and one on the meeting with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.
In the first statement on the meeting with Doval, Wang appears to be engaged in a monologue and there is no reference at all to what the NSA said, while in the second, Doval is cited as “appreciate[ing] China’s profound thinking and constructive opinions on India-China relations” and saying “India and China… should not let the boundary issue affect the overall bilateral relations”.
The statement on the meeting with Jaishankar also refers to the Indian foreign minister’s remarks. While we have the benefit of Jaishankar’s own comments about his meeting with Wang, there are only reports that have appeared in the Indian media to go on about what Doval actually said, which appear to be in sharp contrast to the Chinese statement.
Differences in the statements put out by each country have become a recurring pattern in the India-China relationship, and raise questions about what each expected out of the visit, and what was actually achieved.
For the Indian side, the focus was clearly on the continuing tensions over the Chinese transgression on the LAC in April 2020 — the lack of forward momentum in what New Delhi calls “disengagement and de-escalation”. At a press briefing Jaishankar held following his meeting with Wang, there was a direct reference in a question to “land [the Chinese] have grabbed in the Ladakh sector”. He, however, neither acknowledged nor disputed the fact. This is not the first time this has happened, but given the occasion, it is worth contrasting his response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outright denial in June 2020 of the Chinese capturing any Indian territory.
Meanwhile, what Jaishankar said, was “work in progress, obviously at a slower pace than desirable”, the Chinese described as the two countries having “maintained effective communication via diplomatic and military channels” and a case of disengagement “in most parts of the border areas’ western sector”. Note the differing interpretation of the nature of progress.
While Jaishankar was categorical in stating that “frictions and tensions that arise from China’s deployments since April 2020 cannot be reconciled with a normal relationship between two neighbours”, the Chinese side argued, as they have for some time, for the need to “put the differences on the boundary issue in a proper place in bilateral relations, and stick to the right direction of bilateral ties”.
Two years on, it is clear the Chinese are unwilling to acknowledge their violations at the LAC. Further their intransigence also appears to be encouraged by the fact that the Indian government remains unwilling to respond to a military provocation militarily. The brief action in August 2020 south of the Pangong Tso remains an exception but even here, any advantage was quickly given up at the negotiating table. If not a military response, the least New Delhi can do is to focus on military-to-military talks.
Instead, the Indian government has allowed the Chinese envoy to grandstand and sell China’s narratives to the rest of the world which are all the more effective for it having come in India, ostensibly an adversarial forum.
At his meeting with Doval, Wang said China “welcomes India’s development and revitalization, and supports India in playing a more important role in international affairs” — it has been difficult to spot any action matching this rhetoric for decades now, if ever. He was also bold enough to declare that “China is ready to explore the “China-India Plus” cooperation in South Asia”. This is again, an insincere declaration but the Chinese can still blame New Delhi for the supposed lack of forward movement. India’s neighbours — many of whom Wang visited both before and after his India trip — will buy into this willingly in the absence of a counter-narrative from New Delhi. The fact that there is no official readout of the meeting from the Indian NSA’s office does not help.
The optics of Wang’s presence in India, meanwhile, have another consequence beyond the bilateral or regional. One of the objectives of his visit was to formally invite Modi to attend the BRICS summit China is hosting later in the year. What was originally thought up as a grouping of emerging economies is now essentially an absurd coalition of democracies and authoritarian states, of four economies unable to fulfil their promise and one far-and-away leader. The grouping now only serves the purpose of giving China cover in its ideological conflict with the liberal democratic order.
While Doval is reported to have said — and rightly so — that the Prime Minister’s visit would have to wait the resolution of the current crisis at the LAC, India remains unable to shake off its commitment to BRICS or the Russia-India-China trilateral. The Chinese have, therefore, used the visit to create the impression of an alignment between India and China on the Ukraine crisis.
Jaishankar’s statement on the issue, that “we discussed our respective approaches and perspectives but agreed that diplomacy and dialogue must be the priority” suggests that the two countries have different rationale for their seemingly common positions but this is a nuance that will likely be lost in the noise of Chinese disinformation pitting India against the United States’ supposed “domineering manner”.
In short, New Delhi appears once again to have misunderstood Chinese intentions and actions. It should not be surprising then that the Chinese have exploited Wang’s visit to India far better than their hosts have.
Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.