External Affairs

As Chinese Harden Border Rhetoric, India to Brief Political Parties, Says Diplomatic Channels Open

The all-party meeting called by the Indian government on Friday apparently aim to “build consensus” on how to deal with China.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the West Lake State Guest House ahead of G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Wang Zhao/Pool

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the West Lake State Guest House ahead of G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Wang Zhao/Pool

New Delhi: The NDA government has called a meeting of all political parties for Friday to brief them on the ongoing stand-off with China at the border tri-junction with Bhutan, even as New Delhi indicated that both sides remain diplomatically engaged notwithstanding the rhetoric from Chinese state media.

According to unnamed official sources quoted by PTI, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and home minister Rajnath Singh will give “detailed presentations” about the border standoff with China and the current situation in Kashmir, respectively.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Gopal Baglay said Swaraj would be attending a meeting with Singh on Friday, but could not confirm the “subjects”.

The all-party meeting has been convened ahead of the opening of the parliament session on Monday, where the government would apparently aim to “build a consensus” on how to deal with its biggest neighbour.

It is now nearly four weeks since Chinese troops started to construct a road towards Zompelri, before they were accosted by the Royal Bhutanese Army on June 16. Pushed back by the PLA road construction team, the Indian army climbed down from their posts in Sikkim in the higher reaches. By the time, they reached ‘Turning point’ clearing, the two armies found themselves in a stand-off on Bhutanese territory, which is claimed by China.

According to a tweet posted by Baglay on July 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a short “conversation” after the informal meeting of BRICS leaders at Hamburg.

However, the Chinese foreign ministry refused to acknowledge that there was any separate engagement at the highest level, deflecting all questions with a statement that there was no “bilateral meeting”. The Indian statement does not use the phrase “bilateral meeting” either, which connotations of a more structured discussion, but rather utilises the word ‘conversation’.

At Thursday’s weekly MEA briefing, several questions were raised about the Chinese foreign ministry’s responses which skirted around the possibility of any type of meeting between the two leaders.

“I would only refer you to the information that we put out the same afternoon. There was a picture that we tweeted and a brief text that we had put in in which we had said that at the BRICS leaders informal meeting on the side-lines of the G20 summit…. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi had a conversation on a range of issues,” replied Baglay.

The Indian side, however, refused to say if the Doklam issue was raised by the prime minister – only hinting that it was among the ‘range of issues’. “It is not for me to comment as to what ground the two leaders covered. There was a conversation between them. There was a range of issues that was the subject matter of the conversation,” he added.

Baglay noted that diplomatic channels were “available” and being utilised. Earlier on July 10, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang had also said that “diplomatic channels between the two sides are open”, adding that China would like to see “some real efforts and concrete actions from the Indian side”.

The diplomatic engagement seems to be ongoing, even as China publicly says that the start of a “substantial dialogue” will require the withdrawal of Indian troops.

In answer to a question on whether the use of ‘diplomatic channels’ meant that the Chinese position on dialogue had been revised, the Indian spokesperson essentially refused to comment, albeit in a roundabout manner.

“What I said was that you should look at the matter comprehensively. I said that last month we issued a statement which reflected our approach/position on that particular matter and also the larger issue. Then I said that there was a conversation between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping on a range of issues after the informal meeting of BRICS leaders at Hamburg on July 7. Then, I said that diplomatic channels remain available. I would not like to comment right now on what is or what is not happening. I would like to request you to see everything in a comprehensive manner,” said Baglay.

The rhetoric against India in the Chinese state media has been relentless over the past three weeks. After provocative editorials in Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese communist party, People’s Daily on Wednesday republished online an editorial from 1962 just before the breakout of war.

Front page of China’s People’s Daily from September 22, 1962, wit the editorial warning India on the left hand side with the headline, ‘If this can be tolerated, what cannot?’. Credit: peoplesdaily.cn

However, the Indian foreign ministry spokesperson refused to comment on the symbolism of this act by the Chinese Communist Party organ . “It is really not for me to comment on the editorials and opinion pieces appearing in the media. As you know we don’t normally do it. This matter that we are dealing with is a serious matter. It has implications for us, for a number of reasons. Therefore, we remain engaged in addressing the matter. We have outlined our position, we have outlined our approach and that’s all, I would have to say in this regard,” said Baglay.

Even during the ongoing crisis, at least four Union ministers were in China to take part in BRICS-related meetings earlier this month. In the last week of July, the national security advisors from the five countries will meet in China, where Ajit Doval will likely represent India. The spokesperson, however, did not immediately confirm if Doval will attend the BRICS meeting on July 26.

The BRICS annual summit is slated for Xiamen in China in September this year.

New Delhi reiterated that India’s “approach” was based on the Astana principles that had been included in the Indian foreign secretary’s speech in Singapore on Tuesday.

China has, however, dismissed S. Jaishankar’s contention that both sides could handle this incident as well as they had in previous instances involving border transgressions, asserting instead that the nature of the Doklam dispute was different:

“China has explicitly pointed out that the illegal trespass of Indian border troops into China’s territory this time took place at the defined Sikkim section of the China-India boundary, which is utterly different in nature from the previous frictions between the two sides at the undefined sections of the China-India boundary. The Sikkim section of the China-India boundary has come to existence against special historical background, and it is the only delimited section of the China-India boundary, which is totally different from the undefined eastern, central and western sections. The Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet (1890) has officially delimited this particular section, whose validity is recognised by both the Chinese and Indian governments. This convention is effective and legally binding to both sides. The Chinese side demands that the Indian side immediately pull the Indian border troops back to the Indian side of the boundary and properly settle this incident.”

In response, Baglay pointed out that it was a fact that the India-China boundary has remained peaceful, as a “result of the efforts of both the sides to maintaining tranquillity at the border”.

“So, I would not like to comment on what others say in this regard. I would like to confine myself to what is the approach of the government of India, what is our thinking in terms of addressing a situation, a dispute that we are dealing with right now. Obviously, I am not an astrologer so I can’t predict what will happen tomorrow. But, I can certainly say that the approach that we had underlined and put out at the end of last month, that continues,” he said.

However, Baglay did react more strongly to China’s observation that escalating tension in Kashmir was not conducive for regional stability. He pointed out that the “heart of the issue” in Kashmir was cross-border terrorism perpetrated from Pakistan against people in the state. So far, China has not issued any statement on the killing of pilgrims of the Amarnath yatra by terrorists.