New Delhi: Ahead of likely meetings between the two leaders at the G20 and BRICS summits, the Indian government on Thursday said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had exchanged courtesies with Chinese President Xi Jinping and spoken about the need to “stabilise” bilateral relations at an encounter during last November’s G20 summit dinner in Bali.
Earlier on Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry had claimed that Xi and Modi had reached an “important consensus stabilising China-India relations in Bali”. This was part of the press release issued after the meeting between China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on the sidelines of the BRICS summit on July 24.
At the weekly press briefing, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, “Now if you would recall that during the Bali G20 Summit last year, we had said, foreign secretary had said at briefing, that prime minister and President Xi Jinping at the conclusion of that dinner hosted by the Indonesian President, they exchanged courtesies and also spoke of the need to stabilise our bilateral relations.”
When pointed out that foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra had only said that the leaders had exchanged courtesies, Bagchi clarified that the second part of the reply was “my statement”.
“I think foreign secretary did mention, maybe he did not mention the second part of it. He did talk about exchanging courtesies and I think there was the general discussion or spoke of the need to stabilise our bilateral relationship or relations…” he stated.
Explaining India’s view on “stabilising” the relations, the MEA spokesperson reiterated that India has “steadfastly maintained that the key to resolution of this whole issue is to resolve the situation along the LAC on the western sector of the India-China boundary and to restore peace and tranquility in the border areas”.
The Indian government’s acknowledgment of the Chinese version of the Bali encounter is likely related to creating a conducive atmosphere as the Indian establishment gets ready for the Chinese president to come to New Delhi for the G20 summit in September.
In a reply to another question, the MEA spokesperson said, “G20 is not too far away and we are making all efforts and preparations to ensure that it is a success with participation of all the leaders invited.”
As the host, Modi will certainly have a bilateral meeting with his Chinese guest. Similarly, if Modi travels for the BRICS meeting in Johannesburg, it would have also mean another meeting among the leaders.
It is still not clear why the two sides did not mention that there was talk about stabilising relations at the G20 dinner in Indonesia, which was the first time that Modi and Xi were seen together in a public setting since the two militaries began a stand-off in eastern Ladakh in May 2020.
While the Indian foreign secretary had said that there was an exchange of pleasantries, the Chinese foreign ministry had not even publicly recorded this encounter in Xi’s engagements at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
Following the November 2022 G20 summit, there had been no visible thaw in India-China relations. Despite the multiple rounds of diplomatic and military talks since then, there has been no change in the postures of the two countries on the border situation. While India insists that the stand-off will end only after there is resolution of Demchok and Depsang, China claims that these two areas are not part of the change in status quo after May 2020.
India has also refused to extend the visas of Chinese journalists based in New Delhi, which has meant that there is currently no representative from a Chinese media outlet. In a tit-for-tat, China also brought down the number of Indian journalists to just one.
In June, China had also put a hold on the proposal for listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist Abdul Rauf Azhar on the sanctions list of the United Nations Security Council. A month later, China again blocked a proposal to designate Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist and 26/11 mastermind Sajid Mir as a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council.
Despite hosting several rounds of meetings at various levels as chair, India surprisingly turned the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit into a video conference. This had led to speculation that Modi was not too eager to be seen with the Pakistan and Chinese premiers, especially in the run-up to the 2024 elections.
After repeated questions about Chinese incursion into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said the situation at the border was not due to “land grab”, but due to “forward deployment” of Chinese troops at the LAC.
At another event on June 28, Jaishankar asserted that the border situation between India and China remained “abnormal”, which immediately impacted bilateral ties. “The bottom line there is that at the end of the day, the state of the border will determine the state of the relationship and the state of the border today is still abnormal,” he said.
Incidentally, Jaishankar had met with Wang Yi during the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting, but the Chinese reference had not made any reference to Bali.
With India moving largely in sync with the US in the Indo-Pacific, there is also a growing gap with China on the strategic front in the region.
Last month, The Wire had reported that India had changed its position of the last seven years and for the first time explicitly called for the implementation of the 2016 arbitration ruling that had struck down China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, China issued stapled visas to Wushu sportspersons from Arunachal Pradesh, which India described as “unacceptable”.
Stating that India was aware of the developments, Bagchi said, “This is unacceptable and we have lodged our strong protest with the Chinese side reiterating our consistent position on the matter and India reserves the right to suitably respond to such actions.”
He stated that India has repeatedly maintained that there “should be no discrimination or differential treatment on the basis of domicile or ethnicity in the visa regime for Indian citizens holding valid Indian passports”.
As part of the boundary dispute, China claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’, which is not recognised by India. The issuance of stapled visas for residents of Arunachal has been a long-standing practice, which has caused friction at various times in the past.
China escalated the matter when it began to issue stapled visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir. It peaked when China denied a visa to the chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command in 2010. Both countries eventually resolved the issue at the BRICS summit in 2011 and China resumed giving regular visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir.