New Delhi: For the first time since the border crisis began in May, India and China have signed off on a common document that purports to provide guiding principles for easing tensions at the Line of Actual Control.
But, it remains to be seen whether the new diplomatic strategy will help in lowering the temperature.
On Friday evening in Moscow, Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese State councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi held talks for two and half hours, following which they issued a common document.
The ‘joint statement’ has listed five points that both the ministers that Indian sources stated would guide the approach to finding a resolution to the four-month-old stand-off. It was released by the Ministry of External affairs and the Chinese foreign ministry in early hours of Friday. Besides, the two sides gave their own interpretation of the five principle and the content of the talks – the Chinese through a press release and the Indian side’s views articulated by “government sources”.
A quick perusal of the five points show that most of them have already been articulated by the Indian and Chinese sides in their respective statements from the beginning of this crisis.
This includes the first point that refers to the “guidance” from the leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the refrain that differences should not be allowed to become disputes. This has been part of the repository of phrases used by diplomats in context of India-china ties for several years since the two leaders met in Astana in 2017.
Similarly, both sides have also underlined that they will strongly adhere to existing bilateral border pacts and protocol. However, the interpretation of these pacts and what the armies are doing on the ground have been the point of dispute. For example, India has stated that it was the massing of Chinese troops that triggered the current crisis, was in violation of 1993 and 1996 border agreements.
Even at the height of tension after Galwan valley face-off and the recent firing, both sides have stated that they will continue to communicate with each other and maintain pace and security at the border – as referenced in the second and fourth principle.
The relatively new point is the fifth and last one, which is that the two sides should “expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas”.
According to defence sources, the main take-way from the joint statement is that China has been made to give a written commitment, which can be held up in future negotiations.
Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, who had also been Indian ambassador to China, said that issuance of the joint statement was a “constructive move”. “It suggests that the two agreed on the need to reflect some shared understandings reached in the course of their discussions,” she told The Wire. She added that even though many of the points may have been previously verbalised, a joint statement “offers a degree of reassurance that the focus is on building common ground based on these principles.
At the same time, Indian defence sources did note that most of the five guiding principles were open-ended, which meant that it would be difficult to pin down China on the exact wording as they have previously never agreed to India’s position but continuously claim that they are acting within the perimeter of the pacts.
“The next meeting of the corp commanders will make it clear if China is going to be helpful and help to de-escalate the situation,” said defence sources. While the Chinese have agreed to hold a meeting soon, no dates have yet been confirmed.
Further, the joint statement seems to be more concerned about managing the immediate tensions on the ground. For example, point number two says that two countries agreed that border troops “should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. The “proper distance” points to the understanding reached at the June 30 corp-commander level talks, where they agreed on a buffer zone between the soldiers of the two countries at Eastern Ladakh.
While the dis-engagement process, that is the prying apart the two armies from their eyeball-to-eyeball stand-offs, get the spotlight in the joint statement, the five principles do not go into the longer-term de-escalation at the border. “Disengagement is the primary goal at present – de-escalation will involve another set of discussions which should essentially, follow disengagement,” said Rao.
On Tuesday afternoon, Indian government sources claimed that Jaishankar and Wang’s meeting was an “important first step” that gives “political guidance for disengagement”.
The restoration of status quo has been a major demand of India, but it does not find space in the joint statement with its restricted focus on de-escalation. Instead, government sources had told reporters that Jaishankar had conveyed that India “would not countenance any attempt to change the status quo unilaterally”.
While the Chinese press note did not repeat the blame put on India for starting the crisis, it did stated that Wang outlined China’s “stern position on the situation at the border”, with emphasis on immediately stopping “provocations such as firing and other dangerous actions”. The implication here is that Wang is asserting that these “provocations” were only carried out by India.
Besides, the press release from the Chinese foreign ministry said that there was no link between the wider relationship and the final settlement of the boundary question. Indian sources pointed out that this was related only to the final settlement, but if clashes continue in border, then it will implicate the wider ties.
If there is a basic difference on the role of the border crisis on ties, it does raise question on the viability of a long-term disengagement process between India and China at the border.