India, China Talk of Border Disengagement 'At the Earliest', But Key Differences Remain

While the Indian statement says both Special Representatives affirmed India and China should “strictly respect and observe the line of actual control and not take unilateral action to alter the status quo”, the Chinese statement makes no mention of the LAC or the need to maintain status quo.

New Delhi: As their border standoff enters its second month, India and China have upgraded the level of diplomatic communication with the latest talks between their designated ‘Special Representatives (SRs) on the Boundary Question’. But even as the two SRs spoke on the phone and agreed on the necessity to complete the disengagement process of troops in Ladakh at the earliest, the readouts issued by both sides make it clear the gulf between them remains wide.

In separate statements issued in New Delhi and Beijing, the Indian and Chinese foreign ministries stated that a phone conversation in the evening of June 5 between the two SRs – National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his counterpart, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi – was “candid” and “in-depth”. They discussed the ongoing stand-off between the militaries of both sides on the India-China border.

Since early May, the Indian and Chinese armies have been face-to-face at three points in eastern Ladakh, where the PLA came beyond the 1993 Line of Actual Control. There have been multiple physical scuffles and clashes, the deadliest being at Galwan Valley on June 15 when at least 20 Indian  soldiers died after fierce hand-to-hand combat. Chinese casualties are not known.

Wang Yi, who holds the post of both state councillor and foreign minister, had earlier held discussions with external affairs minister S Jaishankar.

Also read: China Ups Rhetoric, Warns India of ‘Severe Consequences’ for Violent Clash

There have been several rounds of military-level talks, which have drawn up a timetable for disengagement at the border. The foreign ministries also held a virtual meeting of their Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs (WMCC) on June 25.

Following the SR-level talks, unnamed government officials have been quoted in the media as saying India has observed some signs of disengagement by Chinese troops at Galwan valley. Other reports have spoken of Indian soldiers also pulling back. Since India has said its troops never crossed the LAC, an Indian pullback means the creation of a de facto buffer on the Indian side.

During his daily briefing on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said both sides were “taking effective measures to disengage and ease the situation on the border” in answer to a question on whether China has moved back equipment in Galwan valley. However, there is still no change in the position of Chinese soldiers at the other two stand-off points at Pangong Tso lake and Hot Springs.

According to the MEA statement, Doval and Wang agreed that it was “necessary to ensure at the earliest complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity”. They agreed that the ongoing process of disengagement should be completed “expeditiously”.

The Chinese read-out mentions that the two sides “stressed the importance to promptly act on the consensus reached in the commander-level talks between Chinese and Indian border troops, and complete disengagement of the front-line troops as soon as possible”.

There were also similar phrases in both the statements that referred to the consensus reached by the leadership on the fact that differences should not be allowed to escalate into disputes. 

The Indian side said that the two “Special Representatives will continue their conversations.”

However, there were also significant differences in the statements. The Indian statement stated that both the SRs affirmed that India and China should “strictly respect and observe the line of actual control and should not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo”.

While China’s statement talked of strengthening communication and confidence-building measures to avoid further incidents in border areas, there was no mention of the LAC or the need to maintain its status quo.

Instead, Wang apparently reiterated that China was not responsible for the clash at Galwan and that it will continue to assert its claim. “The right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley in the western sector of the China-India boundary is very clear. China will continue to vigorously defend its territorial sovereignty and safeguard peace and tranquillity in the border areas”. (Emphasis added).

Also read: Debate: Galwan Is a Chapter in China’s Tireless Pursuit of ‘Lost’ Territory

China has previously insisted the whole of the Galwan Valley is Chinese – contrary to its 1960 claim line – and warned India of “severe consequences” of the violent face-off at Galwan. India had stated that the key reason for the current crisis is that China had amassed a large contingent of troops and armaments along the LAC and obstructed Indian patrolling, disregarding all agreements.

The Chinese statement today mentions that both sides “adherence to the agreements signed by the two countries and making joint efforts to ease the situation in the border areas

The Chinese foreign minister also asserted that China and India have “long term strategic interests” in development of their countries. 

Further, Wang also noted that both countries should ““adhere to the strategic assessment that instead of posing threats, the two countries provide each other with development opportunities.

He also said that this year marked 70th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic ties, asserting that bilateral relations “have withstood tests and made hard-won progress”.

“We hope India can work with China to guide public opinion in the right direction, keep and advance bilateral exchanges and cooperation, and avoid amplifying the differences and complicating matters so as to jointly uphold the big picture of China-India relations,” he said.

Last week, Indian government had banned 59 mobile applications developed by Chinese technology companies, including the highly popular TikTok, on grounds of national security and user privacy. India had also for the first time also called on China to address concerns over Hong Kong after the passage of a new security law.