New Delhi: At their first direct ‘conversation’ in over nine months, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to have remained at their respective positions on the border standoff.
China publicly claimed that the informal talks was based on an Indian request. While there was no official denial from New Delhi, sources claimed that there had been a “pending” request from China for a “bilateral meeting”.
The two leaders talked on Wednesday on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, but both sides waited for nearly a day before declaring that there had been an interaction.
India took the lead in this announcement, as foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra revealed, shortly before their departure from South Africa, that Modi had conversed with the Chinese president. This was their first direct conversation that has been revealed publicly since they apparently exchanged remarks in November 2022 in Indonesia.
Kwatra volunteered that the two leaders had a “conversation” A few hours later, the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that there was a “candid and in-depth exchange of views”, adding that it took place at the request of the Indian side.
Speaking at a press conference, Kwatra said, “In a conversation with Xi Jinping of China, prime minister highlighted India’s concerns on the unresolved issues along the LAC on the western sector of the border areas.”
He stated that the prime minister “underlined that the maintenance of peace and tranquillity at borders and observing and respecting the LAC are essential for the normalisation of India China relationship”.
The top Indian diplomat then stated that there was an understanding from both leaders for an early resolution of the stand-off.
“In this regard, the two leaders agreed to direct their relevant officials to intensify their efforts at expeditious disengagement and de-escalation,” he said.
The Indian foreign secretary did not mention when and where the “conversation” took place – or who made the request.
“President Xi Jinping talked with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit at the latter’s request on August 23, 2023,” said the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson in a statement.
Even when asked if they had a bilateral meeting, Kwatra once more described the interaction as a “conversation”, indicating that New Delhi does not want imply that it was formal and structured.
China differed, emphasising that the interaction was substantive. “The two leaders had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on current China-India relations and other questions of shared interest.”
The Chinese emphasised that the talks were requested by India in a public statement. There was an Indian reaction shared with the media, but it was made off the record.
“There was a pending request from the Chinese side for a bilateral meeting. The two leaders, however, had an informal conversation in the Leaders’ Lounge during the BRICS Summit,” said official Indian sources.
The above response from Indian sources does not deny that the latest ‘conversation’ was based on India’s request. It stated that China’s request for a bilateral meeting had been “pending”, but did not mention when it had been made.
As The Wire had reported in the run-up to Modi’s visit to South Africa, the question of who will make the request for a meeting in India-China ties is a diplomatically sensitive issue.
The Indian side doubled down on its insistence that it was not a structured meeting held in a separate room, by stating that it was “an informal conversation” in the BRICS Leaders’ lounge.
Modi and Xi together participated in various BRICS events for a large part of the last three days. On Wednesday, the two leaders took part in two sessions of the main plenary during the day and also attended the official dinner in the evening.
The way each country presented the content of their conversation once again highlighted the divergence in perspective concerning the ongoing border stand-off.
“President Xi stressed that improving China-India relations serves the common interests of the two countries and peoples, and is also conducive to peace, stability and development of the world and the region. The two sides should bear in mind the overall interests of their bilateral relations and handle properly the border issue so as to jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border region,” said the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.
In contrast to the Indian statement, the Chinese rendition omitted any reference to “unresolved issues” at the LAC. Neither did it mention that there was an agreement between the two leaders towards “expeditious disengagement and de-escalation”, as stated by India.
Xi also reiterated the Chinese view that the border stand-off should not impact the overall relationship.
This interpretation was also reinforced by the Chinese foreign ministry at its daily briefing in Beijing on Friday. “China’s position on the China-India border issue has always been consistent and clear. The border issue is a historical legacy and not the entirety of China-India relations. It should be placed in an appropriate position in bilateral relations and resolved through peaceful and friendly negotiations to find a just, reasonable, and mutually acceptable solution,” said spokesperson Wang Wenbin, as quoted by state-run tabloid Global Times.
The Chinese president is expected to visit India in less than two weeks for the annual G20 summit.
India and China have been in a military stand-off at multiple points on the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh since May 2020, which resulted in the death of 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers.
After multiple rounds of military and diplomatic talks, there has been withdrawal of troops at around four friction points which has led to creation of buffer zones where neither country is allowed to patrol. It essentially meant that Indian army cannot patrol at around 26 patrolling points that they had access to before the start of the stand-off.
However, there are still two strategic points – Depsang Plains and Demchok – where India and China have been unable to reach any understanding. While India claimed that surge of Chinese troops at those points in these areas was linked to the three-year-old standoff, China insisted that these were legacy issues from the broader boundary dispute and should not be included in discussions concerning the ongoing border crisis.
Since last Friday, senior Indian and Chinese military commanders have engaged in a series of back-to-back discussions at the Major General level that were seen as a scene-setter for a much-anticipated bilateral meeting between Modi and Xi at BRICS summit.
The foreign secretary’s mention of the ‘conversation’ was a change from the situation last time when the two leaders had talked with each other at the dinner for G20 summit in Bali. Despite a photo surfacing of Modi and Xi standing and talking with each other, Kwatra had then only mentioned that there was an exchange of pleasantries.
While China had not mentioned the encounter then, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi referred to an “important consensus stabilising China-India relations in Bali” at his meeting with Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval last month.
Following that, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson acknowledged that the Indian and Chinese leader had “exchanged courtesies and also spoke of the need to stabilise our bilateral relations” in November 2022.
Note: This article was originally published at 11 pm on August 24, 2023, and was updated and republished at 9 am on August 25, 2023. It was once again updated with China’s claim that the talks were based on Indian request.