On April 27 in New Delhi, on the margins of an SCO event, the defense ministers of India and China held talks, the very fact of which could not fail to draw attention. Because it showed that the leadership of the two largest states in the world keeps under control a complex and contradictory set of bilateral relations.
In turn, this latter brings at least some positive to the picture of global insanity, which increasingly reflects the situation in the world as a whole. The formation of this picture is not least facilitated (for some reason, completely unpunished) by public cliques and simply paranoids.
Meanwhile, in order to bring Sino-Indian relations into such a state, there are quite enough reasons and continuing problems. Both historical and relevant. Some of which have been discussed more than once by the NEO. And if this has not happened so far, then, we repeat, this is the merit of the current leadership of both countries.
We will also point out the obvious attempts on the part of some of the external players to negatively influence the nature of the development of these relations. First of all, we are talking about Washington’s desire to use in the fight against the now main geopolitical opponent, which today is the same China, the periodic aggravation of some of the mentioned problems in order to involve India in certain anti-Chinese configurations.
The source of the main challenge for maintaining constructively and mutually beneficial Sino-Indian relations remains the problem of the unresolved situation in several zones of the so-called Line of Actual Control with a total length of about 4,000 km, which is generally a surrogate for the internationally recognized border. In the summer of 2020 and in December last year direct clashes took place between groups of border guards of both countries in different areas of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Fortunately, without the use of firearms.
Nevertheless, it was not without casualties. The first incident that brought bilateral relations to the lowest level since 1962, when hostilities with the participation of the armed forces of both countries took place in approximately the same region (in the highlands of Ladakh) had particularly serious consequences. As a result of the 2020 incident, about 20 Indian and 4 Chinese border guards were killed, and it almost led to full-scale hostilities again.
Since then, the process of bringing bilateral relations out of the deepest failure in decades has continued. With the participation of both diplomats and senior commanders of the armed forces of both countries. In particular, two days before the discussed meeting of the defense ministers of India and China, the 18th meeting of the bilateral contact group headed by the commanders of the army corps was held. After the mentioned incident, this negotiation format was formed in order to keep the situation in the region of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
We can say that basically it fulfills its task. Although, we repeat, a new incident happened in December 2022, which, however, was already incomparably less large-scale, that is, it did not lead to human casualties and did not have the same negative political consequences as the previous one. In particular, he did not prevent the meeting of the foreign ministers of India and China in three months (in March of this year on the sidelines of regular ministerial-level events in the G20 format.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to emphasize once again that these incidents themselves are only an external manifestation of the long-standing problem of territorial claims against each other, which originated more than a hundred years ago. In particular, one of the reasons for mutual suspicion remains the question of owning a large territory (with an area of about 90 thousand square kilometers), which in the format of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is an administrative unit of modern India. At the turn of the 19-20 centuries this territory was controlled by the administration of “British India”, which tried to formalize this fact in the form of an agreement with Qing China. In a series of negotiations held at that time, the leadership of the then Tibet participated with a claim to a certain autonomous status in relation to Beijing.
Be that as it may, the leaders of the Xinhai Revolution that began in 1911 in China refused to sign the prepared documents. Which gives grounds for the current PRC to consider the mentioned territory as its own, which is designated as “Southern Tibet”. At the beginning of April, a number of its toponyms underwent another “standardization” in their names. Which met with the expected negative reaction in India.
This, in general terms, is the state of affairs in the extremely sensitive area of mutual territorial claims, which had developed at the time when Defense Ministers Li Shangfu and Rajnath Singh sat down at the negotiating table in New Delhi. It is unlikely that for the leaders of the “power” components of the state machines of both countries, the subject of discussion could be the very problem of settling these claims and drawing the final border. This problem has been the responsibility of the diplomatic services for several decades. But the issue of preventing its dangerous negative consequences was probably among the main ones in the negotiations.
It is possible to note remarkable nuances in the available information about the speeches of the ministers, as well as in the comments of the press of both countries. In particular, Chinese Global Times quotes Li Shangfu as saying that “the situation on the Sino-Indian border remains stable,” and the remaining problems in this area are subject to “proper settlement within the framework of bilateral relations.” As for the general tone of Rajnath Singh’s speech, then, according to both the Global Times and the Indian press, it was more harsh.
Also noteworthy are two events that occurred around the same time, directly or indirectly related to the topic under discussion. First, a month earlier, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) published report under the remarkable title “Tensions on the India-China border and US strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.”
First of all, let us note that this really “new” (functioning only since 2007) American “smart tank” includes a relatively small group of employees, most of whom, however, are well known in the expert community. These include, for example, Michèle Angélique Flournoy and Kurt Campbell.
It is likely that CNAS generally serves the interests of the Democratic Party (although one of the authors of the study mentioned, Lisa Curtis, worked in the Trump administration) and clearly supports the efforts of the current US administration to turn India into an anti-Chinese “counter-balance”. All of its problems present in the system of relations with China are fully and unequivocally blamed on the latter. In this regard, the US leadership is recommended to provide India with comprehensive assistance (including the most advanced military technologies) both in peacetime and in the event of a full-scale war between the major Asian powers.
The second notable “side event” was the four-day visit of Pakistan’s Chief of Staff, General Asim Munir, to China that began on April 26. There he held talks with senior PLA commanders. The event drew attention for several reasons. First, it took place during that very meeting of defense ministers of the SCO member states in New Delhi, at which the representative of Pakistan, i.e. a full member of this organization, was absent. And for a fairly obvious reason. Moreover, until recently it remained unclear whether a purely civilian official, such as Pakistan’s current Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, would arrive in New Delhi for the meeting of SCO foreign ministers (scheduled for May 4-5).
Secondly, with the change of party affiliation of the government of Islamabad last spring there was little speculation on the sharp turn of the country’s foreign policy in the direction of “the West” in general and the United States in particular. The very fact of this trip to PRC by the commander of Pakistan Army, which plays an exceptional role among other state structures of this country, the established memes about “all-weather and ironclad” friendship, pronounced during the meetings with Chinese colleagues should have served as evidence of how baseless the mentioned speculations are.
In general, the picture of the situation in South Asia looks extremely complex and contradictory. The meeting of the defense ministers of India and the PRC held in New Delhi obviously could not resolve the whole variety of problems reflected in it.
Nevertheless, and despite all the negative reservations, the author believes that this meeting was evidence of the presence of positive elements in the region, as well as in the framework of the current “Great World Game” in general. Few, but still.
This is extremely important in conditions when, we repeat, global political action is increasingly beginning to evoke associations with an insane asylum.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”