India and China on Sunday held “frank and in-depth” talks on the two remaining friction areas on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and days ahead of the first visit by the Chinese Defence Minister to New Delhi since the start of the border crisis, agreed that restoring peace along the border areas would “enable progress” in recently strained relations.
The 18th round of talks between senior military commanders since the start of the April 2020 LAC crisis, triggered by China’s multiple transgressions and mobilisation of troops, was held on Sunday on the Chinese side of the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point.
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“The two sides had a frank and in-depth discussion on the resolution of the relevant issues along the LAC in the Western Sector so as to restore peace and tranquillity in the border areas, which will enable progress in bilateral relations. In line with the guidance provided by the State leaders and further to the meeting between the two Foreign Ministers in March 2023, they had an exchange of views in an open and candid manner,” said a statement on Monday evening issued in New Delhi.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in Beijing that “according to the important common understanding of the leaders of both countries, the two sides held in-depth exchange of views on expediting the resolution of relevant issues.”
No breakthrough yet
The statements suggested no breakthrough as yet on the two remaining friction points in Demchok and Depsang. Both sides have disengaged in four other areas along the LAC, setting up buffer zones in some of them.
The 18th round of talks followed the first in-person meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) since July 2019, which was held in Beijing in February.
At the WMCC, both sides “reviewed the situation along the LAC” and said they “discussed proposals for disengagement in the remaining areas in an open and constructive manner, which would help in restoration of peace and tranquillity along the LAC in Western Sector and create conditions for restoration of normalcy in bilateral relations”.
India has maintained that disengagement, and subsequently de-escalation along the LAC which has seen tens of thousands of troops deployed in forward areas, are both critical to restoring ties.
Relations have since 2020 been in a state of freeze, barring the record bilateral trade figures reported in 2021 and 2022 with India’s imports of Chinese goods reaching record highs, as well as the resumption of high-level visits on account of India’s hosting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and G-20 summits this year.
China’s new Defence Minister, General Li Shangfu, will this week make his first visit to India, which is also the first high-level military visit since the LAC crisis began, for the SCO defence ministers’ meet.
While trade has boomed, New Delhi has, as the same time, all but curtailed the inflow of once surging Chinese investment. India hasn’t yet given the green light for resuming direct flights between the two countries, first suspended because of the pandemic, and yet to restart after close to three years, while cross-border movement of business people and tourists has reduced to a trickle.
Chinese officials in statements have recently claimed border management has already moved towards “normalised” control, although that is not the view in New Delhi given the continued deployment of troops close to the LAC. India has seen China’s mass deployments as leaving in tatters past understandings that helped maintain peace, since the first agreement on peace and tranquillity signed in 1993.
The claim of “normalised” management was repeated again on Monday by the Communist Party-run Global Times, which said “the border issue is shifting from a standoff to normalised management.”
“The China-India border issue is now gradually shifting from a conflict and a stand-off to a normalised management phase, and the situation on the border is expected to become steadier and calmer in the future,” Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, told the newspaper. “But the border issue remains complex, so it still requires both sides to further implement mechanisms at all levels and through different channels to meet each other halfway as much as possible, so as to find a fair and reasonable solution.”
Chinese experts are yet to offer any explanation of why the PLA mobilised in unprecedented numbers in April 2020, and contravening past agreements, pushed up towards China’s LAC claim lines in several areas, denying India access to the overlapping “grey zones” patrolled previously by both sides.