Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s message to his visiting Chinese counterpart General Li Shangfu, that Beijing’s violation of border agreements had “eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations”, has once again served as a reminder of how the two neighbours remain far apart in their assessments of what ails their relationship, and how to fix it. Thursday’s talks, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Defence Ministers Meeting in New Delhi, saw both sides reiterate their respective stands on the border issue but no meeting of minds. The Defence Minister underlined India’s position that the development of ties is premised on peace on the borders. While India has continued to convey a sense of urgency to resolve the Line of Actual Control (LAC) crisis, the Chinese Defence Minister, on the other hand, called on India to “take a long-term view” and “place the border issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations”, a divergence from India’s stand that the rest of relations is predicated on peace along the LAC. Rajnath Singh conveyed to Beijing that if normalcy is to be restored in ties, disengagement in the two remaining friction points will need to be followed by de-escalation. This includes the eventual de-induction of the estimated one lakh troops from both sides that have remained deployed in forward areas for close to three years — a situation not seen along the India-China border in more than three decades.
The disengagement process has itself been long and tortuous. Over the past three years, buffer zones have been established in some of the five friction areas where the two sides disengaged. In two other areas, Demchok and Depsang, Beijing has dragged its feet, slowing down the initial momentum of the Corps Commander meetings. The 18th round, held days before the Chinese Defence Minister’s arrival and after an unexplained four month-delay following the previous round, did not yield a joint statement, suggesting stark divergences remain on how to move forward. De-escalation, meanwhile, remains a far-off prospect. This new normal along the LAC, with large deployments in close proximity as well as an on-going race to build more forward infrastructure, appears here to stay, leaving the borders in what the Indian Army Chief has described as a “stable but unpredictable” state. Regardless of Beijing’s wishes to downplay the seriousness of the border situation and relegate it to an “appropriate” position, managing the LAC should certainly remain the priority for both sides to prevent the recurrence of the clashes of 2020. India and China cannot restore normalcy in relations under the shadow of lingering unpredictability on the borders.