Two face-to-face meetings between Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Chinese Defence Minister General Li Shangfu—a one-to-one on the sidelines of the SCO meet on Thursday—and then a joint defence ministers’ meeting on Friday—could not do much to lessen belligerence between India and China. Rather, it accentuated certain inherent pre-existing contradictions.
On Friday, an official release of defence minister Rajnath Singh’s speech began with the issue of terrorism.
The release quoted Rajnath as saying: “If a nation shelters terrorists, it not only poses a threat to others, but for itself too. Radicalisation of youth is a cause of concern not only from the point of view of security, but it is also a major obstacle in the path of socio-economic progress of society”.
While no names were taken, there was no doubt that the Indian defence minister’s reference was to Pakistan, China’s ‘iron brother’.
And then, Rajnath may have turned the searchlight on China when he added that “India envisions a robust framework of regional cooperation which mutually respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all member states by taking care of their legitimate interests.”
India looks at the recent border tensions as emanating from China’s lack of respect for India’s territorial integrity—in eastern Ladakh as well as in its clima Arunachal Pradesh.
As recently as April 2, China had renamed 11 places in ‘Zagnam’, China’s nomenclature for Arunachal Pradesh, thereby underlining its claim for the biggest state in India’s Northeast.
Since May 2020, the two giant Asian neighbours have engaged in a three-year-old standoff across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, that has seen more than 1,20,000 soldiers and advanced weaponry being deployed by both sides near the border against each other.
Already 18 rounds of talks at the senior military commander level, besides negotiations through other existing mechanisms, have already taken place to resolve the issue but in vain thus far.
At the end of Friday’s meeting between defence ministers, all the SCO member countries signed a ‘protocol’—which in diplomatic terms falls short of a ‘joint statement’ which was not issued.
On Thursday, after the bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Rajnath Singh had underlined the centrality of the resolution of the border row for the improvement in India-China ties.
Rajnath had “categorically” conveyed that development of relations between India and China is dependent on the prevalence of peace and tranquillity at the borders. That the “violation of existing agreements had eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations.” And therefore only “disengagement at the border” will lead to “de-escalation.”
On the other hand, according to a release by China’s Ministry of National Defence on Friday, the central focus was on the bilateral ties 'within which' the India-China border issue was to be maintained.
The repeated use of the operative word ‘bilateral’ would also immediately negate the role of any third-party intervention. The release quoted Gen Li as saying that both sides should view bilateral ties and their development in a comprehensive, long-term and strategic way which would prevail over discrepancies.
The Chinese defence minister was also quoted as saying that India and China “should bring the border situation under normalized management and to jointly enhance mutual trust between the two armies”.
India’s position underlining the centrality of the India-China border issue for bilateral ties lands it in a delicate diplomatic corner when it comes to ties with Pakistan.
While Pakistan is unwavering in its position that Kashmir is indeed the core issue when it comes to India-Pakistan bilateral ties, India insists it is not.
Pakistan was represented in the ‘online mode’ in the SCO defence ministers’ meeting by Malik Ahmed Khan, the special adviser to the Pakistani PM on defence.
The nations present in the meeting included Russia (General Sergei Shoigu), Iran (Brig Gen Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani), Belarus (Lt Gen Khrenin VG), Kazakhstan (Col Gen Ruslan Zhaxylykov), Uzbekistan (Lt Gen Bakhodir Kurbanov), Kyrgyzstan (Lt Gen Bekbolotov Baktybek Asankalievich) and Tajikistan (Col Gen Sherali Mirzo).