China ministers' India trips show warming of relations
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China ministers' India trips show warming of relations

Diplomatic meetings set stage for possibility of President Xi Jinping to visit India for G20 Summit in September

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centre, and Chinese President Xi Jinping visit an exhibition at Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan in 2018. (Photo: AFP)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centre, and Chinese President Xi Jinping visit an exhibition at Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan in 2018. (Photo: AFP)

Relations between two neighbouring countries and the world's first and second-most populous countries, China and India, have witnessed a downward spiral in recent years after the bloody clash between the two countries' border troops in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the western section of the Sino-Indian border.

Since then, things have become more complicated and sensitive as both sides have militarised the LAC while casting blame on each other for trespassing into the poorly demarcated border. As a result, trade, economic partnership and people-to-people relations have suffered to a large degree due to the 35-month-long border row that does not serve the common interests of two important neighbours in Asia.

Against the backdrop of the dwindling Sino-Indian relationship, the visits and meetings of Chinese defence and foreign ministers with their Indian counterparts on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting on April 27-28 in the Indian capital New Delhi and on May 4-5 in Goa respectively were of profound significance to bridge the deep, sharp gap in Sino-Indian ties.

Welcoming China's foreign and defence ministers strongly signalled that India's officers at the highest level are willing to restart an amicable Indian-Chinese relationship, leaving aside the fatal Galwan Valley episode of 2020. India is also hosting the 23rd Annual SCO Leaders' Summit on July 3-4 and the 18th G20 Summit on Sept 9-10 in New Delhi. India sincerely expects President Xi Jinping's attendance at the two key summits under its presidency. Therefore, the visits of China's two ministers can be seen as a prelude to the SCO and G20 Leaders' Summit.

China's new Defence Minister Li Shangfu participated in the SCO Defence Ministers' Meeting on April 27-28 in New Delhi. His visit took place on the heels of China's new Foreign Minister Qin Gang's participation in the G20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting on March 2 in New Delhi. Within a short span of one month, China's two key ministers' visit to India demonstrated China's willingness to improve the perilous state of Sino-India relations in a turbulent world.

More importantly, the participation of Qin Gang and Li Shangfu in three important meetings under India's chairmanship strongly indicated that a highest-level political meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the coming days is only a matter of time now.

However, even before the two Chinese diplomats' visit, both sides have displayed their eagerness to iron out their differences. Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanged greetings and sweets to ring in the New Year. The 26th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) was held in Beijing on Feb 22 -- which marked the first such talks held in person since July 2019. The China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting entered the 18th round held at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Chinese side of the LAC on April 23.

During their first in-person meeting on April 27, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh underlined the centrality of the resolution of the border row for the improvement in India-China ties by saying "violation of existing agreements has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations".

His Chinese counterpart Shangfu warmly responded by saying, "Common interest between China and India prevails over discrepancies, thus both sides should view bilateral ties and their development in a comprehensive, long-term and strategic way", and "border issue should be properly managed within bilateral ties", rather than hinting at the prospect of a complete disengagement or de-escalation.

On the other hand, during the sidelines of the two-day SCO Foreign Ministers meeting on May 4, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Qin Gang held their second bilateral meeting focusing on the turbulent state of the LAC to ensure peace in the border areas. It should be recalled here that during their first meeting in March, Mr Jaishankar conveyed India's position on the border tension with China by stating that India's ties with China are "abnormal" due to violation of border management agreements by China.

On his part, Mr Qin described the China-India border situation as "generally stable" and reiterated that "both the neighbouring countries should explore a road to peaceful and friendly coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation". Mr Jaishankar assured his Chinese counterpart that India hopes to continue to work with China to maintain peace and stability in the border areas through consultation.

There is little doubt that all these meetings have been important steps in normalising relations between the two Himalayan neighbours. Expecting an immediate solution to the decades-old boundary question is not realistic, but continual bilateral meetings without preconditions through military and diplomatic channels can accelerate the process.

Sino-Indian cooperation is of vital importance for regional stability amid this unstable international atmosphere. Considering the strength and development of India-China ties, it is hoped that a one-to-one Xi-Modi meeting like the previous two informal summits, the first in Wuhan, China in April 2018 and the second in Chennai in October 2019, can solve the problems of geographical competition and help push Sino-India bilateral ties to blossom, something needed right now.

Rabi Sankar Bosu, founder of New Horizon Radio Listeners' Club, an independent think-tank on global affairs based in West Bengal, India, is an Indian political analyst and commentator on global affairs.

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