Can China, India rebuild trust as border tensions linger?

Foreign Minister Wang Yi travels to India for first visit by a senior Chinese official since military stand-off on disputed border

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 3:15pm

China and India agreed on Monday to work together to build trust as tensions between the two Asian giants continued to simmer along their shared border.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi held bilateral talks with India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj after travelling to New Delhi to attend the 15th Russia-India-China trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting.

His was the first visit to India by a senior Chinese official since the two countries became embroiled in a military stand-off on the Doklam plateau at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction in the Himalayas that ran for more than 10 weeks in the summer.

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“Foreign Minister Wang Yi and I agreed that we should further strengthen our mutual trust to develop a better understanding between the two parties,” Swaraj said after the meeting. “And it will be better to meet again and without an agenda, which will help us to expand our mutual understanding.”

Wang told a press conference that the two ministers had agreed on the need to find political solutions to international disputes.

“We respect dialogue and consultations between relevant parties … and oppose any indiscreet use of force,” he said.

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The meeting came after China confirmed at the end of last month – and for the first time since the stand-off – that it had not withdrawn its troops from Doklam, known as Donglang in Chinese, after the two armies agreed to disengage in August.

China has between 1,600 and 1,800 troops stationed in the area, as well as assorted buildings and two helipads. Indian media have stirred the tension with reports suggesting China was planning to build a permanent military base in the disputed region.

Meanwhile, China last week accused India of invading its airspace and demanded an apology after an Indian drone crashed in a Chinese-controlled area in the region.

While Wang and Swaraj were unlikely to make any breakthroughs on their long list of thorny bilateral issues, Monday’s meeting did have a symbolic importance, observers said.

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Wang Dehua, director of the Institute for Southern and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies, said the visit showed that the two Asian powers were at least trying to set aside their border issues and reset their relationship.

“It’s a highly symbolic move and it remains to be seen if the two neighbours can leave behind the bitter border stand-off, which looks set to cast a long shadow in India-China relations, and reduce the deep-rooted mistrust and hostility.” he said. “At least I think the bilateral ties are moving in the right direction.”

However, Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives Society, an Indian think tank, said he did not hold out much hope for an early resolution of the border dispute as mutual suspicion and public opinion suggested both sides were still averse to it.

“India and China will always be rivals. But rivalry does not mean enmity. Friends can also be rivals,” he said.

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“The important thing is to keep making efforts to do better. Fighting over sheep and yaks, and little pieces of desolate land is quite stupid,” he said.

Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, said it was unrealistic to expect the meetings to result in a patching up of differences.

“But both sides are demonstrating some desire to overcome the recent troubles and stabilise the relationship,” she said.

Wang and Swaraj also discussed other bones of contention between China and India, including Delhi’s call for Pakistan-based militant leader Masood Azhar to be added to the United Nations’ terrorist list, a move that has been repeatedly blocked by China.

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At the RIC meeting, the three foreign ministers discussed various issues of mutual concern, including the North Korea nuclear crisis.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the situation on the Korean peninsula risked moving into a “hot phase”.