“Sideline Diplomacy”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg on August 23. Nobody knows whether they discussed something serious or sweet nothings. Generally this sideline business in diplomacy has very little significance in the real world of hard bargaining. India and China have varying versions of the conversation between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. The meeting was reportedly arranged at the request of India. And the Indian side didn’t dispute the Chinese claim. In other words China didn’t attach much importance to such informal parley though ‘there was a pending request from the Chinese side for a bilateral meeting’. As per the Chinese foreign ministry press release “two leaders had a candid exchange of views on current India-China relations and other questions of shared interest. President Xi stressed that improving India-China relations serves the common interests of the two countries and peoples, and is also conducive to peace and development of the world and the region”. But the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin remained non-committal about whether the two leaders agreed to intensify efforts to deescalate tensions at the disputed border. It was not clear whether they agreed on maintaining tranquillity along the LAC. Nor did they specify whether both Modi and Xi directed their relevant officials to expedite de-escalation and disengagement.

Several rounds of military commander level talks have failed to produce any atmosphere of non-engagement. LAC is a peculiar phenomenon. Nobody likes it and yet there is no option for India and China to discard it. In case of Pakistan it is LC—line of control. LAC means shifting control of boundary and all sides try to interpret LAC according to their own perception. The Chinese are in a better position all along the LAC while India’s attempt to realign their stand in some areas frequently creates friction leading to violence.

Nowhere in the world border disputes are amicably settled without adjustment and give-and take formula. As both India and China are not interested in ceding an inch of land they presently administer, no permanent boundary in the Himalayas will emerge in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi, Congress Party’s prime ministerial face in 2024 general elections has been consistently accusing Narendra Modi of selling out India to China. He has been repeatedly highlighting in the media how the Modi dispensation has allowed China to occupy Indian Territory in Ladakh. Very recently he reiterated the same allegation in Ladakh while interacting with local people as a part of his much publicised ‘India March’ campaign.

Strangely enough, Mr Gandhi had support from an unexpected quarter–Asaduddin Owaisi of AIMM. Only the other day Mr Owaisi said on ’X’: “Our PM@PMO India is going around asking for meetings with Chinese President while keeping his own country in the dark about the real situation on the Ladakh border. What is Modi is trying to hide? Our brave soldiers have stayed on the border for 40 months and are not cowed down by the Chinese. Why can’t Modi stand up to Xi, and trust our soldiers? Is this loss of territory acceptable to Modi?” India’s China policy has been diabolical right from the beginning and Modi continues the tradition of his predecessors.

India cannot get back pre-liberation China days when Tibet used to enjoy a kind of semi-independent existence. And there was no border skirmishes as they occur these days frequently. There was no passport--no visa. People on both sides of the ‘unmarked fence’ used to travel freely to attend festivals, religious or otherwise, and market places. That atmosphere has gone forever. Independent Tibet is also now a closed chapter as the Dalai Lama himself has dropped the idea in lieu of greater autonomy. China is all set to erect an iron curtain, not a bamboo curtain along the boundary to be demarcated according to their terms.  

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Vol 56, No. 11, Sep 10 - 16, 2023