India and China agree on de-escalation plan, say border standoff ‘not in the interest of either side’

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) meets with Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on the sidelines of a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow, Russia, on September 10, 2020.

India and China have agreed to ratchet down tensions that have been building along the disputed Chinese-Indian border, leading to skirmishes, as they announced a five-point de-escalation plan at a meeting in Moscow.

Tensions have been flying high along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh at the Chinese-Indian Himalayan border since May, and have repeatedly led to clashes between Indian and Chinese troops stationed in the sparsely populated mountainous area.

The plan – agreed by India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Moscow on Thursday – envisages that troops on both sides of the border will “quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tension.”

Announced in a joint statement, the agreement also states that both New Delhi and Beijing pledged to abide by “all the existing agreements … maintain peace and tranquility,” as well as not allowing “any action that could escalate matters” in the area.

The joint statement and five-point consensus reached by the Chinese and Indian foreign ministers on Thursday evening marked a substantial step in cooling down the current border situation, exceeding the expectations of most international observers and creating favorable conditions for a possible future meeting between the leaders of the two countries, Chinese experts told on Friday.

The successful implementation of the joint statement depends on whether the Indian side can truly keep its word. Given the country’s history, it is possible that the joint statement will end up as merely “paper talk,” they warned.

The China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s meeting lasted nearly three hours.

The highly anticipated meeting was viewed by experts from both sides as a last resort to peacefully resolve the recent border clashes, after previous meetings at the commander levels and last week’s defense ministers’ meeting in Moscow failed to garner true results.

In the five-point consensus, Wang and Jaishankar agreed that China and India should follow the guidance of the consensus reached between leaders of the two countries, including that divergence should not be escalated into conflicts. The current conflicts in border areas do not serve the interests of either side. The border troops of the two countries should continue their current dialogue, disengage as soon as possible, maintain necessary distances and ease the current tensions.

The consensus involves maintaining communication through meetings by the Special Representatives of India and China and expediting the completion of new measures to build mutual trust, marking an important step since the conflicts first took place, he added.

The reduction in hostilities between the two countries – which have sparked fears of a full-fledged armed conflict, with frequent and sometimes deadly border showdowns – will be based on “the series of consensus” between Indian PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, “including not allowing differences to become disputes,” the statement said.

In a bid to avert border face-offs in the future, the officials agreed to keep in touch through specially designed communication mechanisms, as well as speed up work on new “confidence building measures” to ensure the long-standing border row won’t spiral into a shooting war.

The apparent thaw in Sino-Indian relations comes after the worst flare-up between the neighbors in four decades. In mid-June, a serious brawl between rival troops in the Galwan Valley left 20 Indian soldiers dead. Since then, several minor alterсations have taken place, deepening the rift between the world’s two most populous nations. The latest such incident came on Monday south of the glacial Pangong Tso Lake, with both countries pointing fingers at each other as the instigator behind the confrontation.

However, given India’s past history of breaking consensuses reached at such meetings, some Chinese experts stressed that it’s still too early to pin high hopes on its implementation.

While the joint press release looks fine on paper, the actual addressing of future border tensions remains unclear as India has a long history of breaking its promises, Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told on Friday.

“We should not only observe what India says, but also what it does. For a country like India, the most important thing is how it acts,” Hu said.

In 2005, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao held important talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before signing a joint statement by the two governments, in which both sides declared the establishment of a strategic partnership to promote peace and prosperity. The two governments also signed the Agreement on the Political Guiding Principles for Resolving the Boundary Issue between China and India, in which they pledged to reduce armed forces and maintain peace.

“However, since Modi assumed power, the Indian government has totally neglected this joint statement. China has kept its word, but the Indian side has provoked the recent border clashes,” Hu told, stressing that this time China remains on high alert.

Given the country’s sluggish economy and poor epidemic control, the Modi government will continue to try and stir up border tensions in an attempt to deflect the public’s attention. Sadly, these border tensions are used as chips to fool the public, he noted.

Analysts said that the agreement reached this time is also largely due to strong support from the Chinese military.
In a video recently released by China Central Television, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army logistics soldiers were seen transporting hot food with ground vehicles, but also using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) packed with food, water and medicine in areas where the roads were blocked, automatically delivering the “care packages” to frontline soldiers.

The logistics support could guarantee PLA soldiers an advantage in potential military conflicts when the winter comes, and analysts said that the advanced equipment shown by the Chinese military overshadows that held by its Indian counterparts.

“Only a strong military can wake up a sleepy India, words are not enough,” Hu said.

Qian said that peacefully resolving the border conflicts is important for India, as it would mean the government can then focus on addressing the country’s other problems, which would bring real benefits for the people.

He noted that as nationalism prevails in India, it becomes a true test of Indian top politicians’ wisdom to not be misdirected. The Indian government should have the ability to restrain and prevent radical military action.

The discussions between Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Wang Yi were “frank” and “constructive” according to the Indian external affairs ministry.

“The two Foreign Ministers agreed that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side. They agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions,” the statement said.

It added that the countries agreed to abide by existing agreements and protocols on China-India boundary affairs and avoid actions that could escalate tensions.

“The two sides also agreed to continue to have dialogue and communication through the Special Representative mechanism on the India-China boundary question,” the statement said.

Neither side willing to back down

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group predicts a 60% probability of a scenario where the standoff continues with periodic flare-ups and skirmishes, causing limited casualties.

“So far, there have been multiple rounds of talks, meetings between the Special Representatives for the Boundary Question, a meeting of the defense ministers, and a meeting of the foreign ministers, and none of these negotiations have been successful in stemming new skirmishes,” Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst, and Kelsey Broderick, Asia analyst, at Eurasia Group, said in a Thursday note.

They explained that neither side is likely to give an inch of perceived territory given the current state of bilateral ties.

Politically, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot retreat as he had been under criticism for failing to acknowledge Chinese incursions into Indian territory, according to the analysts.

They added that any further loss of territory for India would hurt Modi’s “image as a strongman who will protect India.”

China’s President Xi Jinping will not back down either and “the signs are pointing towards this border remaining hot and standoffs continuing as both sides are preparing for a long, entrenched conflict.”

“This is not to say diplomacy will not continue. Commander-level talks are likely to continue, as will diplomatic meetings,” they added.

Eurasia Group also predicts a 25% chance of successful diplomatic negotiations leading to a de-escalation and a 15% probability for a deeper military conflict at the border.

Top of Form

Joint Press Statement – Meeting of External Affairs Minister and the Foreign Minister of China (September 10, 2020)

H.E. Dr. S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister of India met H.E. Wang Yi, State Councillor and Foreign Minister of China on 10th September in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting. Both Ministers had a frank and constructive discussion on the developments in the India-China border areas as well as on India-China relations and agreed as follows:The two Ministers agreed that both sides should take guidance from the series of consensus of the leaders on developing India-China relations, including not allowing differences to become disputes. The two Foreign Ministers agreed that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side. They agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.
The two Ministers agreed that both sides shall abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs, maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters.

The two sides also agreed to continue to have dialogue and communication through the Special Representative mechanism on the India-China boundary question. They also agreed in this context that the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs (WMCC), should also continue its meetings.

The Ministers agreed that as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas.