While their armies face off in the frigid Himalayan heights, there are sudden and furtive signs of a possible thaw in relations between India and China, the two giant Asian neighbors armed with nuclear weapons.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in New Delhi on an unannounced visit for a round of talks on Friday with his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
This marks the first high-level visit between the two sides since bloody clashes on their contested border led to the deaths of 20 Indian and at least 4 Chinese soldiers in June 2020. If they make headway, the talks could begin to ease their strained relationship at a time when both China and India face increasing international scrutiny for their refusal to condemn Russia for the month-old war in Ukraine.
On Thursday, EU leaders told China to use its leverage over Russia to bring the war to an end. The West has been more understanding of the position taken by New Delhi which is dependent on Russia for its arms supplies.
Both governments have remained mum on the agenda and expectations from the visit. Neither government made any formal announcements ahead of time and Wang landed quietly in New Delhi’s commercial airport on a flight from Afghanistan on Thursday night. The news of his arrival came from the Indian and Chinese media. China, which declared a “no-limits” partnership with Russia just before the start of the war in Ukraine, appears to be keen to find common ground with India, which has also abstained from UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.
As the host of the annual BRICS summit later this year, China is also believed to be seeking India’s presence at the forum which would put India, China and Russia at the same table.
Former Indian foreign secretary Shashank Singh attributed the secrecy to Wang’s difficulty in securing meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top Indian officials before the visit.
“India was perhaps not willing to offer a meeting with the prime minister because it needs a strong enough proposal to be offered for the meeting to be scheduled,” he told CNBC.
Chinese media linked the visit to the similarity in Indian and Chinese positions on the Ukraine war. “China and India share similar stances on the Ukraine crisis and an exchange of views between the two countries will serve as a stabilizer to the region despite some external country’s efforts to stir up trouble,” the Chinese newspaper Global Times quoted an expert as saying in an article reporting the visit.
“The US has been pressuring India to drop the latter’s defense and oil ties with Russia,” the paper said, adding that Wang’s visit was “shuttle diplomacy,” showing China’s “important role” in mediating between regional parties on issues of common interests.
Wang ruffled feathers in India when he supported a call for Kashmir’s “right to self determination” at a conference of the Organization of Islamic Countries in Pakistan on Tuesday. Both India and Pakistan govern parts of the disputed territory while claiming all of it. Wang’s comments were condemned by New Delhi and also contributed to the tentativeness surrounding the visit.
Still, Beijing has been signaling an outreach to New Delhi for the past few weeks. At a media briefing on the sidelines of the fifth session of the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing, Wang said worsening China-India ties did not serve the “fundamental interests” of the two countries. He also reiterated the traditional Chinese position that mutual differences on their contested border be delinked from other bilateral issues.
India and China last held a military dialogue on March 11, their 15th round, to further de-escalate tensions on the border.