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Chinese foreign minister expected to visit New Delhi, a first since deadly clash in 2020

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An expected – but unconfirmed – visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to India would be the first by a senior Chinese government official since a border skirmish between troops in June 2020. Photo: Bloomberg

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to visit India this week, the highest-level visit by Beijing since a deadly clash along their disputed Himalayan border almost two years ago.

Observers said in addition to the border dispute, the ongoing Ukraine crisis – which has seen the two nations taking a similar position on Russia – would be on the agenda.

Sources in India said Wang’s visit would come over the next two days. Bloomberg, citing a person familiar with the matter, said Wang was expected to meet national security adviser Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Neither India’s Ministry of External Affairs nor China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially confirmed the trip.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Wednesday he had “no information to offer at the moment” on a possible visit.

Wang’s trip would be the first by a senior Chinese government official since May 2020, and since soldiers from both sides clashed at their disputed border.

During 15 meetings over the past two years, military commanders from the two nations have made only incremental progress, agreeing to pull back troops from three friction points along the disputed Himalayan border, with stand-offs still occurring from time to time.

Read Also: India, US have different priorities

Still, observers said the diplomatic engagement was important for both nations against the backdrop of the Ukraine war and the upcoming summit of BRICS emerging market economies to be hosted by China this year.

“India’s stance on the Ukraine crisis, which is ambivalent and similar to China’s approach, also represents an opportunity [for both countries to mend ties],” said Wang Dehua, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies.

Zhao Gancheng, a researcher with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said Wang was almost certain to visit India soon.

“The world is standing at a critical juncture. South Asian countries, including India, have largely been reticent over the Ukraine crisis. China needs their support on the issue. China needs to find out where India stands on Ukraine if Wang goes ahead with his India trip,” he said.

Both India and China abstained from United Nations voting on a draft resolution calling on Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine. Wang had earlier said abstention was a responsible attitude that would allow peace a chance.

India’s reluctance to criticise Russia, its main supplier of weapons, has put it at odds with major democracies and fellow members of the Quad, which includes the United States, Australia and Japan.

Over the past few days, US President Joe Biden has said India’s position on Russia’s war on Ukraine has been “somewhat shaky” compared with other Quad nations. Prime ministers Scott Morrison of Australia and Fumio Kishida from Japan have pressed Indian leader Narendra Modi on the issue in recent meetings.

A senior retired general in the Indian Army, who did not wish to be named since he holds a post-retirement post in the government, said the ongoing war in Ukraine was forcing both Beijing and New Delhi to recalibrate their approach towards each other.

“New Delhi is watching closely the US’ overtures to China and increased conversation between them, and realises that the war might have tilted the US’ focus from the Indo-Pacific to Europe,” the source in India said.

“This might remain the case for the short term at least,” the official added. “And these conversations with China are India’s way of bracing for that changed reality.”

Sameer Patil, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, said the Ukraine war might also have forced New Delhi to think hard about its reliance on Russian defence equipment, critical in its resistance against Chinese assertiveness.

“If the Russian economy is crippled by sanctions imposed by the West, Moscow might find it difficult to stick to the delivery schedules of the equipment it has promised New Delhi,” Patil added.

Wang’s visit could also signal a resumption of normal diplomatic ties between the two countries – from a phone call between both leaders to the resumption of annual China-India summits which were discontinued in 2020, he said.

India’s retired lieutenant general Deependra Singh Hooda, who commanded India’s northern army, said the two countries might break the deadlock over the military stand-off if the talks are successful.

“So, if there is a flurry of diplomatic moves and if the Chinese want Prime Minister Modi to attend the BRICS summit, then we might see some disengagement of troops by both sides along the border,” he said.

But he pointed to the tens of thousands of soldiers posted by both sides along the border, along with the deployment of heavy machinery and equipment and infrastructure upgrades by China and India on their sides of the Line of Actual Control.

Hooda said even an agreement for disengaging troops might not be able to reverse some of this “in a hurry”.

“I don’t see the two countries going back to a complete status quo,” Hooda said.