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Coronavirus, not border clash, to top agenda at China-India-Russia talks, observers say


China and India may use next week’s three-way foreign ministers’ meeting-Russia is also included-to help ease tensions in the wake of their border clash in the Himalayas, although Covid-19 is more likely to top the agenda for the talks, experts said.

Moscow, meanwhile, may see the meeting as an opportunity to assume the role of regional peacekeeper, other said.

China’s Wang Yi, India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov are set to hold a videoconference on Tuesday. There had been some concern that New Delhi would withdraw from the meeting because of the bloody confrontation, but it confirmed its attendance on Thursday.

Thazha Varkey Paul, an international relations professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, said China and India could use the event to address their border concerns and ease tensions.

“My hunch is that the coronavirus will be the key topic, but the Sino-Indian conflict could be discussed in the background,” he said, adding that the meeting would give the two sides an opportunity to “begin the process” of resolving their differences.

The confrontation came at a bad time, and the soldiers’ deaths had fuelled nationalistic sentiment, which meant it would be harder to conduct “open diplomacy”, Paul said.

 “Both Xi and Modi have to act tough to assuage their domestic critics and the border problems might not end until a better way is found to demarcate the Line of Actual Control,” he said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“There is an urgent need for more effective confidence-building measures to be created,” he said.

The Indian Army said on Tuesday that 20 of its soldiers were killed in the fighting in the Galwan River valley. Beijing said it too suffered casualties but did not provide details.

In a telephone conversation on Wednesday, Wang and Jaishankar blamed each other’s troops for inciting the incident though agreed not to take any action that might inflame the situation.

Some observers said Russia might seek to mediate, but both Beijing and Delhi earlier rejected US President Donald Trump’s offer to act as peacekeeper.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary described the border clashes as “very alarming”, while Russia’s deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov discussed regional security issues with India’s ambassador to Russia, according to a press release from Moscow.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank, said Russia would have to work behind the scenes if it wanted to get Beijing and Delhi talking about the border issue.

“Mediation is not something that either India or China would readily accept from a third party,” he said.

“But Russia cannot and should not remain passive while its two main partners clash.”

Moscow said on Thursday that the three foreign ministers would exchange views on global political, economic and financial trends following the Covid-19 pandemic, and opportunities for cooperation to help them weather the crisis, according to local news reports.

Paul said that the rescheduled BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings might also provide a forum for discussing the border issue, as Russia, which will host both events, “has an incentive to diffuse tensions”.

Moscow postponed the leaders’ summits for both the SCO and BRICS – a grouping of emerging nations Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – which had been set to take place in July, until later in the year because of the global health crisis.

Cheng Yijun, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that even though Beijing valued the SCO as a forum for managing relations with neighbouring countries, it would never use a multilateral forum to discuss its border dispute with India.

The SCO was created in 2001 by China, Russia and the four Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan, which began as observers to the group, became full members in 2017.

“It is the first multilateral institution named after a Chinese city, and still matters to Beijing,” Cheng said.

“But the China-India conflict will not hamper its agenda.”