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Wang Yi’s India visit was China trying to return to diplomatic status quo, says MIT prof Fravel

M. Taylor Fravel, China expert at MIT, says Beijing is now trying to establish 'common ground' with India as New Delhi has not called out Moscow over its Ukraine invasion.

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New Delhi: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to India last month was an indication that Beijing wants to reset ties with New Delhi and return to a “diplomatic status quo” of sorts in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, Professor M. Taylor Fravel, China expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has said.

In an interview with ThePrint, Fravel, an Arthur and Ruth Sloan professor of political science and director of MIT’s ‘Security Studies Programme’, said India and China may be entering a “new normal” on the border dispute issue while existing border agreements will need to be reviewed.

“Wang Yi’s visit (to India) was notable for several reasons — it was a reminder that China would like to pursue a reset with India, put the genie back in the bottle and return to a diplomatic status quo ante over the way ties have developed before the events of 2020,” Fravel said.

He added that while India does not have the “same desire” for business as usual with China while the military stand-off continues, Wang Yi’s visit “nevertheless signifies China’s intent to bolster other important diplomatic relationships as ties with Europe and the US continue to deteriorate” due to the Russia-Ukraine war, in which Beijing has sided with Moscow.

“Wang Yi made it (the visit) look like the border issue can be treated as separately from the rest of the bilateral relationship (with India),” he said, adding that though economic ties between the two countries “have flourished in the last two years” and “both countries are now trading more than ever before”, “politically, in terms of public opinion, that’s not the case”.

According to Fravel, China is now attempting to strengthen ties with India and a number of other developing countries as they have also not condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

“China also wants to show that its unwillingness to condemn Russia for the invasion of Ukraine allows it to make common cause with other countries like India. Although India’s approach is different from China’s approach, there are at least some superficial similarities,” he said.

As a result, Fravel said, China had been diplomatically “very active” despite its ongoing internal struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Wang Yi is perhaps one of the busiest foreign ministers in the world. He is pretty active throughout the developing world,” he said, adding that this signifies the importance China places on bolstering ties with developing countries.

Also Read: China’s Wang Yi lands in India with diplomatic outreach, gets cold reception before talks

China, India need to ‘reimagine’ understanding on border issue

According to Fravel, who has authored a book titled Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, India and China need to “reimagine” their understanding of the border dispute issue.

“We may be entering a new normal on the China-India border,” the MIT professor said, irrespective of “whether there won’t be either a permanent disengagement and de-escalation or a return to the status quo ante as of April 2020, although exactly what the status quo was in 2020 is still a little bit unclear”.

He further said that China “has sought to de-escalate those areas that at the tactical level had the potential to escalate into a direct armed conflict, particularly in the northern and southern banks of Pangong Lake and also, like earlier, in the Galwan Valley, which led to the deadly clash in June 2020”.

Fravel also emphasised that disagreements still persist between New Delhi and Beijing over some of the friction points like the Gogra-Hot Springs area and Depsang Plains, where “China is blocking India from reaching its traditional patrolling points”.

“At the military level too, China has made substantial investments, not directly on the Line of Actual Control, but in areas not too far from the LAC — around 10-20 km — whereby they’ll have a permanent military presence and certainly permanent military infrastructure that is more forward deployed than it was in the past,” he said, adding: “So the status quo of April 2020 is that there were no forward-deployed Chinese troops in these areas. That to me is no longer a possibility.”

Hence, Fravel believes that border pacts signed between India and China in 1993 and 1996 will now have to be revisited by the two sides as the situation in the border areas has changed.

The agreements put in place primarily in 1993 and 1996 and subsequent amendments “may not just be robust enough to account for the new situation on the border”, the professor said.

“When those agreements were put in place, it was hard for both sides to access what they viewed to be the Line of Actual Control. To physically arrive at that location they would have often had to walk there, or ride on horseback, as the infrastructure was not what it is today,” he added.

India and China have had five comprehensive agreements since 1993 that are all aimed at maintaining “peace and tranquility” along the LAC.

The pacts are the 1993 Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas; the 1996 Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC; the 2005 Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of the Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC; the 2012 Agreement on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs; and the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement.

Fravel stressed that the border agreements need to be “updated and refreshed”, adding that both sides “need to reimagine what is possible on the border” and do so “with an eye towards preventing a much more rapid and intense escalation than what we saw in Galwan in June 2020”.

It has almost been two years since the Galwan Valley clash, which left 20 Indian soldiers dead.

Fravel said that with the modernisation of infrastructure on both sides of the LAC, it is now possible for troops of both countries to keep patrolling there “on a daily basis”.

“So this suggests that troop levels are going to be much higher than they were before, the potential for contact among forces is going to be much more frequent, which in some ways means there is higher potential for agreements or disagreements resulting from these increasing contacts,” he said.

Xi likely to see elevation

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be holding its 20th National Congress in the second half of this year.

Fravel believes that while 2022 has been tumultuous for Beijing, this might be the occasion where Chinese President Xi Jinping will lay down the roadmap for his succession while he is elevated to the position of chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, a post that has till date only been held by Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China.

“This is the most important National Party Congress since 1978 when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were endorsed,” he added.

“You have a major, pretty significant domestic political event which is challenging the zero-Covid policy which China and Xi had trumpeted…Most observers believe Xi will start a third term as general secretary and chairman of the military commission, and certainly as president of the National People’s Congress,” he said.

“At some point, Xi will either have to be elevated to a new position such as the party chairman, a post that has remained vacant since the 1970s. It was only Mao who had held this post,” Fravel stressed.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

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