Twenty Indian soldiers besides an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed in June in a major confrontation in the strategic Galwan Valley, in the biggest face-off between the two militaries in over five decades since 1967.
Ironically, 2020 was promised to be a year of festivities as the two countries unveiled 70 events to jointly celebrate 70 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties.
A series of activities were announced, following the progress made at the informal summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018 in Wuhan and 2019 in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu.
The 70 commemorative events, aimed at improving all aspects of the bilateral ties including trade, culture and military exchanges remained a non-starter as China went into a lockdown mode to arrest the spread of the disease which first emerged in Wuhan.
India was one of the first non-socialist countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China, India’s envoy to Beijing Vikram Misri said at the Republic Day reception held here on January 23.
“This is an important opportunity to review our journey and set new goals together,” Misri said at the event attended by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister and former Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui as the Chief Guest.
The reception was the last public function permitted by China amidst growing coronavirus infections in the country early this year.
The Indian embassy subsequently cancelled the flag hoisting ceremony to celebrate the Republic Day on January 26 as China began announcing lockdowns following the coronavirus outbreak.
While India and the world reeled under the massive spread of COVID-19, Beijing which effectively contained the virus by April with strict control measures, dispatched thousands of troops which were mobilised for military exercises to eastern Ladakh in May, sparking a new round of tensions with India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that is yet to ease despite multiple rounds of diplomatic and military-level negotiations.
On the current state of relations between India and China after the escalation of border tensions, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said, “we are today probably at the most difficult phase of our relationship with China, certainly in the last 30 to 40 years or you could argue even more.”
“Naturally, the relationship would be profoundly disturbed by this,” he said, referring to the massing of Chinese soldiers along the LAC, during an online interactive session organised by an Australian think tank in December.
At another meeting this month, Jaishankar said that what has happened is not actually in the interest of China, because what it has done, has significantly impacted the public sentiment.
He also said that a lot of work had gone into the relationship on both sides and the real danger is that the goodwill which was carefully developed will dissipate as a result of the events of this year.
For its part, China continues to put the blame on India for the Ladakh standoff without assigning any reason for its move to deploy such a large number of troops at the borders.
“The rights and wrongs of what has happened in the China-India border area are very clear and the responsibility lies squarely with the Indian side,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had said while reacting to questions on Jaishankar’s recent remarks.
At present, China-India relations “do face difficulties and challenges, but China’s policy towards India has not changed,” she said, adding that joint efforts were needed to meet each other halfway.
Military standoffs are not new along the 3,488 km-long India-China border. The previous incident happened in Doklam in 2017. The 73-day standoff ended after the Chinese agreed not to press ahead with their road construction in an area claimed by Bhutan and strategically crucial to India.
The easing of tensions opened up new possibilities, including the two unprecedented informal summits between Modi and Xi.
But the latest standoff and the brutal killing of Indian soldiers have eroded the trust in the host of bilateral dialogue mechanisms and China’s willingness to honour previous agreements.
At the latest round of foreign ministry-level talks on December 18 to ease border tensions, the two sides said they have agreed to continue work towards ensuring complete disengagement of troops in all friction points along the LAC. The meeting also decided to hold the next round of military dialogue at an early date.
Observers here say that China is weighing its strategic options as it awaits US President-elect Joe Biden to take charge in January. Beijing is hoping that Biden, a Democrat, will not pursue the very tough policies of outgoing Republican President Donald Trump, especially targeting the ruling Communist Party of China, besides ramping up pressure on issues like trade and human rights.
Biden’s victory has brought about a sense of relief for Xi-led CPC as unlike Trump, Biden has identified Russia as a main threat for the US, pursuing an Obama era foreign policy which allowed Beijing to bolster its position politically, economically and militarily around the world by launching its most ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.