Top India Diplomat Urges Defusing Border Tensions With China

  • Ties go beyond issues of tension, S. Jaishankar says in speech
  • Two powers have been in standoff for weeks in Himalayas

S. Jaishankar.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

India’s top diplomat called for a de-escalation of tensions with China, saying ties between the countries were too intertwined to let a renewed border spat cause lasting damage.

"India and China must not allow differences to become disputes,” Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, who served as India’s Ambassador to China from 2009 to 2013, said in a speech on Tuesday in Singapore.

The countries have points of difference, Jaishankar said, citing India’s trade deficit with China. Still, “the India-China relationship by now has acquired so many dimensions and so much substance that reducing it to black and white argumentation cannot be a serious proposition.”

The Asian powers have been engaged in a weeks-long standoff over territory in a remote area of the Himalayas, one of the most serious flareups since a border war in 1962. Those tensions come against the backdrop of a tussle for influence in the region.

Even with a fast-growing economy, India has been cautious about China’s inroads into South Asia, objecting to President Xi Jinping’s signature "Belt and Road" trade and infrastructure initiative. Belt and Road projects cross through the Pakistan-administered part of the disputed region of Kashmir, which India claims.

‘Back Channel Diplomacy’

Jaishankar’s comments could provide an opening to deescalate the conflict through back channel diplomacy, according to Harsh Pant, an international relations professor at King’s College London.

"It’s a signal that at the diplomatic level India’s willing to engage," Pant said. "But they also want to send a message that it’s not going to be on China’s terms, given what’s happening operationally on the ground." 

Pant added that "the best option is to do some back channel diplomacy, because publicly, it’s very difficult to back down."

Stand-offs between India and China have occurred in the past, including when Xi visited New Delhi in 2014. In recent years, both sides have sought to build roads and other infrastructure leading up to their shared border.

Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met briefly at a gathering of BRICS nations on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last week, but did not hold a formal bilateral discussion.

India began annual "Malabar" naval exercises with Japan and the U.S. on Monday that showed efforts to address shared threats, the Times of India reported, citing a senior Indian naval officer. The drills will involve the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and include anti-submarine warfare practice, according to the U.S. Embassy in India. India has expressed concern previously about Chinese submarines operating in the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile the navies of China and Russia are scheduled to conduct drills in late July in the Baltic Sea. The two countries have stepped up their strategic alignment, with Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin issuing a joint declaration last week on a range of issues including North Korea, Afghanistan and Syria.

The current dispute is at a three-way junction between Bhutan, China’s Tibet and India’s Sikkim.

Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry said a Chinese road-building party crossed into its territory on June 16. India later said Bhutanese troops attempted to dissuade the People’s Liberation Army-escorted construction team. After that failed, Indian personnel in the region approached and "urged them to desist from changing the status quo."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has said Indian troops crossed into China, "breaching" historical conventions and violating international law.

Du Youkang, director of the Center for South Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, and a former Chinese diplomat based in Islamabad and New Delhi, said the tensions reflect a sense of insecurity in New Delhi about the Belt and Road initiative.

"India is no match for China in terms of its regional and global geopolitical clout, and Modi is aware of this,” Du said. “This dispute will eventually be settled by diplomatic means with India finding some ladder to climb down."

— With assistance by Iain Marlow

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