The tension at the LAC is likely to prevail as talks between senior military officials failed to produce any results, and neither did the meeting between the two defence ministers

A disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops from eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) looks remote after a meeting on Thursday between Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu.

Singh candidly told Li that the entire basis of bilateral relations has eroded because of China’s violation of existing agreements.

The meeting of the two defence ministers took place in the background of a military stand-off between the two sides from May 2020, after Chinese soldiers unilaterally tried to violate the agreed status quo at the LAC, the informal border between the two sides.

At their first meeting on Thursday, Singh decided to give a frank assessment of the prevailing situation at the border and how it has impacted Sino-Indian relations.

Singh told Li that normal relations between the two countries cannot be expected unless the situation at the border also becomes normal.

Li responded by saying that as major neighbours and important developing countries, China and India far have more common interests than differences.

The Indian defence minister categorically conveyed to the visiting Chinese leader that “development of relations between India and China is premised on the prevalence of peace and tranquillity at the borders.”

Li said that currently the situation on the China-India border was generally stable and the two sides have maintained communication through military and diplomatic channels.

He added that the two sides should take a long-term view, place the border issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations, and promote the transition of the border situation to normalised management.

According to the readout from the Indian side, Singh pointed out that “disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation.”

The two ministers met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) defence ministers’ meeting in New Delhi on April 27.

This was Li’s maiden trip to India.

He was also the first Chinese defence minister to visit the country after the Galwan Valley clash at the border, between Indian and Chinese soldiers in May 2020, that left 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers dead (the Indians feel the number of Chinese casualties was much higher than officially disclosed).

India and China have both made a heavy deployment of troops along their border in eastern Ladakh since the military stand-off three years back.

Singh also refused to discuss a new proposal on border management that Li carried.

He said fresh proposals between the two sides were meaningless unless existing agreements were restored and honoured.

Despite four rounds of disengagement from Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, Gogra (PP-17A), and Hot Springs (PP-15), the Indian and Chinese armies each still have more than 50,000 troops and advanced weaponry deployed in the Ladakh theatre.

The Indian and Chinese armies have held several rounds of talks, but problems at Depsang in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector, and at Charding Nullah Junction in Demchok sector, are still unresolved.

Li felt the two sides should view bilateral relations and each other's development from a comprehensive, long-term, and strategic perspective, and jointly contribute wisdom and strength to world and regional peace and stability.

The Chinese Defence Minister expressed hope that the two sides will work together to enhance mutual trust between the two militaries and contribute to the development of bilateral relations.

A plain-speaking, tough line from Singh was expected after senior military officials of India and China failed to reach a breakthrough during their recent talks.

On Sunday, ahead of the defence ministers’ meeting, senior Indian and Chinese military officials held another round of talks to defuse the situation in eastern Ladakh.

There were reports that the Indian side pressed strongly for the disengagement of troops at Depsang and Charding Nullah Junction. Though the talks that began in the morning went on until late night, it failed to produce any positive outcome. This was certainly disappointing to the Indians on the eve of the meeting of the two defence ministers.

Before Li, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang had visited India earlier this year for the G-20 foreign ministers' meeting. But soon after his visit, China decided to rename multiple places in Arunachal Pradesh to assert its claims to the region, which it claims as part of ‘south Tibet.’ In December last year, troops from the two sides clashed in the Tawang region of Arunachal.

At their meeting Singh and Li have agreed to maintain stability at the border.

The Chinese defence minister is likely to share his assessment of the Indian mood and its approach to the prevailing situation at the LAC to the Chinese leadership on his return.

But as the heavy deployment of troops continues without any sign of disengagement, the tension at the LAC is likely to prevail.