NEW DELHI: Speculation is growing about a possible meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the Brics Summit in South Africa following a string of engagements between the two countries, which have been locked in a military standoff in Ladakh sector for more than three years.
Modi will travel to Johannesburg on Tuesday for the summit of leaders of the Brics (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) grouping, while Xi left Beijing for South Africa on Monday. The two leaders last met on the margins of the G20 Summit in Indonesia last November, when they had a brief interaction at a formal dinner.
There was no official word from either side about a bilateral meeting on the margins of the Brics Summit during August 22-24, but speculation has grown in the wake of a string of recent diplomatic and military meetings.
Senior Indian and Chinese corps commanders held their 19th round of talks on the standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Chushul-Moldo border point during August 13-14, and this was followed by several rounds of talks among local commanders that began on August 18, people familiar with the matter said.
The talks among local commanders held at separate locations have largely centred round confidence-building measures, the people said.
National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and external affairs minister S Jaishankar met Wang Yi, currently China’s foreign minister, on the sidelines of multilateral meetings in July and discussed the border standoff. The people cited above said all these contacts helped prepare the grounds for a possible interaction between the top leaders of the two sides, which would be the first since the standoff began in May 2020.
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Asked at a media briefing about the possibility of a meeting between Modi and Xi in Johannesburg, foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra only said the prime minister’s schedule for bilateral meetings is “still evolving” but didn’t go into details.
The India-China joint statement issued after the latest corps commanders’ meetings characterised the discussions on resolving the remaining issues in Ladakh sector of the LAC as “positive” and “constructive” – another factor that fuelled speculation about a bilateral meeting in Johannesburg. The people cited above said the follow-up meetings between local commanders had focused on building maintaining stability on the ground.
However, the people said the two sides continued to have differences with regard to the two main remaining friction points – Depsang and Demchok – where Indian troops have been unable to carry out patrolling since the standoff began.
Barely two weeks after the Brics Summit, the Chinese president is expected to visit New Delhi for the G20 Summit. China plays a crucial role in the G20 process and has blocked all text referring to the Ukraine war in draft statements, while also opposing several proposals from the Indian side in areas such as climate action and women-led development.
India and China have arrayed nearly 50,000 troops each in Ladakh sector since a brutal clash at Galwan Valley in June 2020 killed 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese troops and took relations to a six-decade low. Following several rounds of talks, the two sides pulled back frontline forces on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake, Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra.
Jaishankar has insisted on numerous occasions that India-China relations cannot be normalised without peace and tranquillity at the border, while the Chinese leadership has contended the border standoff should be put in an “appropriate” place while ties are taken forward in other spheres such as trade.