On 15 November, at the G20 summit in Bali, Prime Minister Narendra Modi got up from the official dinner table and shook hands with the Chinese president Xi Jinping. This was their first interaction since 2019, when the two leaders met during an informal summit in Chennai. Modi had not met the Chinese leader since the border crisis began in Ladakh, in May 2020, largely because of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. In September this year, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, the two leaders had not even exchanged a smile during an official photograph.
Modi’s move at Bali suggests that Indian calculations have changed since the twentieth party congress in Beijing last month, where Xi was elected for a third norm-defying term as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Modi did not tweet pictures of the meeting with Xi—even fleeting interactions with other global leaders have been posted. The government has been vague about the proceedings, captured on official video, giving no clue of what motivated Modi to get up from the official banquet and walk up to Xi to have a word with him. The Chinese, too, have been silent about the brief conversation.
This is not the first time Modi has taken the initiative with Xi, during an ongoing border crisis. In 2017, with Indian and Chinese soldiers arrayed against each other in Doklam in Bhutan, Modi had similarly walked up to the Chinese leader for an informal interaction on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The spokesperson of the Indian ministry of external affairs had tweeted a picture of that meeting, and thereafter Indian media reports credited Modi for achieving a breakthrough on Doklam. The then foreign secretary S Jaishankar, told the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs that it was the 7 July conversation in Hamburg that “initiated diplomatic communications with the Chinese side in Beijing to seek resolution of this issue.” But most analysts argued that it was Xi’s desire to have a successful BRICS summit in China, in September 2017, that led to the so-called disengagement at Doklam in August 2017. This distortion of external realities to suit a domestic political narrative, a tactic frequently deployed by Modi’s government, could have dangerous consequences.
Domestically, the disengagement in Doklam was projected not merely as a resolution to a vexed problem but as a victory for the Modi government. It took just a few months for the truth to come out. Satellite imagery showed that while the Indian forces returned to their posts, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army continued to remain on the plateau, barely a few hundred metres away from the standoff site. Since then, the PLA has constructed massive infrastructure in the area, bolstered its permanent deployment and started building alternative roads to access the Jampheri ridge. In March 2018, the Modi government was forced to acknowledge in parliament that the PLA had “undertaken construction of some infrastructure, including sentry posts, trenches and helipads” after disengagement.
The current situation in Ladakh is even more worrisome. The army chief General Manoj Pande succinctly elucidated at an event in Delhi some days ago that the PLA’s military build-up has not reduced while it has constructed a lot of infrastructure. Rather ominously, the Chinese side refuses to discuss the two areas, Depsang and Demchok, where disengagement has not taken place. Even in the other five areas where disengagement has taken place over the past thirty months, the PLA is unwilling to discuss the next stage of de-escalation. The Chinese foreign ministry has blamed India for the crisis, and flatly refused a return to the status quo as it existed in April 2020.