Indian and Chinese troops at a Himalayan mountain border outpost. Image: AFP

MUMBAI – A three-hour meeting between foreign ministers of India and China has pulled the two countries back from the brink of conflict over their border, at least for now.

The two most populous and nuclear-armed countries agreed to ease tension, disengage, ensure a safe distance between troops and continue dialogue to prevent any action that could lead to escalation.

Foreign Minister of India Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and China’s Wang Yi met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization annual meeting in Moscow. Some foreign policy experts say the chances of conciliation improved after the Russian foreign minister hosted a lunch meeting for Jaishankar and Wang Yi.

The meeting was seen almost as a last hope for the neighbors to prevent escalation of the tension that had been building over the past weeks. China encroached into Indian territories in April-May in Ladakh and killed 20 Indian soldiers on June 15. It was outflanked on August 30 when Indian troops occupied higher positions.

The critical change in positions that neutralized the advantage that the Chinese troops had from their early incursion, left them incensed. Tensions increased as the Chinese tried to gain access to the heights but failed.

For the first time in 45 years shots, albeit warning shots, were fired in the dark on September 7. Both sides blamed the other, reflecting fast-depleting trust. Thousands of soldiers face each other barely a few hundred meters across mountains.

The agreement between Wang and Jaishankar cools temperatures for both the countries, though neither is lowering its guard or reducing its build up of troops, artillery or jets. Indian TV channels show Sukhoi jets making sorties from Leh, in readiness.

China is reported to have amassed more than 50,000 men close to their new positions, leaving the fuse very short.

Talks will resume at the level of corp commanders of the two armies next week, the first since August 2.  Lt Gen Harinder Singh and Maj Gen Liu Lin will meet for a sixth time since first meeting on June 6.

Still, the Moscow agreement does not mention India’s key demand of reverting to the previous status quo and withdrawal of Chinese troops to the Line of Actual Control.

Yet, a truce may be sufficient at this point of time from India’s point of view. By getting more time India can pay attention to its domestic economy and the pandemic that’s adding more than 90,000 cases every day.

Extra time also helps India get its global alignments in order for any emergency.

India yesterday added five battle-ready Rafale omni-purpose fighter jets to its fleet of Jaguars, Mirage-2000 and MiG fighters. India expects to get another five game-changing French fighter jets with capabilities unmatched by Chinese jets.

India had earlier requested Russia to speed up deliveries of S-400 missile systems and other military spare parts, to be better prepared for any Chinese invasion. So, the agreement seems to have achieved its objective of diffusing the tension built up, even if temporarily.

India is also negotiating with France on other defense-related items including ones that can be manufactured in India.

India and the United States yesterday urged Pakistan to take measures to curb terrorism, and terrorist activities emanating from its soil. They also urged Prime Minister Imran Khan to charge the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan was also told to disrupt the ability of terrorists to travel.

Observers see in the US move an attempt to ensure Pakistan doesn’t push terrorists into Indian soil while it is engaged in containing China on the eastern side. Pakistan has used terrorists as a tool in a low-cost and low-intensity war against India for more than three decades without being seen as the perpetrator.

The US has promised to stand by India in case of any escalation with China. The US–led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) will be holding its first meeting after the formation in New Delhi next month. QUAD also includes India, Japan and Australia. Foreign and defense ministers of US and India will meet to strengthen relations.

India and Japan yesterday signed an agreement on provision of supplies and services between the armed forces of both the countries. India and Japan are also enhancing interoperability between the armed forces and increasing bilateral defense engagements.