Indian soldiers participate in a mock drill in front of a Bofors gun near the Indo-China border at East Sikkim on August 19, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jayanta Shaw / The Times of India

On Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi completed a six-day tour of South Asia, his first in more than two years. The tour was largely aimed at taking stock and kickstarting progress in China’s Belt and Road Initiative in this region.

This, of course, placed India aside, as New Delhi has not yet joined the BRI. Still, this was not the only challenge facing Wang ahead of the India part of his tour.

At the beginning of the last leg of his South Asia tour, Wang Yi’s Kathmandu visit saw him hand over China-funded Pokhara Regional Airport to Nepal and oversee the signing of a slew of other agreements. Among others, the two sides agreed fully to operationalize the Tatopani/Zhangmu and Rasuwagadi/Kerung border trade posts, and expedite high-level visits and BRI projects.

Apart from meeting his counterpart Narayan Khadka, Wang called on all the top leaders including Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and President Bidya Devi Bhandari, as well as former prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal and K P Sharma Oli and others, providing a ring of success to his parleys.

Among a few sensitive issues, Wang’s visit was preceded by Nepal’s parliamentary ratification of a US-funded grant of a $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact Agreement that Beijing sees as American strategy to engage China’s immediate periphery. Wang used this visit to reiterate this concern with Nepal’s leaders.

Likewise, this South Asia tour began with Wang being the chief guest at the 48th session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Islamabad. He also witnessed Pakistan’s National Day military parade, besides calling on Prime Minister Imran Khan and presenting to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi a four-point strategy to strengthen the two countries’ “ironclad friendship.”

It is only his unannounced visits to Kabul and New Delhi that presented a few challenges to Wang, China’s most charming and seasoned diplomat of recent years. Whether intended or not, these certainly saw some consternation among his Indian interlocutors.

To begin with, given that the OIC has had a history of anti-India resolutions, his mention of Kashmir in his address invited both surprise and strong criticism from India. Then his presence at the National Day military parade invited attention to Pakistan showcasing China’s J-10C fighters and ZDK-03 early warning aircraft, and so on. 

This may have brought comfort to the politically embattled Prime Minister Imran Khan, but this backdrop certainly complicated the atmospherics for Wang’s visit to India, as numerous meetings on the Sino-Indian border dispute have made very little progress.

Against this backdrop, Wang’s stopover in Kabul was also seen with concern. With the exception of Pakistan’s foreign minister visiting Kabul last October, Wang was the first foreign leader to be hosted by the Taliban regime that the international community – including China and Pakistan – has refused to recognize. 

And now, this week will see Beijing hosting the third meeting of foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, to which India has never been invited. Moreover, China and Pakistan did not attend a similar regional dialogue of national security advisers convened by New Delhi late last year.

But Wang’s India visit was not an unmitigated disaster either. At least this visit allowed both sides to assess carefully their mutual equations and may open doors for high-level exchanges to explore a breakthrough that has so far eluded their border negotiations.

While the Chinese side wants both to be guided by a long-term view, focus on a win-win strategy and not allow bilateral ties to become hostage to border tensions, India suggests that bilateral ties should be guided by principles of mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests, saying that the Sino-Indian relationship cannot be business as usual until peace and tranquility return at the Line of Actual Control (LoAC).

Also, very similar positions of India and China on the Ukraine crisis and both having close ties with Russia marked another positive backdrop. This allowed the two sides to showcase convergence on pushing for immediate cessation of hostilities and initiation of dialogue. 

But the continuing stalemate on their own border could not be overlooked, as both sides once again just reiterated their respective positions. The failure of dozens of interactions in the last two years to start military disengagement perhaps alludes to the growing redundancy of their existing methods and mechanisms.

This clearly calls for starting a new chapter of confidence-building measures to re-establish “peace and tranquility” on the LoAC. Is this not the time that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping should revive their novel informal summits as early as possible?

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.