An amicable reset of India-China ties hangs in the balance

After four years, a high-ranking diplomatic delegation from India travelled to China for the WMCC border talks. India is the host of two key summits in 2023 – G-20 and SCO – in which China is a crucial part of. Here, I analyse the odds of a Sino-Indian rapprochement in 2023.


On 22 February 2023, senior diplomatic officials from the governments of India and China met each other in Beijing for the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) talks. The Indian delegation was led by Joint Secretary (East Asia) and the Chinese side by the Director General of Boundary and Oceanic Affairs, belonging to their respective foreign ministries. This was the first face-to-face WMCC meeting since the standoff along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh began in 2020, and the twenty-sixth such dialogue since this mechanism came into existence in 2012. The last face-to-face WMCC meeting was held four years ago, in July 2019. Parallelly, both sides have also held seventeen rounds of military-level talks since the standoff began in May 2020.

The latest WMCC meeting marks the first bilateral visit from India to China since the fatal Galwan incident of June 2020, which consequentially put the bilateral ties between the two Asian giants in a downward spiral. Ironically, year 2020 also marked the 70th anniversary of establishment of formal diplomatic relations between India and China. Following the latest WMCC dialogue, both sides opted to issue two separate statements, rather than a joint one. The Indian statement contains mention of discussions of “proposals for disengagement” in the remaining friction points in Ladakh, namely Depsang Plains and Demchok, which Beijing does not consider as part of the current standoff. The Chinese statement, on the other hand, gave a different impression and includes mention of “further easing” the border situation towards the phase of “normalized management and control”, rather than hinting at the prospect of a complete disengagement or de-escalation.

Friction points – the resolved ones and the remaining ones

Of the six friction points along the LAC in Ladakh, troops were withdrawn from the June 2020 clash site of Galwan Valley in the weeks following the incident, the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in February 2021, Patrolling Point-17A of the Gogra-Hot Springs area in August 2021 and Patrolling Point-15 in September 2022. There are about sixty-five patrolling points along the LAC in Ladakh. One of the key factors that trigger recurring face-offs along the LAC are the intensified infrastructure buildup underway on both sides. It is estimated that there are still about twenty-five contested areas along the 3488-km-long LAC, a ground reality complicated by non-congruent perceptions of the border.

At a time when both sides are striving to de-escalate the situation at least in the western sector, the Chinese side have recently upped the ante along other sectors of the LAC like the eastern sector, wherein transgressions attempts by the People’s Liberation Army were thwarted by the Indian Army, notably in Yangtse area of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in October 2021 and December 2022. Satellite imagery shows that the Chinese side have also built rural enclaves with habitable structures in the India-claimed territories of the eastern sector. Combined with the strategic insecurity posed by Beijing to New Delhi through its questionable and non-benign engagement throughout India’s neighbourhood – South Asia and the Indian Ocean region – and in the multilateral forums like the United Nations, the level of mistrust between the two sides has increased very substantially in the recent past.

While China wants to put the border standoff only at an “appropriate place” in the overall India-China bilateral ties, India wants a complete disengagement of troops from the remaining two legacy friction points (something that goes back to 2013) as a pre-requisite for the normalisation of ties. Before the WMCC was set in place in 2012, a series of confidence-building measures, including a series of border management agreements and protocols, were agreed upon by both sides in 1993, 1996 and 2005, including the one that prohibits the use of firearms in the border areas. The Chinese Comprehensive National Power at present may be bigger than that of India’s, but the reality of being two big nuclear-armed neighbours calls for restraint on both sides, taking the consequences of an unintended security mishap into account.

A fresh opportunity, amid “security dilemma”

Periodic senior officials-level meetings through military and diplomatic channels are not doing enough to fully de-escalate the situation on the ground, except the disengagement achieved at four friction points.  India is hosting the G-20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summits in 2023, for which Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to participate, among other leaders. This year presents a unique opportunity for the leaders of both countries to make fresh efforts towards a political solution, including continued negotiations for new mutually-agreeable buffer zones and workable confidence-building measures. A Modi-Xi face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of either the G-20 or the SCO summit will go a long way in minimizing the optics of sabre-rattling towards each other prevailing on both sides.

Chinese strategic analysts, both from within and outside the party-state apparatus, are highly apprehensive of the prospect of India attempting to internationalise the border standoff, which would not be in the interest of an amicable resettlement of bilateral ties. On the other hand, if the Chinese delegation attempts to take on India with a “wolf-warrior” approach, it will be aptly retaliated by India’s dynamic and vocal foreign minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, which would eventually derail all possibilities for a Sino-Indian rapprochement in 2023. While India is part of groupings such as the U.S.-led Quad, which China disapproves of, the former has always maintained that its participation is not targeted at containing “any specific country”. While articulating India’s Indo-Pacific vision in the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that, “… Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests…”

At present, a spiral of insecurity, theoretically known as “security dilemma”, is entangling the Sino-Indian bilateral ties, as evident from the buildup of tens of thousands of troops and the continued procurement and deployment of advanced weapon systems on both sides. Despite the turbulent state of the LAC, the economies of both countries are now closely inter-connected and is ironically showing an upward trend in terms of bilateral trade, even though New Delhi had taken strict measures in the last three years such as restricting Chinese investment in certain strategic sectors of the Indian economy and banning several Chinese mobile applications. During the forthcoming summit meetings, both sides should be cautious of mindless blame games and should remain focused on a workable and mutually acceptable plan of action.

Today, India and China are well capable of dealing with each other, militarily or otherwise. While China is frequently conducting military exercises within its territory and its neighbourhood in the recent past, sometimes even showcasing its offensive capabilities to the maximum, India too is ramping up its security cooperation with like-minded countries, particularly with the United States and other democracies in the Indo-Pacific. While these engagements are to boost military interoperability and combat preparedness of its armed forces, it should not give a message that they are directed against China. Likewise, China too should also stop engaging in provocative actions targeted against Indian interests.


Even though 2022 witnessed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Beijing’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan visiting India in March 2022 and in August 2022 respectively, it never produced any substantially positive outcome as far as resetting of bilateral ties is concerned. 2022 also marked 60 years of the 1962 Sino-Indian war and also saw India intensifying the construction of the strategic 2000-km-long Arunachal Frontier Highway and other key infrastructure projects along the border areas of Ladakh and Sikkim. The two remaining areas to be resolved in the Ladakh sector are Depsang Plains, located close to the northern-most tip of Indian-controlled territory in Ladakh, and Demchok, lying further down south. These two friction points, combined with the other contested areas along the LAC needs non-bureaucratic, non-legalistic and non-conventional diplomatic maneuverings that goes beyond the currently established mechanisms of periodic bilateral engagement.

Going three-and-a-half decades back in time, in 1988, Rajiv Gandhi became the first Indian prime minister to visit China after the cataclysmic 1962 Sino-Indian war. It was an ice-breaking moment in Indian diplomatic history that paved the way for a series of confidence-building measures being agreed between the two countries in the following decades. Likewise, today, India and China needs an intervention from the higher political level to come out of the perilous state of prevailing “security dilemma”. Even though both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met about 18 times in person from 2014 to the present, including five times in China and four times in India, I won’t completely rule out the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough in 2023, taking into account the symbiotic nature of inter-dependence and inter-connectedness that characterise India-China relations today.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.