A week after the first conversation in many months between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, India and China appear nowhere near coming to any kind of understanding to repair their relations. On the contrary, relations this week have faced yet another storm, with the two sides clashing over China issuing a new map and reports on Thursday suggesting that Mr. Xi may skip the G-20 Summit in New Delhi next week. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not confirm those reports, but it also chose not to deny them. Events this week, meanwhile, served a reminder of the currently low levels of trust, with relations arguably at their lowest since the normalisation of ties in the 1980s. On August 28, China issued what it called a “standard map” for 2023, which showed the entire State of Arunachal Pradesh, the Aksai Chin region and the South China Sea as Chinese territory, drawing protests from India, Malaysia and the Philippines. Beijing defended the map as “routine” and asked India to not “over-interpret” it, after the Ministry of External Affairs lodged a strong protest. While it may be true that the map made no new territorial claims and depicted borders as in previous Chinese maps, it is clear that the needless issuing of a new map, amid multiple, live territorial disputes, has only further complicated them. The responses of China’s neighbours make that clear.
When India in 2019 issued a new map following the internal reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir and creation of the new Union Territory of Ladakh, Beijing responded with strong statements and initiated discussions at the United Nations Security Council, even though that map, too, did not change India’s external boundaries or territorial claims vis-à-vis China. In the view of some observers, China’s increasingly aggressive mobilisation on the Line of Actual Control, leading to the on-going crisis that has plunged relations to this low level, was partly a response to India’s reiteration of its claims to Aksai Chin in 2019. In the recent up-and-down history of India’s ties with China, summit meetings have offered the platform for the two countries to dial down tensions by giving the two leaders the opportunity for high-level interventions, as was the case at the 2017 BRICS Summit following the Doklam stand-off. Regardless of whether Mr. Xi visits New Delhi next week, the prospects of a similar rapprochement remain dim. Repairing relations will require slowly rebuilding trust on a foundation of greater mutual sensitivity. Indeed, China would do well to show its neighbours the sensitivity that it demands of them, if it has any inclination towards repairing increasingly fraught relations.