China’s newly appointed Defence Minister, General Li Shangfu, is set to make his first visit to India in April, which is also set to be the first high-level military visit from China since the Line of Actual Control (LAC) crisis began in 2020. Separately, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, speaking at an event on Thursday, said that resolution of the stand-off in eastern Ladakh “is work in progress” and in the last three years the combination of military and diplomacy working in lockstep has made progress in resolving it.
General Li, also a State Councillor, is likely to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Defence Ministers’ meet in April in person. Chinese Minister of Public Security and State Councillor Wang Xiaohong only participated virtually in the SCO National Security Advisers’ meeting held this week.
India and China are also exploring holding a bilateral meeting between the two Defence Ministers during the visit, which will be the first since a meeting between Rajnath Singh and General Li’s predecessor, General Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of the SCO Defence Ministers’ meeting in Moscow in September 2020.
General Li is the first of China’s Defence Ministers to come from the aerospace sector, and has served in the PLA’s equipment development department. He was sanctioned by the U.S. over China’s purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. His appointment by President Xi Jinping underlines the current focus on PLA modernisation, which General Li has been tasked with spearheading.
His visit comes as India and China continue to discuss disengagement in the last two of seven friction points – Demchok and Depsang – having previously come to an agreement in Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, Gogra and Hot Springs. The two countries have so far held 17 rounds of Corps Commanders’ talks to resolve the stand-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. While India maintains that two more areas, Depsang and Demchok, are yet to be resolved, China maintains that disengagement is complete and the remaining two areas of contention predate the stand-off.
In February, Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Shilpak Ambule held talks in Beijing with senior Chinese border officials for the first in-person meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) since July 2019. Both sides discussed proposals for disengaging in the two remaining friction areas along the LAC to create conditions to “restore normalcy” in relations, according to statements issued after the talks.
They also agreed to hold the next round of Corps Commander’s talks, which are likely to take place soon with the conclusion of the National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 13 that saw the appointment of new officials, including General Li.
PLA Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defence, at a monthly press briefing in Beijing on Thursday said that a working group from the Ministry “recently visited India to participate in meetings among the international military cooperation departments under the Defence Ministries of SCO member states.” They “elaborated the Global Security Initiative in depth,” he said, referring to Mr. Xi’s new security initiative.
“In mid-to-late March, the Chinese side also sent delegates to India to attend respectively the SCO Workshop on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and the SCO think tank exchange on military health and medicine, and participated in the Expert Working Group (EWG) affiliated with the Meeting of the Council of Defence Ministers of the SCO member states through a video link,” he added. During these meetings, the Chinese delegates had close and extensive communication with other participants, which profoundly enhanced the mutual trust and coordination among the parties, the spokesperson said.
“In the next stage, China is willing to cooperate with defence departments and militaries of all SCO member states to vigorously promote the ‘Shanghai Spirit’, continue to accelerate practical cooperation in high-level exchanges, education and training, military inspections and other fields, thus contributing to building a closer SCO community with a shared future,” he added.
Speaking at the News 18 ‘Rising India’ summit Mr. Jaishankar said that the resolution of the stand-off is still “unfinished” work. “There are places where we have forward deployments. We continue to work at it,” he stated.
He said that in the last two or three years, the military has done what the military should do and the military and diplomacy have worked in lockstep. He said the issue has never been left entirely to the military commanders. “The military commanders and diplomats work as a team… In the last three years this combo of military and diplomacy working in lockstep has made progress,” the External Affairs Minister said, adding that the two sides had not been able to sort everything out, but would keep at it.
“When I met the new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on the sidelines of G-20, it was something we discussed. It is work in progress and I would certainly like to see more progress,” he added.