Leaders discuss ‘a range of issues’ but it’s unclear whether military stand-off on contested part of the border was raised
President Xi Jinping met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on Friday, at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries over the worst border dispute in years.
They “had a conversation on a range of issues”, according to a tweet by Indian foreign ministry spokesman Gopal Baglay.
The informal discussion took place when Xi and Modi attended a meeting of BRICS leaders from top emerging market economies. It is unclear whether the ongoing military stand-off between China and India – involving thousands of soldiers along a contested part of the border near Bhutan in the Himalayas – was raised. Both leaders were seen smiling in a photo of them shaking hands.
There has been speculation over whether the two would meet at the G20 summit as tensions mount over what China’s envoy to India has said was the most serious confrontation between the nations in over 30 years. No formal bilateral meeting is planned.
While tensions remain high, regional experts said it was unlikely fighting would break out on the border. The meeting could stop the situation from escalating, although it would not provide a diplomatic breakthrough.
Wang Dehua, director of the Institute for Southern and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies, said there would not be any immediate end to the stand-off. “This situation is deadlocked … the ball is definitely in India’s court,” Wang said. “But it’s not so bad … both sides need time to cool their heads.”
Alka Acharya, a professor of Chinese studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies in New Delhi, said a military conflict, which would bring “catastrophic losses for both”, was the last thing Beijing or New Delhi wanted. “This is a war that neither side can, or will, win,” Acharya said, adding that both sides wanted to resolve the situation through diplomacy.
Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a defence analyst from the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi, agreed. “There is a possibility [of the stand-off escalating into war], but that would be dangerous for both countries because there is the possibility of further escalation,” he said.
Indian official sources told The Indian Express that the stand-off, which began on June 16 after Indian troops stopped Chinese workers from building a road in a disputed border area, continued on Thursday without confrontation. Troops from the two sides maintained a “civil distance” of about 120 metres. Soldiers have pitched tents, but there has been no sign of Chinese troop movements or any attempts to resume road-building, the sources said.
Diplomatic observers said that both sides had remained patient in the unusually long stand-off, which suggested diplomatic processes were working.
“There are institutional mechanisms between military officials as well as civilians to discuss such differences,” said Dr Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. “The Indian side is not reacting to every report that appears in the media. My guess is that backchannel diplomacy is active already.”
Wang expected both sides would seek to end the stand-off through diplomatic means before the BRICS summit in September, which is seen as one of the biggest diplomatic shows of the year for China.