Three years after the start of a series of tense altercations and bloody clashes between India and China along the Line of Actual Control, a meeting between the defence ministers of the two countries last week offered a glimpse of the state of relations between the Asian giants. The defence minister, Rajnath Singh, met his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, in New Delhi on the margins of the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's defence ministers. In his bilateral meetings — Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan are the other full members of the grouping —Mr Singh shook hands with all defence ministers except with Mr Li. That cool reception set the stage for a meeting that showed the wide gulf between the neighbours on the question of peace on the LAC where China is believed to have encroached several kilometres into what India insists is its territory since those clashes in 2020. Mr Li described the situation along the de facto border as generally stable. However, Mr Singh was more blunt. Chinese actions, he said, had eroded trust in the relationship. He described disengagement along the border — where both sides have amassed troops — as a necessary precondition for better ties.
Mr Singh's comments echo India's publicly-stated view of the relationship — one which the external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, has also frequently emphasised. Yet it is hard to avoid the tone of defeatism that underlines India's statements and the reality of ties with China. Worryingly, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have no plan in place to put pressure on China to restore the situation along the LAC to what it was before 2020. It also appears to have few answers to the growing economic and military asymmetry with Beijing. In a February interview, Mr Jaishankar, too, had expressed reservations about India's ability to fight China, citing the latter's larger economy. At the same time, New Delhi has indicated that business as usual is not possible with Beijing, China’s trade with India — heavily loaded in favour of the larger nation — is touching record highs. As chair of the SCO and president of the G20 this year, India will host the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, soon. If avoiding handshakes is the extent of India's ability to stand up to China, Beijing will have little reason to change its ways.