India and China have varying versions of the conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on Wednesday that the Chinese claim happened at India’s “request”.
Although there was no official Indian comment on the Chinese claim that New Delhi had requested the meeting, a source said: “There was a pending request from the Chinese side for a bilateral meeting. The two leaders, however, had an informal conversation in the Leaders Lounge during the BRICS Summit.”
This was not the only point of variance. The Chinese readout on the conversation — released early Friday morning after foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra put out the Indian version on Thursday evening during his media conference — had no mention of the two leaders agreeing to direct their relevant officials to intensify efforts at expeditious disengagement and de-escalation as claimed by India.
The Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday morning: “President Xi Jinping talked with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit at the latter’s request on August 23, 2023.”
The Chinese ministry added: “The two leaders had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on current China-India relations and other questions of shared interest. President Xi stressed that improving China-India relations serves the common interests of the two countries and peoples, and is also conducive to peace, stability and development of the world and the region. The two sides should bear in mind the overall interests of their bilateral relations and handle properly the border issue so as to jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border region.”
Hours earlier, on Thursday, the Indian foreign secretary had said: “In a conversation with President Xi Jinping of China, Prime Minister highlighted India’s concerns on the unresolved issues along the LAC in the western sector of the India-China border areas. Prime Minister underlined that the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas and observing and respecting the LAC are essential for the normalisation of the India-China relationship."
The Indian foreign secretary added: “In this regard, the two leaders agreed to direct their relevant officials to intensify efforts at expeditious disengagement and de-escalation.”
Later in the day, asked specifically if the two leaders have agreed to intensify efforts to de-escalate tensions at the disputed border, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin remained non-committal and repeated what had been said earlier in the wee hours of the day.
He added: “I would like to reiterate that China’s position on the China-India boundary question is consistent and clear. The boundary question is a historical issue and does not represent the entirety of China-India relations. We should place it appropriately in our bilateral relations and seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement through peaceful and friendly consultations.
“Before the boundary question is settled, the two sides need to jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas. We hope to work with India to act on the important common understandings between the two leaders, increase strategic mutual trust, focus on our consensus and cooperation, remove disturbances and obstacles and advance the bilateral relations along a sound and stable track.”
After the border standoff began with the clash in Galwan in which 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese troops were killed in the summer of 2020, China has repeatedly stressed the need to insulate the bilateral relationship from border disputes. The Chinese foreign ministry’s formulation of Xi’s conversation with Modi appears to be a repetition of that stance.
With the BRICS Summit having several sessions, the two met more than once and this interaction is said to have happened on Wednesday. On Thursday, they were seen chatting with each other informally when they came on stage for the BRICS joint statement.
Wednesday’s conversation was kept under wraps for over a day till Kwatra disclosed it and no photograph of the Modi-Xi conversation was released till Friday evening by either side in a repeat of their handshake at the G20 banquet in Bali last November.
Although the handshake was much photographed, neither side officially released a photograph nor divulged any details till July this year when the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that Xi and Modi reached an important consensus in Bali on stabilising China-India relations.
After a couple of days of silence, India, too, officially confirmed that more than pleasantries were exchanged in Bali and there was some convergence. New Delhi also said the two spoke of the need to stabilise bilateral relations.
India’s claim regarding disengagement and de-escalation, coupled with China’s contention that New Delhi had requested the meeting, provided the Opposition with a window to question the government on its policy vis-à-vis China.
“Disengagement on whose terms? China’s terms or India’s terms? Whatever happened to India’s position — reversion to status quo ante prior to April 2020 is a non-negotiable? We would be hosting a person in Delhi who has gobbled up Indian Territory-Xi,” Manish Tewari of the Congress posted on X (formerly Twitter).
Reacting to China’s claim that India had sought the meeting, Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMIM) said on X: “Our PM @PMOIndia is going around asking for meetings with the Chinese President while keeping his own country in the dark about the real situation on the Ladakh border. What is Modi trying to hide? Our brave soldiers have stayed on the border for 40 months and are not cowed down by the Chinese. Why can’t Modi stand up to Xi, and trust our soldiers? Is this loss of territory acceptable to Modi?”