China’s positioning with regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, and it is likely to be a central topic of discussion at the China-European Union Summit scheduled to be held this Friday. But for Beijing, which is seeking to mend fences and shore up ties with countries in South Asia, diplomacy closer to home remains a priority as well.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi completed a six-day tour of the region, including unannounced stops in Afghanistan, India and Nepal. Wang began his trip in Islamabad, where he met with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended a foreign ministers meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, as a special guest. The meeting between Wang and Khan, which featured both sides emphasizing their “iron-clad friendship,” ended with the signing of five agreements to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the areas of agriculture and education. Upon departing Islamabad, Wang made a brief stop in Kabul, which marked the highest-level visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan since the Taliban retook power last year.
But while Wang was met with a warm welcome from his Pakistani and Afghan hosts, he arrived to a chilly reception in India, underscoring the difficulty of his task in New Delhi. The surprise visit, which was kept a secret at Beijing’s request, marked the first by a Chinese foreign minister to India since deadly clashes in 2020 in the Ladakh region of Kashmir strained diplomatic ties between the two neighboring countries.
The frosty atmosphere surrounding Wang’s visit underlines the difficulty lying ahead for efforts to mend ties between Beijing and New Delhi. It likely did not help that even prior to his arrival in New Delhi, Wang’s remarks at the OIC meeting—where he said that China shares the organization’s “hope” for Kashmiri self-determination—drew a swift backlash from Delhi, which rejected the “uncalled reference” to a territorial dispute India regards as an internal matter.
For its part, the Chinese readout of the talks emphasized the commonalities between the two neighboring powers. Both are walking a similar diplomatic tightrope on the war in Ukraine by refusing to explicitly condemn Russia’s invasion and having abstained from a United Nations General Assembly resolution reprimanding Moscow for it. As a result, Chinese state media outlets have framed the war as having created an opportunity for convergence between the two countries, as well as for India to reconsider the terms of its relations with the West.
But the unresolved border dispute remains a thorn in their relationship, as illustrated by Wang’s meeting with Indian officials. Though Wang suggested putting the issue “in a proper place” and not letting it define or affect bilateral relations, the lack of a joint statement, which typically follows such bilateral meetings, underscores the lukewarm response from India to the idea of decoupling the dispute from the broader relationship.
“If you ask me if our relationship is normal today, my answer to you is, No, it is not and it cannot be normal,” Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told reporters in a media briefing afterward. “Surely the presence of a large number of troops in contravention of agreements is abnormal.” Jaishankar added that India wants “a stable and predictable relationship, but restoration of normalcy will require a restoration of peace and tranquility.” His blunt remarks suggest that a thaw in the relationship is unlikely.
According to several analysts, the unusual secrecy surrounding parts of Wang’s South Asian tour suggests that Beijing is concerned about diplomatic isolation over its strategic partnership with Moscow, but at the same time remains uncertain about its ability to rally its regional neighbors to its side amid a difficult international environment. “China urgently needs understanding and support on Ukraine at the United Nations and elsewhere amid fears of Western encirclement,” Gu Su, a political analyst at Nanjing University, told South China Morning Post. Gu added that Beijing wants to ensure that its international image is not further tainted by its position on the Ukraine crisis ahead of a major leadership reshuffle inside the Chinese Communist Party later this year. “But it is a tough job and Beijing is clearly unsure of the outcome and concerned about possible mishaps,” he said.
Ukraine will certainly be on the agenda Friday, when the long-delayed China-EU Summit will take place virtually. Relations between Beijing and Brussels have soured in recent years due to tit-for-tat sanctions by both sides over China’s crackdown on Uyghur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang as well as its campaign of economic coercion against Lithuania. Though discussion of the stalled Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, or CAI, may resume, the EU’s most urgent priority right now is marshalling support for Ukraine to fend off Russian aggression.
The bloc is expected to support Washington’s position cautioning China over stepping up any substantial assistance to Russia beyond rhetorical support, as agreed between EU leaders and U.S. President Joe Biden in last week’s EU leaders summit. “In that war, there can be no so-called neutrality,” Nicolas Chapuis, the EU’s top envoy to China, emphasized to dozens of top diplomats at a recent event in Beijing.
Few believe that EU pressure will be decisive in shifting Beijing’s calculus on the war in Ukraine. “It would be futile for Europe to try to get any guarantees or reassurances from Beijing on its conduct regarding Russia’s war,” Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, told South China Morning Post. “But,” he added, “Europe should make it clear that Beijing will pay a price in terms of a significant deterioration of EU-China relations if it continues to choose to support Putin.”
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