Given that India would prefer to deal with the disputes with its neighbours bilaterally, how can its partners help? Apart from direct mediation, friendly partners can assist through a variety of ways, depending on the willingness of the parties. These involve backchannel talks, support at international forums, and the facilitation of meetings between disputing parties, writes Valdai Club expert Nivedita Kapoor.
In 2021, the UAE’s ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba announced that the Gulf state had played a role in India and Pakistan announcing a ceasefire on their border earlier in the year. While this did come as a surprise to many, there is a long history of mediation and backchannel negotiations that have characterised engagement between the two South Asian states. This very history is also replete with numerous failures, wherein apart from achieving some short-term stabilisation, none have resulted in a resolution of the key issues involved. Over the years, this has informed the Indian position, which focuses on resolving any disputes bilaterally. Whether on the question of Pakistan or China, there has been no indication that India has significantly changed its fundamental position, which has evolved, guided by its historical experiences and growing capabilities in the global system.
The evolution of the Indian position on international mediation in bilateral disputes
Before the Simla Agreement in 1972, where India and Pakistan declared that they would settle their disputes via bilateral negotiations, there were several instances when international mediation between the two sides took place over Kashmir. These included efforts by both the UN (Kashmir, 1948), and the Soviet Union (Tashkent Agreement, 1966). The US and the UK intervened after the 1962 Sino-Indian war to push for talks between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. While none of these efforts led to a comprehensive resolution of the dispute, in certain cases it helped in lowering temperatures on the border. A notable exception in this regard has been the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 between India and Pakistan that was achieved through the efforts of the World Bank.
As India gradually strengthened its position, and assessed the results of the overall mediation experiences as being less than satisfactory, it decided to focus on bilateral efforts in the resolution of its disputes with other states. With regard to Pakistan, this was enshrined in the Simla Agreement of 1972 signed by both sides and reiterated in the Lahore Declaration of 1999. The Indian stance has remained consistent on the issue, and in 1993, it refused an offer by US President Bill Clinton to mediate in the dispute with Pakistan. In 2019, US President Donald Trump once again raised the issue of mediation on Kashmir, which the Indian government turned down.
In the same year, when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi raised the prospect of Moscow mediating between the two sides, the Indian government had to step in to clarify its position. The then Indian Ambassador to Russia D. B. Venkatesh Varma stated clearly that “Russia understands and fully supports the position of Delhi that the disputes between India and Pakistan should be resolved exclusively on a bilateral basis, on the basis of the Simla agreements.” This stance is also visible in the UN Security Council, where India has remained stridently opposed to discussion of the Kashmir issue at the international forum, which has been supported by all the permanent members except China. While this does not mean that the usual practice of major powers using diplomatic backchannels to convince the two sides to talk has gone away completely, the Indian view has been respected by its partners.
This is also true of India’s ongoing dispute with China, where both sides engage in bilateral talks, and remain unwilling to invite a third party to resolve their issues. Therefore, in 2020, when Trump offered to mediate, this time between India and China, the advance was once again rejected by New Delhi. Even China decided to make its position clear that both countries had established mechanisms for resolving their problems and did not want any mediation. The Biden administration has remained focused in its messaging, unambiguously noting that the US supports the resolution of the India-China border dispute “through direct conversations between the two countries.”
The Indian position is well acknowledged by Moscow as well. Russia’s Ambassador to India Denis Alipov noted in 2022 that “Russia had no plans to mediate between India and China” unless both sides explicitly called for such an intervention. As the ambassador noted, “both sides view the territorial dispute between them as a purely bilateral matter” and this is respected by Moscow.
How is India dealing with the worsening of the border situation with China?
There is no denying that there has been a steady uptick in tensions on the India-China border, which the former has argued is the result of Chinese aggression. While the shift in Chinese behaviour was noted as early as 2012, with an increase in incidents all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the situation dovetailed sharply after the 2020 clash in Eastern Ladakh. During the incident, for the first time since 1962 war there were casualties on both sides, including the death of 20 Indian soldiers. India believes that China has not just increased the number of incursions across various points of the LAC, it is now positioning troops far beyond the previous perceptions of Chinese claims along the line.
India sees this aggressive position of China as part of the broader pattern of Chinese behaviour across the neighbourhood as it acquires more power and seeks to expand its influence. This has also led to India stepping up efforts to ramp up border infrastructure and strengthen relations with friendly regional stakeholders, while making it clear that Chinese activity had “eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations.” This is to say that a return to normalcy in Sino-Indian ties for New Delhi hinges on peace on the border. While the situation on LAC remains “very fragile,” both sides are engaged with each other through established mechanisms to resolve the issues “peacefully through dialogue.”
This means relying on various established mechanisms to discuss their differences. Specifically, since 2020, the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) and the Senior Commander’s Meeting (SCM) for disengagement in the border areas in Eastern Ladakh have been meeting regularly. While the former has held 25 meetings since 2020, the latter has completed 18 rounds of talks. While a complete disengagement has yet to be achieved, and estimates suggest both sides have thousands of troops and advanced weaponry deployed in the region, the SCMs have led to four rounds of disengagement. The WMCC, first established in 2012, is working alongside the military level talks “for appropriately handling border incidents.”
While the other political dialogue mechanisms were frozen for some time immediately after the 2020 clash, these have also been opened up gradually to discuss contentious issues. Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in New Delhi in 2022, when the visitor also met Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar. The foreign ministers level meetings have taken place most frequently, as compared to other high-level engagements, with contacts during SCO and G20 dealings in 2020, 2021 and 2022. In April 2023, for the first time since 2020, the defence ministers of the two countries met in New Delhi on the side-lines of the SCO defence ministers meeting. These meetings have largely been used to stress their respective positions, and India has made it clear that it will not de-link the border issue from the broader relationship, but it has demonstrated the ability of the two sides to engage in dialogue with each other without third-party intervention. Additionally, this has demonstrated that the two nuclear powers are aware of the necessity to conduct dialogue at different official levels, even if a leaders’ level meeting has not happened since 2020.
How can partners help?
So, given that India would prefer to deal with the disputes with its neighbours bilaterally, how can its partners help? Apart from direct mediation, as discussed above, friendly partners can assist through a variety of ways, depending on the willingness of the parties. These involve backchannel talks, support at international forums, and the facilitation of meetings between disputing parties. For instance, Moscow served as the venue in September 2020 for the first high-level meeting between Wang Yi and S. Jaishankar after the 2020 border clashes. The talks took place on the sidelines of the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting, where both sides agreed to continue their dialogue to ease tensions. The UAE example also shows the usefulness of backchannel efforts to facilitate talks. These instances simultaneously circumscribe the limited remit of such endeavours, wherein discussion of main issues between the disputing parties still rest on a bilateral format.
Thus, while India does not expect any third-party mediation, it does appreciate when its partners maintain a supportive stance. In this regard, the US has stated on-the-record that India can “count on the United States standing with India as it faces the challenge of its northern neighbour”. Till now, Russia has refrained from taking sides in the Sino-Indian dispute and maintained a neutral stance, which suits New Delhi. While different states take positions based on their national interests, from the Indian point of view, a Russia that is an independent player not over-dependent on China will be an overall desirable outcome.
Apart from this, India has not indicated any desire to bring in third parties to mediate in its bilateral issues. India believes it is capable of managing disputes with other countries under its own steam. In the case of China, established mechanisms between the two sides have already commenced dialogue, which if successful would “create conditions for restoration of normalcy in bilateral relations”.