The sense of dÃ©jÃ vu, that the sense of dÃ©jÃ vu is inescapable, is inescapable.
That "China's basic policy towards India remains unchanged" is the most " and dare I say, only " key takeaway from Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong's address at a webinar titled 'China-India Relations: The Way Forward' organised on Thursday by the Institute of Chinese Studies. And the basis for this pithy " and it could be argued, somewhat unkind " assessment is that this is how it has been for much of the recent past.
Through Depsang, Doka La and now Galwan Valley, it's always been the same old story: China is not a threat, China wants peaceful cooperation and China will uphold its sovereignty. There's also the "Expansion? What expansion?" asked with the mix of genuine shock and hurt one feels after being slapped across the face with a cold wet fish.
After the Depsang incursion in 2013, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, "Our troops are patrolling on the Chinese side of the [Line of Actual Control] and have never trespassed the line." In 2017, as the Doka La standoff was escalating, the ministry spokesperson Lu Kang displayed photographs of the border at a press briefing and accused India of having "transgressed", "trespassed" and mounted an "incursion" into Chinese territory. And in June after Galwan Valley, spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, "None of the responsibility lies with China... it is the Indian border troops who crossed the line first... it is the Indian side that violated bilateral consensus and started provocations first... it is the India side that violated international rules and attacked the Chinese side first" and so on.
What must be understood clearly is that it is never China's fault.
After all, as Sun claimed, "China has never claimed any land outside its own territory" and that "[the] label of 'expansionist' cannot be pinned on China". Instead, as the ambassador went to great lengths to explain, "China has always emphasised win-win cooperation in its development. While developing itself rapidly, China has contributed more than 30 percent to world economic growth and over 70 percent to global poverty reduction for many years in a row. China never exported refugees, let alone wars. Instead, China has shared its development dividends with others. China's contributions to the world are obvious to all."
Was it one of those 'obvious to all' contributions " this time in the South China Sea " of which the ambassador speaks that saw Malaysia issue an 'unusually strong statement' against China at the United Nations? Don't bother answering that one; let's move on.
Borders, boundaries and lines
Over the decades, the two Asian countries have set up countless mechanisms to facilitate dialogue on a variety of topics relevant to the bilateral relationship, not least of which is the geographical delineation of the two countries. Whether the two sides wish to call it a border, a boundary or a line, there is very little clarity on exactly where it lies and this isn't helped by Chinese evasiveness when it comes to exchanging maps with India so that both sides can figure out each other's point of view. And as the next section will point out, this is not on account of a misunderstanding or anything of the sort.
The LAC that spans 4,056 kilometres is broadly divided into three sectors: The western sector at Ladakh, the middle sector at Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and the eastern sector at Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. India and China have over the years held 22 Special Representatives meetings with a view to settling the lingering question of just where the border lies. And in this time, only maps pertaining to the middle sector have changed hands formally (in 2001). It is here that the two countries have identified a few disagreements on where they differ on the LAC.
When it comes to the eastern sector, the matter is off the table, considering Beijing believes Arunachal Pradesh is a part of a Chinese region called Southern Tibet. As for the western sector, as this article points out, "The last clarification of the LAC occurred in 2002 when the Indian and Chinese sides shared the maps of their respective LACs in the western sector pertaining to Ladakh. The Chinese delegation refused to accept the map, and the maps were not formally exchanged."
And as it stands, China's position is that it will not exchange maps because then that would formalise it as the international boundary. But dialogue about the line between the two countries continues despite there being no consensus on where said line lies. That's cartography with Chinese characteristics for you.
Basic policy remains unchanged
When Xi Jinping was appointed general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, he publicly used the phrase "qiang zhongguo meng" which translates loosely to "strong nation dream", a variation on the "Chinese dream". Following the relative calm, within China and beyond its borders, of Hu Jintao's presidency came the Xi era that saw him embark on a number of measures including securing his own future as 'president for life', launching Document 9 that targeted those accused of rebelling against or colluding with western elements against Chinese ideology, putting in place military reform and tightening his grip on the people of Xinjiang province, Tibet, Taiwan and most recently, Hong Kong. "To him, seizing control was the only way to ensure security," as this article neatly summarises. This is an appropriate point at which to revisit Sun's remarks at Thursday's webinar.
First, he said, "I want to point out emphatically that Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Xizang (Tibet) affairs are totally China's internal affairs and bear on China's sovereignty and security. While China doesn't interfere in other country's domestic affairs, it allows no external interference and never trades its core interests either." Alternating between dismissing criticism about its actions by claiming they are 'internal' matters " something India has begun to do with greater regularity of late " and playing the victim card (most notably when it is accused of cyber espionage) is a tried and tested formula under Xi and Beijing isn't going to be rushing to change that any time soon.
Second, the Chinese ambassador began his address by touching upon India-China relations and added, "[The] precious experience we have learned is that, we should unswervingly adhere to the strategic guidance of our leaders." At first sight, for a democracy like India, that sentence is jarring anyway, but a closer look unveils a subtext that only becomes clear over the course of the envoy's full set of remarks. Beneath all the warm fuzzy tautologies about "developing good-neighbourly and friendly relations", the message being driven is that China is the undisputed leader in the region and the other countries will do well to 'unswervingly adhere'. After all, it isn't a major coincidence, a curious set of circumstances, a language barrier or a major misunderstanding that has seen 22 Special Representative meetings pass without an exchange of a complete set of maps.
It is that way because Beijing wants it to be that way.
And why not? China is the big power and can afford to string the smaller powers along. So whether it's Depsang, Doka La, TikTok, Tibet, Tuting or Galwan Valley, it is as the ambassador said: "Basic policy remains unchanged."