Trump offers to mediate “raging” standoff between China and India – what’s it all about?

Trump offers to mediate “raging” standoff between China and India – what’s it all about?

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday waded into the tense border standoff between India and China, saying he was “ready, willing and able to mediate” between the two Asian neighbours, a statement that could irk Beijing more than New Delhi.

Shortly before Trump made his offer through a tweet, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference in Beijing that the situation on the China-India border was “generally stable and controllable.” The sides were communicating through both their front-line military units and their respective embassies to “properly resolve relevant issues through dialogue and consultation,” Zhao said.

China is committed to abiding by agreements signed by the sides and to “maintaining peace and stability in the border area between China and India”, he said.

China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, made a pitch for putting ties back on an even keel. Without referring to the border standoff, Sun told a webinar that the two sides “pose no threat to each other” and should “never let the differences shadow the overall… bilateral cooperation”. At the same time, he added, they should seek “understanding through communication and constantly resolve differences”.

There was no official reaction to both developments from Indian officials, but people familiar with developments acknowledged that the two sides were in contact through diplomatic channels in both New Delhi and Beijing to address the situation.

The Indian side has already made it clear that it won’t allow any unilateral alteration of the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) even as it works towards a peaceful resolution of the worst stand-off since the 73-day face-off between border troops at Doklam in 2017.

Trump, who has in the past repeatedly offered to mediate between India and Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir and been rebuffed by New Delhi, said he had informed India and China of his offer. However, this couldn’t be independently confirmed.

“We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!” he tweeted.

The US has been closely tracking the latest flare-up on the India-China border, and Trump’s remarks came a week after his administration’s outgoing pointperson for South Asia, Alice Wells, strongly backed the Indian position in the standoff and said such disputes are a “reminder of the threat posed by China”.

The flare-ups were a “reminder that Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical”, Wells told reporters on May 20. “And so whether it’s in the South China Sea or whether it’s along the border with India, we continue to see provocations and disturbing behaviour by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power,” she had said.

Chinese envoy Sun Weidong, while fielding questions during the webinar organised by the Confederation of Young Leaders (CYL), underscored the importance of developing bilateral relations and deepening understanding of the “important consensus reached” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping.

Without any reference whatsoever to the standoff, Sun said: “We should adhere to the basic judgment that China and India are each other’s opportunities and pose no threat to each other. We need to see each other’s development in a correct way and enhance strategic mutual trust.

“We should correctly view our differences and never let the differences shadow the overall situation of bilateral cooperation. At the same time, we should gradually seek understanding through communication and constantly resolve differences.”

The “‘Dragon and Elephant dancing together’ is the only right choice for China and India” as it serves the fundamental interests of both countries, which should also strengthen cooperation in investment, production and other fields, Sun said.

Sun referred to the responses of both countries to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic and said China “will continue to provide assistance to India within our capacity” to fight the pandemic. He also said the two sides will try to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations in various ways despite the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Indian Army’s top brass discussed security issues, including the border row with China in eastern Ladakh, where thousands of Indian and Chinese soldiers are locked in a standoff at multiple points, officials said.

Soldiers from both sides are eyeball-to-eyeball at four locations along the LAC and several rounds of talks between local military commanders have failed to break the deadlock.

The situation in eastern Ladakh was discussed in detail at the three-day army commanders’ conference that began on Wednesday. “The apex level leadership of Indian Army will brainstorm on current emerging security and administrative challenges and chart the future course for the army,” an army spokesperson said on Tuesday.

Trump’s offer to mediate came against the backdrop of steadily rising hostility and antipathy towards China in the US over the Covid-19 outbreak, which followed months of differences over trade and mounting irritation over alleged theft of intellectual property.

People closely involved with India-US discussions said Trump’s tweet conformed to continuing hardening of his antipathy for China, driven by powerful hawks in his administration.

“It’s a move to poke the Chinese, surely, much like a class teacher calling two squabbling students,” said a person familiar with these matters on condition of anonymity. “China believes it belongs to a more senior class, the argument goes, and will not take kindly to being monitored with India by a higher authority.”

India is likely to reject Trump’s offer, as it has rejected all third-party mediation in any of its international disputes as a matter of policy, which has bipartisan endorsement from all political parties.

Trump and his Republican allies have attacked China relentlessly over the Covid-19 outbreak in a bid to hold it responsible for its spread in the US. Trump has also called for an independent investigation into the origin of the outbreak and American officials have suggested the virus might have leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan.

About two-thirds of Americans — 66% — have an unfavourable view of China, according to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in March. “This is the most negative rating for the country since the Center began asking the question in 2005 and is up nearly 20 percentage points since the start of the Trump administration (January 2017),” the research body said.

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