Looking at the pattern of China’s dealings with India in the past few years, it appears to be accommodative from one angle, but antagonistic from another. Its latest moves vis-à-vis India seem to be designed to keep India guessing, indeed on the tenterhooks ahead of the crucial G20 summit to be held in New Delhi on September 9 and 10.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen on using the G20 Presidency to pitch his claim to world leadership as the “Vishwa Guru”” and the “Voice of the Global South”. And the unstated agenda is to use the laurels that he expects to get at the summit in his bid for a third term in the May 2024 parliamentary elections.

But China is on a thinly-veiled campaign to deny India the global leadership that he seeks. This is to be achieved by taking the sheen off its efforts and even humiliating it in whatever way possible.

Thus, it will be a challenge for Modi to ensure that the G20 summit is not marred by an underlying Sino-Indian standoff and a more open clash between sworn enemies, United States and China.

While both President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will be at the summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin has opted out of physical appearance to avoid an explosive encounter with Biden over Ukraine, and indirectly sparing Modi an embarrassment.

Characteristically, the fleeting interaction of Xi and Modi at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg on August 24, has sent out mixed signals.

On the one hand, China gave the impression that it was ready to talk to India on a broad range of issues, including trade, investment and economic cooperation while continuing the ground-level parleys on the vexed border issue.

According to a Chinese readout on the interaction, 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 tranquillity in the border region.”

However, the statement pointed out that the meeting took place at the request of the Indians apparently to show that it was not China which was eager to talk.

On the other hand, the Indian Foreign Secretary, Vinay Kwatra, said that Modi highlighted India’s concerns on the unresolved issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and added that the two leaders had decided to “direct their relevant officials to intensify efforts at expeditious disengagement and de-escalation.”

The Indian side also stated that the meeting had taken place following a “long pending request from the Chinese side for it,” thus indicating that India was not over eager to talk.

The gap between the two sides was apparent despite the common goals.

Be that as it may, the statements raised hopes of a thawing of Sino-Indian relations which had frozen after the incident in Galwan in the Ladakh sector in 2020 in which 20 Indian soldiers were beaten to death by Chinese troops who claimed that area.

But despite the verbal resolve to resolve the border question through discussions, China is vitiating the atmosphere for it. It is continuing to provoke India by reviving its claim over the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh in the North East and keeping Aksai Chin in the North, which India claims.

China claims some 90,000 sq kms of territory in India’s northeast, including Arunachal Pradesh, and 38,000 sq km of its territory in the Aksai Chin Plateau, which India considers part of Ladakh.

On August 28, China produced an updated “standard map of China” that included the Doklam plateau and Arunachal Pradesh. The names of eleven places in Arunachal Pradesh were changed. The map also showed Aksai Chin as part of China.

“We reject these claims as they have no basis. Such steps by the Chinese side only complicate the resolution of the boundary question,” said External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi. He added that India had formally lodged its objection through diplomatic channels.

China has also been refusing to stamp visas on passports of residents of the State of Arunachal Pradesh travelling to China. It issues “stapled visas” on the plea that it does not recognise Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India.

China also boycotted constituent events of G20 in Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir questioning India’s sovereignty over these areas. These do not augur well for Sino-Indian relations and the success of the G20 summit.

One of the key reasons for the lack of progress in the 19 rounds of ground-level talks on the border question held so far, is the lack of flexibility on the Chinese side. While the Chinese are clear about a return to the 1959 positions, they refuse to define the Line of Actual Control (LAC), according to some Indian Generals appearing on Youtube programs.

The negotiations have created buffer zones to avoid clashes, but the buffer zones are working to China’s advantage rather than India’s in many cases. This is because China has gained territory and India has lost territory as a result of the buffer zones.

Having taken two steps forward initially, the Chinese have had to take only one step back to create the buffer zones. India on the other hand has lost land as a result of the buffer zones. Over the years, China has inched its way into Indian territory making use of the undefined border and then laid claim to them based on the dictum “occupation is ninth tenths of the law,” as Lt. General H.S. Panag put it in an interview with ‘The Print’.

According to Lt. General Prakash Menon, the border talks have an important political dimension for China. Beijing uses its military not to settle the border dispute but to contain India by giving it pinpricks, he says and stem its rise to power in the region.

China’s larger goal is to weaken India in the sub-continent and reduce its ability to play an effective role in China’s ongoing confrontation with the US and its allies.

And India is reticent in its response because of its current economic and military asymmetry vis-a-vis China. And that is being exploited by China.

Beijing is resolutely challenging India in its backyard in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, not to mention Pakistan which has been its long-standing ally against India.

But China’s policy of harassing India is pushing New Delhi into the arms of the US and the West which are the sworn enemies of China. It is China’s refusal to settle the border dispute, its support to Pakistan-based terrorists and its intrusions into India’s traditional spheres of influence, which have forced India to become part of the US-led QUAD and oppose Beijing’s flagship international development project, the Belt and Road Initiative.

If China stops harassing India, it will stand to gain enormously as India is the biggest market in Asia. And given its technical and manpower strengths, India could be a very useful development partner to make Asia the centre of global power in place of the US and Europe.

President Xi Jinping does call for Sino-India cooperation to achieve this objective but does not acknowledge India’s legitimate historical and sovereign rights and its rightful place in the comity of nations.