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India gets new ambassador from China, but mistrust lingers

Map showing the location of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi
Map showing the location of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi

China’s appointment late last week of a new ambassador to India fills a seat that Beijing left vacant for 18 months. It’s a small step for two big Asian rivals but one that is unlikely to resolve mistrust between the two countries, analysts say.

Arriving in New Delhi last Friday, Xu Feihong, 60, replaces Sun Weidong, who stepped down in late 2022. VOA reached out to the Chinese Embassy and China’s foreign ministry on the new posting and the long delay but did not receive a response to a request for comment.

In a post on X after his arrival, Xu said he was looking forward to "working hard with all for #China-#India relations." The new ambassador has been busy on the social media platform highlighting the potential of ties, updating with a post and photo Wednesday of him handing over his letter of credence to India’s foreign ministry.

Xu has served as China’s ambassador to Afghanistan from March 2011 to August 2013 and as Beijing’s top envoy in Romania.

In one recent post on X, the new ambassador noted that the leaders of both China and India have agreed on an important assessment that both are "cooperation partners, not competitors," and that the two are "each other’s development opportunities, not threats."

Earlier this week, the India-based research group Global Trade Research Initiative said that according to data for the fiscal year of 2024, China narrowly surpassed the U.S. as India’s largest trading partner after a decline over the past two years. Prior to that, China was India’s largest trading partner from 2008 to 2021.

However, some Indian analysts see relations as strained and tense, particularly following a deadly 2020 border clash that saw Beijing take control of disputed territory.

"There is a desire for improved relations on both sides," said Lt. Gen. SL Narasimhan, a New Delhi-based China expert and former Beijing-based military attaché. "But at the same time, not much should be read into the appointment of a new envoy. There is a serious trust issue between two countries after the Galwan Valley conflict in June 2020."

"But for India, peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are central to this relationship," said Narasimhan.

China and India's disputed territories
China and India's disputed territories

Some, like Associate Professor of China Studies Sriparna Pathak, say that leaving the position open for so long was a sign of disrespect from Beijing.

"Considering the state of India-China relations ... China not sending the ambassador to India [for such a long period of time] clearly indicates that it ... looks down upon India, and that has been made obvious an ample number of times," said Pathak, referring to Beijing's rejection of New Delhi's request to pull troops back to positions that preceded the deadly 2020 border clashes in Galwan, a disputed region of the Himalaya's.

Pathak, of New Delhi's Jindal Global University, also said New Delhi took offense to Beijing's decision to name People's Liberation Army Commander Qi Fabao a torchbearer in the 2022 Winter Olympics torch relay. Qi was widely known for his involvement in a 2020 border clash that killed two Chinese troops and at least 20 Indians.

India responded by joining Britain, Canada and the U.S. in a diplomatic boycott of the games, which several Western nations launched in response to China’s treatment of ethnic Uyghurs in the remote western region of Xinjiang.

In 2022, the two militaries clashed at least two more times, though no casualties were reported. Tens of thousands of troops remain massed on both sides.

Beijing and New Delhi have so far held 21 rounds of military talks and 29 rounds of diplomatic negotiations to address the standoff.

Following a round of talks in March, India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told India’s NDTV that his "first duty to Indians is to secure the border. I can never compromise on that."

He also went on to say that a normal relationship cannot be envisaged between India and China until China moves back to its pre-2020 position on its borders.

In a May 7 interview granted to Indian and Chinese media, Ambassador Xu said relations between the two countries should not be defined by any single issue or area.

"The overall border situation is stable and under control, and border areas are peaceful and tranquil," he said. "China is ready to work with India to accommodate each other's concerns, find a mutually acceptable solution to specific issues through dialogue at an early date, and turn the page as soon as possible."

The last time the role of China’s top diplomat to India remained empty for more than a year was from 1962 to 1976 and was also linked to a border conflict. The 1962 Sino-Indian War was fueled by border skirmishes and the 1959 Tibetan uprising against rule by communist China, which saw the Dalai Lama flee to India.

The fact that India has continued to give refuge to the Tibetan spiritual leader has been a thorn in relations between New Delhi and Beijing, which exercises strict control over Tibet and its leaders.

The 1962 war saw Chinese troops attack and take over disputed territory in the Aksai Chin region along the two countries’ borders. The fighting resulted in thousands of Indian soldiers, and hundreds of Chinese troops, being killed or captured.