India – China ‘More dangerous than before’

‘More dangerous 3

By Sheela Bhatt

‘Why has the peace been kept?’

‘Basically because there is a balance.’

‘Maybe they think that balance has changed.’

‘If that is the cause, then I think what we have done, matching their build-up, etc, it is giving a good account of ourselves in the face-offs.’

“They have come to the conclusion that our relationship with the US has now reached a whole new stage where we are no longer neutral vis a vis the China-US thing and therefore, they want to try and take some counter measures,” Shivshankar Menon, former national security adviser, former foreign secretary and former Indian ambassador to China, Senior Contributor Sheela Bhatt in the third part of an exclusive and eloquent interview.

Prime Minister Modi’s talks with Xi Jinping at various venues these last six years have not yielded results. You know, personal relations are not politics. You are dealing here basically with a 4,000-year-old bureaucracy! And President Xi Jinping is the leader of that bureaucracy. I don’t think any of us ever thought that charm between heads of State, heads of government especially can get results when we have a complicated relationship which has been deteriorating in the last few years.

Yes, it is important that they meet, that they try and talk these issues out. But what worries me is that they didn’t manage to produce a new strategic framework for the relationship what we had done in 1988 during the Rajiv Gandhi visit when we had a basic agreement and that lasted, that kept the peace for over 30 years. But I think the problem now is that both countries have changed, the situation has changed, and therefore we need a new understanding, a new strategic framework, but this is not the way to reach it.

Now, relations are so tense, when you have had deaths on the border for the first time since 1975, when actually emotions are very high, so it seems to me we are actually in a much more difficult position, a dangerous position in the relationship than we have been for a very long time. Do you think Parliament’s 1993 resolution that asserts India’s claim on all of Jammu and Kashmir including the areas currently under Pakistan occupation is a speed-breaker to take a political decision then and now?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t see that as a problem at all actually because ultimately we have the ability under law — and the Supreme Court has upheld this to make adjustments — not to seed Indian territory, but to make adjustments and the standard against which that is done.

As it was done with Bangladesh?

No, it is the map that is attached to the Constitution of India in 1950 when it was adopted. And that map, if you look at it, gives you a certain amount of leeway. So I don’t think there is a legal problem there. But there is a question of political will. After all, this is a big ask of any political leader, that you are going to tell us to change the way we learnt in school to draw the map of India, which we can all draw. We learned as children.

But are we going to change that? For any political leader, that’s a big decision to take, and I’m not saying just for an Indian leader. It is a big decision for a Chinese leader and certainly for leaders who base their legitimacy on nationalism, on pride, I think, it becomes a more difficult decision. At the Special Representatives talks on border settlement that you were part of, was the Galwan Valley a hotly debated issue? No.

Not even Pangong Tso Lake?

Pangong is a different issue, but Galwan has not been an area between India and China where there were differences of perception on where the LAC (Line of Actual Control) was until now. The Chinese have now opened it up as a dispute. Do you think this stand-off occurred because of the dilution of Article 370? During a Parliamentary debate, India reiterated its claim on Aksai China and Pakistan occupied Kashmir?

My personal opinion, no. Because if it were, the Chinese would say so. Have you heard the Chinese mention it once? Nothing. None of their statements states it. Their ministry of defence, foreign office, political leaders, nobody has ever said that. They made a proforma response when it happened. iIn August-September, they raised it at the UN security council to embarrass you and to help their client, Pakistan, but this is not a trigger for this kind of action, not at all.

Don’t forget, you and I don’t know what the Chinese are saying in the negotiations and that is very important because that will tell you what they are actually about, what they want out of this. But I don’t see how the change in the status of Ladakh, making it a Union Territory impacted. This is not the answer to that clearly.

Are China watchers in India failing to read China?

I do want to say in defence of India’s China scholars and experts that on all the big issues, whether it was the Sino-Soviet split, the Cultural Revolution, the end of the Cold War and how China would react, what China would do on our boundary, all these things, we have been consistently right. We have predicted every single Chinese leader who has risen to the top and invited him to India before he rose to the top.

If you look at the previous leaders of China, they have all been here long before — whether it was Li Peng all the way to Xi Jinping. So, please don’t question India’s China watching skills. What governments do is different from what we analyse. Governments have their own reason and their own calculus to follow. We have understanding how the process works in China, what China as a State is likely to do, where it is likely to go. I don’t think we have a bad record at all.

We understood Sino-Soviet ties long before the Americans were willing to believe it. And I can go on with instances over the last 50 years where Indians’s China watching has actually been better than most. And here I don’t mean only government, I mean the whole China watching community, which is not very big, by the way. Do you think the Ladakh stand-off is a small move in China’s larger strategic game? Is it a part of a new world order that China wants to create?

I think it is part of a general shift in Chinese behaviour of a much more assertive China, a China that is pushing forward. My own personal understanding is that this comes from the domestic stress that China is under. Not only because of covid, but because of their deteriorating relationship with the US, which now seems to be structural. It seems like that contention will continue for some time with the diminishing prospects because of the world economy.

So, that China dream, this idea that China would be a developed country, will take centre-stage, and the various stages that they have spoken of, I think, all that is in question now, to be much more assertive on their periphery, with all of us. With Japan, with Hong Kong, with Taiwan, with Vietnam, with others in the South China Sea, and with us.

So, for me, that is probably a better explanation than to find individual acts of omission or commission that India or somebody else has done. I think it is more part of internal dynamics. If you think of the 1962 war, one reason that the Chinese went to war against us, launched that war was because there were division within the (Chinese) leadership, it was part of Mao’s comeback to power.

And, frankly, it seems to me that this is a similar moment in terms of tensions within China and we are probably seeing the external manifestations of that. China’s risk-taking propensity actually goes up in terms of internal trouble and crisis.

Is China in any way reacting to Prime Minister Modi’s politics, ideology, style?

You know, I wouldn’t personalise this relationship. There are two things that could have happened, but, as I said, till you know exactly what is being said in the negotiation, I mean the Chinese are certainly not explaining why they are doing this today. We are still in the middle of it, don’t forget. But there are two things that could explain it.

One is, that they have come to the conclusion that our relationship with the US has now reached a whole new stage where we are no longer neutral vis a vis the China-US thing and therefore, they want to try and take some counter measures. Now, in that case, that’s not very sensible policy because this will only put our backs up and make us work.

China wants India to keep its strategic autonomy. Is it?

No, they want you to keep your distance from the US. The autonomy? No. They would rather want that you did what they (China) want. That’s one explanation. The other more worrying explanation is that they think, you know there has been an effective balance of power on the border which has kept the peace. After all, why has the peace been kept? Not only because of other distractions or because of goodwill, but basically because there is a balance.

Both can embarrass each other along this line (LAC). Maybe they think that balance has changed. Maybe. People can make mistakes. People can miscalculate. Now let’s see, if that is the cause, then I think what we have done, matching their build- up, etc, it is giving a good account of ourselves by all accounts in the face-offs. Let us see, maybe that will lead them to reconsider what they are doing, but it is going to be a hard take, today we cannot say. But these are, for me, the two possibilities that we need to look at.

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