"Greater familiarity with Chinese strategic culture needed to avoid conflict"

Shyam Saran, India’s former Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s nuclear envoy, has said avoiding a conflict with China will require the development of a “greater familiarity with China’s strategic culture.”

“China is the one power which impinges most directly on India’s geopolitical space,” Mr. Saran said, while delivering the prestigious K. Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture on Wednesday. “It is not necessary,” Mr. Saran argued, “that this adversarial relationship will inevitably generate tensions or, worse, another military conflict, but in order to avoid that India needs to fashion a strategy which is based on a constant familiarity with the Chinese strategic calculus.”

China’s strategic appraisal of India, Mr. Saran said, was contingent on the broader geostrategic environment. In 2005, he noted, China concluded a significant agreement of principles to settle its border disputes with India — responding to India’s deepening relationship with the United States and Europe. Later, though, as doubts arose on the durability of India’s rise, China held back.

In recent months, Mr. Saran said, China once again appeared to be changing course on India, in the face of a backlash against its posture in the South China Sea, the United States’ decision to enhance its military assets in the Pacific, and persistent domestic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Mr. Saran said New Delhi had been “unable to engage in active and imaginative diplomacy to leverage this opportunity to India’s enduring advantage.”

Mr. Saran provided a rare insider account of the last major India-China military standoff — the Wangdung Incident. The previous year, he recalled, China had begun to signal it was unwilling to legitimise the ceasefire line arrived at after the 1962 war as a border. “It was also conveyed to us,” he said, “that at a minimum Tawang would have to be transferred to the Chinese side.”

“When we pointed out,” Mr. Saran said, “that just 3 years back in 1982 Deng Xiaoping had himself spelt out the package proposal as we had hitherto understood it, the response was that we may have read too much into his words.”

Later, in 1986 Indian troops discovered that Chinese troops had crossed the Thagla ridge, and built permanent barracks as well as a helipad on a key feature.

“I recall accompanying Ambassador K.P.S. Menon to lodge a protest with the then Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister,” Mr. Saran said, “and being witness to a most undiplomatic, offensive and vituperative harangue by the latter.”

K. Sundarji, India’s Army Chief, meanwhile used India’s new strategic airlift capabilities to move troops to occupy parallel positions — setting up posts just 10 metres from the new Chinese positions.

India’s own political leadership, Mr. Saran said, was taken by surprise by the mercurial General Sundarji’s actions — and the Chinese infuriated. However, he argued, the operation paid off. “While we may not have planned it this way, the Chinese judged our actions through their own prism: that we had countered their unexpected move by a well orchestrated counter move of our own.”

“The lesson to be drawn,” Mr. Saran concluded, “is not that we should be militarily provocative but that we should have enough capabilities deployed to convince the other side that aggressive moves would invite counter-moves.”

More In: National | News