An interview with Zhou Gang, former Chinese Ambassador to India

Zhou Gang, who served as China’s Ambassador in New Delhi between 1998 and 2001, is one of the senior-most advisers to the Chinese government on relations with India. A former Ambassador to Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, the retired career diplomat today serves as Special Adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Zhou also sits on the elite Foreign Policy Advisory Group (FPAG), a select body of former diplomats that advises top leaders.

As the only member of the FPAG who specialises on India-China relations, Mr. Zhou is in the unique position of knowing how China’s new leaders, who took over in March, view the future of the relationship. In an interview with Ananth Krishnan conducted over an hour at a Beijing teahouse, Mr. Zhou answered questions about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China, which begins on Wednesday. He discussed prospects of resolving the boundary question, the future of ties under the new Chinese leadership, and why China is yet to back India’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Excerpts.

What are the expectations in Beijing ahead of this week’s visit?

This is the first time since 1954 that we have had two visits by Prime Ministers in one year. Back then, Premier Zhou Enlai travelled to India, followed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru coming to China. Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to your country in May, his first overseas visit after assuming the Prime Ministership, was of great importance, because it shows the new leadership in China values relations with India.

The volume of bilateral trade between our two countries has been reduced to some extent last year, but still registered about $66 billion. India is today one of the biggest markets for Chinese companies for contracting projects. The volume of signed contracts has exceeded $60 billion. This relationship of a new type between two neighbouring countries is extremely positive for stability in our region and in the world as a whole. During the next few days, you will witness the importance Chinese leaders attach to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

If you look at China’s periphery, you are currently involved in territorial and maritime disputes in the east with Japan, in the south with more than 10 countries over the South China Sea, and in the southwest with India. Some have seen the recent disputes as reflecting a newly assertive China.

As far as the China-India border dispute is concerned, it was left over by history. Our two countries have conducted talks on the border issue starting from the 1960s. We continued in the late 1970s in different forums. I think both of us are of the view that it is important to address the border issue. The final settlement of the boundary issue will greatly promote bilateral relations.

Talks between the two Special Representatives of China and India during the last eight years have achieved a lot in reaching agreement on guiding principles during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2005, and in setting up a new working mechanism on consultation on boundary issues [last year]. At the same time, generally speaking, the two countries have maintained peace and tranquillity on the border. I think that is not easy. This means the two countries are quite prudent, and have done the most to avoid incidents on the border. As the border issue is very complicated, I think we must take a positive attitude to push the talks to go forward. At the same time, we must be patient. When the time is ripe, the leadership of our two countries must take the political decision and reach consensus on a settlement which will be accepted by both of us.

Of course, we have some maritime differences and disputes with some of the neighbouring countries, namely Japan and some ASEAN countries. As far as the dispute over the Diaoyu islands (or Senkaku islands as they are known in Japan) is concerned, it is Japan which violated the consensus between the leaders of the older generation in the 1970s. Japan tries to change the status quo by declaring the so-called purchase of the islands. I think the responsibility is entirely with the Japanese side, so it is quite different from our [dispute], where we are trying… to ease the situation and maintain peace and tranquillity. But the Japanese are doing otherwise.

As for the Nansha [Spratly] islands dispute between China and some ASEAN countries namely Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, I think China wants to maintain friendly relations with these countries. I think we have achieved some results during the recent visit by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand. You may have noticed the recent step forward between China and Vietnam [on joint exploration in the South China Sea].

India and China are expected to sign a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement during Dr. Singh’s visit. In April, the two armies were involved in a tense stand-off along the border in Depsang, in Ladakh, triggered by a Chinese incursion, which took three weeks to be resolved. How do you see the current situation on the border?

The agreement you mentioned will be one of the significant results of this visit. If anything happens, it should be resolved more quickly, [but] also in a patient way and pragmatic manner. That is the common objective of our two countries because we learned lessons from the past. What happened in April this year will rarely happen in the future.

We must also let the people know about the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity on the border, on the importance of settling the border issue through patient talks and negotiations. The attitude must be positive but we must let people know the difficulty and complexity of the issue. It is more important that we pay more attention on the economic relationship. If more people visit each other, they will have more knowledge about each other. Last year, we had only seven lakh people travelling. This is very low. You can see the huge exchanges between China and the Republic of Korea [South Korea]. There are over 200 flights a week, six million people travelling. With the U.S., it is around four million. I think the two governments should further ease the visa procedures. In these things, India must learn from the ROK, and other Asian countries. Your relevant departments must have a positive attitude.

You spoke about the two countries’ common interests on global issues. But on United Nations Security Council reforms, China is the only P5 country not to back India. What is behind the reluctance?

U.N. reforms are a big question. It is a common consensus of ours to have reforms in the U.N., including the Security Council. But the reforms involve the interests of the vast member states of the U.N., and the important interests of the big powers. They have differences. At one recent seminar, I told Indian scholars, I personally think it is not good for India to push your application for permanent membership of the UNSC together with other countries.

Do you mean Japan specifically? [India has allied its bid with Japan, Germany and Brazil.]

You may ask, is it good for a country that challenged the anti-Fascist war, challenged the post-war situation, are they qualified to be a permanent member of the UNSC?

We understand and respect your aspirations and support India to play a more important role internationally, including at the U.N. and the UNSC. It is what China can do at the present, because we know the difficulties of reaching consensus and we know the differences between different members of the U.N.

Sometimes I advise my Indian friends, do you think the attitude of the U.S. is positive? Do you think the U.S. really, from the bottom of its heart, supports India’s application? The U.S. knows the record of voting by India in the U.N. in the past! After President Obama’s visit to India and his statement of support, one U.S. scholar told me what President Obama promised to India is the easiest commitment as the U.S. will spend nothing, but the public announcement will be welcomed. If there is more developing countries’ representation in the UNSC, it will be helpful [to China]. So I told my Indian friends, you must see China’s positive attitude on this issue, but at the same time you must understand their difficult position to publicly voice support.

ananth.krishnan@thehindu.co.in