The only way to deal with the Chinese is directly, says Shivshankar Menon

As the Doklam spat between Beijing and New Delhi flares, the former NSA and old China hand says the neighbours need a new strategic dialogue to recalibrate their relationship

Updated - July 12, 2017 06:40 pm IST

Published - July 12, 2017 12:02 am IST

Shivshankar Menon

Shivshankar Menon

As the stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Bhutanese territory of the Doklam plateau enters its second month, former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, who is an old China hand, says Beijing is changing the status quo with its actions in the area, and it is time for a new “modus vivendi” between the two countries.

Excerpts from the interview:

You have been Ambassador to China, Foreign Secretary, National Security Adviser and the Special Representative on border talks. How serious is the situation in Doklam?

I think it is different from previous such occasions. The last most serious one was Depsang in 2013 and we had Chumar after that (2014). But basically you could say that since the 1980s we have had a modus vivendi with the Chinese. It was formalised during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1988 and then during the border peace and tranquility treaty of 1993, which contained both sides to maintaining the status quo and where they had doubts about a part of the boundary, they would actually sit down and talk their way through the problem. And that has helped keep this more or less peaceful for many, many years.

What is different this time?

It is much more complicated for three reasons. One, it is happening near the western tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China. So it involves three countries. And that’s a tri-junction area where, in principle, all three countries have to agree on the posts. Two, it represents a change in the status quo, and a considerable change, because to build a road represents a permanent presence. Three, I can’t recall this kind of rhetoric for a very long time. The spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Office saying this is very serious, and so on. In the past we have handled this sort of thing with quiet diplomacy. It wasn’t always easy, but both sides were able to achieve a resolution satisfactory to both. In most cases, it amounts to restoring the status quo and then discussing whatever issues either side might have.

That’s for the immediate incident, but there is a broader context as well. India-China ties are under stress for some time, whether it is the Chinese attitude toward the membership of the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), or Masood Azhar’s listing (as a global terrorist by the UN), or the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), all of which have come up in the last few years. My own sense that both of us must sit down and worked out a new modus vivendi  to govern the relationship. We have both since the ’80s been rubbing up against each other in the periphery we share. So we do need a new strategic dialogue to discuss how we should sort out problems. Can it be done, will it be difficult and so on? Maybe, but we must make the attempt. It is in both our interests to do so.

Isn’t it particularly worrying that the Doklam incident is taking place in an area previously considered settled, or at least not an active part of the boundary?

The Sikkim tri-junction is basically the watershed between the Amo (also called the Torsa river) and the Teesta rivers in the Chumbi valley, so it is clear, and parts of it have been settled. Since 1960, when this was discussed by both sides, both sides have constantly said that this boundary is not such a problem. But the tri-junction remained to be settled, and that is a part of the issue.

It does seem as if China is not only changing the status quo, it is taking control, however temporarily, of a significant part of the Doklam plateau by setting up tents there. What is the message China is giving here?

I am not aware of what is actually happening on the ground. On the message, you need to ask the Chinese. They are very clear about what they mean to say. And I think you should take what they say at face value. Certainly, what their Foreign Office spokesman says must be taken seriously.

Is there a similarity between what China is doing in Doklam and what is has done previously in the South China Sea… laying claim to certain areas, pushing the boundaries on where its armed forces are placed?

I’d rather not get into historical analogies, parallels and all the rest of it. And rather than guessing at their motives, I would much rather test propositions by actually sitting at a table and talking things through. That’s a more practical way than assuming and drawing lessons from around the world. You can construct beautiful theories, and many people have. But the only way to deal with the Chinese is directly, both on the ground and through a negotiation.

You mentioned theories, so I want to list some. One is that this is a reaction to India’s new alliance with the U.S. The other is that statements made in India, for example a Chief Minister questioning whether our borders are with Tibet or China, have triggered this…

There are clearly a thousand such irritants on both sides. I consider them as symptoms of stress in the relationship, a relationship that needs to be recalibrated.

Some suggest the stress point is internal for China, and President Xi Jinping is showing strength ahead of a possibly difficult Chinese Communist Party National Congress this October-November.

As a general rule, I don’t think foreign policy affects domestic politics in either India or China, certainly not to the extent most foreign policy wonks [assume it does]. India and China have very complex internal politics. None of our elections, for example, hinge on foreign policy. And in China too, like before 1962 with the Sino-Soviet polemic, foreign policy can be used in domestic debates, but it’s not what drives it. We should deal with what is on the ground and what we have, rather than where it has come from. This is not a mind-reading exercise. It is clear that we are not on the same page, which is why we need to evolve a new modus vivendi .

When it comes to the rhetoric from the Chinese side, has India adopted the correct course by not responding, issuing only one statement in the face of the barrage from Beijing?

I don’t want to second-guess the government, as I don’t know what they know. I presume they are doing what they are on the basis of facts that they possess. The ultimate test of what they do is the end result. Some of these situations take a long time to resolve. The situation at Sumdorong Chu (Wangdung, north of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, that saw action in 1986), for example, took eight-10 years to resolve.

Is it also significant that everyone is speaking of an India-China stand-off, when in fact the area under dispute is claimed by Bhutan, not India?

It is Bhutanese territory, but we are there because of Bhutan and we have a certain relationship and certain obligations to Bhutan. In this case, China’s actions have disturbed the status quo, and that needs to be addressed.

You’re saying India came to Bhutan’s rescue…

I wouldn’t use such dramatic terms; there is a relationship with them, which took us [to Bhutan]. According to our treaty, it says we will respect each other’s national interests, we don’t need more than that.

Is there a need to strengthen that treaty from 2007, as some have suggested, to include a military pact?

If you feel that you need to signal anything more politically, that you need to show more resolve towards each other than you can change it at that point, that is a political choice. I don’t think the treaty requires any changing.

A Chinese scholar has suggested that if India could come to Bhutan’s aid, then a “third country” would be justified coming to “Kashmir’s aid”, referring to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Is China playing for a broader equivalence here?

I have lived long enough to hear all kinds of rhetoric from China, from the Cultural Revolution onwards. I am not going to judge China’s official policy by what a scholar or someone trying to build a reputation says, or someone who seeks fame at home by riding a wave of nationalism. We have scholars like that too, and let them deal with each other. But I’d rather go by what China does officially, and what they communicate to us officially.

Has China’s decision to invest a considerable amount in terms of resources and reputation in the CPEC also changed the calculations?

China has gone in different directions with Pakistan in the past. In 1996, for example, President Jiang Zemin stood in the Pakistan National Assembly and counselled them to put political problems with India aside, and work on other aspects of a normal relationship, trade, travel, etc. Pakistan never took that advice. China’s stand on Kashmir has gone from calling for self-determination to calling it a bilateral problem for India and Pakistan to sort out. Today they have a commitment to Pakistan that is explicit, in terms of the CPEC. But let’s see how this evolves… We should be worried more about our own interests with China, rather than with others.

But were CPEC and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) a factor? One must note that India and Bhutan are the only countries in the region that declined to be a part of the BRI.

The CPEC is a much bigger semi-permanent commitment to Chinese presence in Pakistan, and to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and that should be noted by us. And we should deal with our direct sovereign interest with China in our relationship.

In your recent book ‘Choices’, you have spoken of the inevitability of India and China challenging each other. Is the Doklam stand-off part of that trend?

What I wrote was that China will be increasingly assertive, and so will we. It is part of our development. Our dependence on the rest of the world for our own economy has grown tremendously. In our case, when we started reforms (in early 1990s), merchandise trade was about 18% of GDP. By 2014, it had gone up to 49.3% at its peak (it has since shrunk). But the fact is, our need for the world in terms of trade has gone up many times, and the same is true for China. So we will act abroad much more, trying to create an environment that enables us to grow, to shape the environment. We have interests abroad, we will be involved in the politics of other countries as well. This is a natural consequence, and India and China have done this faster than any other economies in history.

Is the clash inevitable then?

That depends on whether we can work out a new way of dealing with each other in this changed scenario. At one stage, both our leaderships would say there is enough space for both India and China to grow. I don’t hear that so much any more, but they haven’t said the opposite either.

These are man-made issues, and that means there are solutions to them, so long as we respect each other’s core interests and manage our differences.

Given your own experiences in negotiating previous stand-offs in Depsang and Chumar, what do you think are the chances of de-escalation?

I don’t know enough about this situation. I think what worked in previous such occasions was the fact that neither side wanted to get into trouble or be embarrassed militarily. The simplest way forward is to restore the status quo ante, which means clearing the area of both armies and then talking about it. We have had stand-offs that have lasted a long time in the past too, so there are no timelines.

But do you think talks are the only way forward, or do you see the risk of a military escalation?

What would a military conflict solve from either side’s point of view? But both India and China would have to reach that same conclusion at the same point of time to avoid it.

You’re not ruling it out? Since the Chinese Foreign Ministry has invoked 1962, our Defence Minister has responded with an equally aggressive tone…

That’s an extreme, but part of any negotiation is also the threat of violence. Some of the rhetoric is often meant to make space for negotiation. So right now, we are working out the terms of engagement, but I don’t see it in either side’s interest to have a military conflict.

Since 1988, there have been incremental improvements on managing the boundary between us. Do you think the clock has been reversed?

No, not yet. They are clearly signalling that the situation is a new one. But whether they have done it to reverse the clock, or other reasons, I would be very careful to jump to any conclusions. We don’t have enough knowledge yet to draw conclusions.

Does the situation require the top leadership to be involved to clear the logjam?

Well, even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping meet for the BRICS summit in September in China, there will be some sort of preparatory meetings. We are in touch, we have Special Representatives, and we have had a series of visits from both sides. Our ministers have been in Beijing this month. So I presume they will find the ways and means to talk at all levels.

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