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‘We are still in a crisis and need a full reset of India-China relations’

India and China must fully reset ties, says former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon , cautioning that any move to allow buffer zones, mutual pull-outs and suspending patrols at the LAC sends out the wrong message that both sides are equally responsible for the aggression.

What do you think will be the lasting impact of the stand-off at the LAC?

Well, I think there is no question that after this, India-China relations will be reset, as there is no going back on the situation before [the Ladakh stand-off]. What China did this time — pressing forward on multiple points along the LAC, then changing the definition of LAC claims, the deaths for the first time since 1975 [in the June 15 Galwan clash] — represents a significant change in Chinese behaviour. This actually calls into question the whole structure of agreements and confidence building measures that were put in place since 1988, and with the 1993 agreement, which had kept the peace on the border for some time. But this is still a crisis. I don’t see this as having been solved yet or being behind us. And I am sure that India-China relations will have to be reset after this.

What do you make of some of the terms of disengagement on both sides, the creation of buffer zones, suspending patrols on the LAC, etc.?

These [terms] are dangerous, as they suggest that we are withdrawing from territory which we have controlled consistently, and that we were part of the problem to start with. China stopped us from doing our normal patrols in these areas, which we have done for years. If we are withdrawing from territory that we have controlled, it seems to me that we are setting a dangerous pattern.

And this started with Doklam, where we negotiated withdrawals by both sides from the face-off point in 2017. The Chinese then proceeded to establish a very strong, permanent presence on the plateau, leaving the face-off point itself free. I think it is a political and diplomatic failure not to call them out for changing the status quo, something that China committed to maintain both with Bhutan and with us. So, frankly, [China] learned the lesson that as long as the Indian [government] could walk away with a propaganda victory, they could actually make gains and change the outcomes on the ground in their favour. What we are seeing is more of the same strategy that China has followed in the South China Sea where she changes facts on the ground, presents you with a fait accompli , takes two steps forward and then negotiates one step back. And if we are agreeing to a similar kind of arrangement, no matter how temporary you say it is… all these temporary arrangements tend to become relatively permanent.

So are you saying that status quo ante is something that has to be enforced soon?

What we need to do is to insist that China implement what she has committed to implement under the agreements, what she says she is committed to do, which is to respect the LAC and maintain the status quo.

There is a suggestion now that India could militarise the Quad or make the Indo-Pacific a strategic concept. Do you think that is the way for India to counter China?

Well, that is not the entire solution because India-U.S. congruence actually applies to the maritime domain. Our problem with China right now is on land… it is a continental problem and that problem is not going to be solved by the U.S. That is something we have to solve by our own self-strengthening.

You spoke of the congruence with Washington, and yet, the one message that India sent out during this time, was the visit by the Defence Minister to Moscow…

It has never been binary for us, either the U.S. or Russia or even U.S. or China. We have worked with both, and we will continue to work with both. Russia is still the source of our major military platforms. I do think that one consequence of what we have seen happening in Ladakh and the whole reset of India-China relations, will be stronger India-Russia relations as well.

What do you see as the diplomatic roadmap ahead?

You know, right now we are in the middle of the crisis. So everything is possible. We could go the 1986-88 way after Sumdorong Chu when the Chinese came in and sat on territory on our side in eastern sector. And we ended up with the Rajiv Gandhi visit, and the new understanding, the modus vivendi of 1988, which kept the peace for several years, and enabled us both to develop and grow. Or we could go the 1959-62 way, which is a steady downward spiral in the relationship where public opinion and actions drive the two sides into conflict, which is the worst option. Thirdly, we could go into a sort of “no-war, no-peace”, an indeterminate space where relations are much more adversarial. My expectation is of a sort of muddling through for the time being, but that always contains the risk of things getting worse.

(Read the full interview at

https://bit.ly/NSAMenon)

China learned that if Indian government gets a propaganda victory, they could actually make gains

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