Ashok K Kantha was India’s Ambassador to Beijing from January 2014 to January 2016. He is a retired diplomat and policy expert with a deep and sophisticated understanding of China and Sino-Indian relations. He spoke with Sushant Singh in New Delhi on September 12. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
On how the crisis came about, why it escalated rapidly
This question keeps coming up whenever such an incident happens. Frankly, given the opacity of the Chinese system, it is very difficult to figure out the motivations on their side. But Doklam is emblematic of a China that is more assertive, a China that defines its territorial claims as its core interest, a China that is prepared to realise those claims through unilateral action.
I would be reluctant to link their action in Doklam directly with what we did with respect to (President Xi Jinping’s) One Belt One Road (initiative, which India has declined to be part of); I would be more inclined to relate it to a pattern of behaviour that has manifested itself, for example, with respect to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea where, notwithstanding the categorical award given against it by an arbitral tribunal (UNCLOS, to which both China and its challenger, the Philippines, are signatories) in July 2016, it has maintained a position on the ground, and has enforced it. It has changed the facts on the ground, and others have had to largely adjust to the new facts.
I also suspect, given the pattern of creeping Chinese encroachments on disputed areas, it expected Bhutan to accept the new reality (of a wider, permanent Chinese presence) in Doklam, and it did not expect India to step in. But India and Bhutan did not follow the script. Bhutan remonstrated on the ground, and Indian troops physically prevented the Chinese from constructing the road (through the plateau in the direction of the Jampheri ridge that overlooks India’s Siliguri Corridor). This, I suspect, the Chinese did not expect.
Also — and this is something for which I do not have an answer — what was it that led China to up the ante in the way it did during the standoff? Their behaviour in Doklam was very different from what we witnessed during the standoffs in 2013 and 2014.
On whether, despite the disengagement at Doklam, the border crisis is really over
I would say that disengagement is a very positive development, because the military standoff was a potentially dangerous situation. I was not really concerned that war might break out — both India and China have invested too much in the relationship to simply walk into a war — but there was always the possibility of untoward incidents happening, and that situation has not changed. We have to keep in mind that while mutual disengagement has been achieved, Chinese troops are still present in the area. So far, there was no permanent presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) there; Chinese graziers and patrols came and went, but if they manage to now achieve permanent deployment in the wake of the Doklam standoff, in that case, I think, status quo ante as of June 16 has not been achieved, and the situation has been materially changed. Second, we should be prepared for more Doklams — because we have an inherently unstable situation; the Chinese are forceful about realising their territorial claims, and there are big differences in perception on the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). And the Chinese have demonstrated a pattern of creeping encroachment, of moving towards their claim line.
On whether the peaceful rise of both India and China is possible simultaneously
We do have major differences on territorial claims — we don’t even agree on the length of the boundary. I would not say a simultaneous peaceful rise is impossible, but it will, indeed, be the primary challenge in the management of the relationship. China has a sense of its destiny — President Xi describes the Chinese dream as fu xing, which means ‘restoration’. It is a largely imagined narrative of a certain primacy they had in the past, in which the 100-odd years of colonial exploitation were an aberration, and they believe the centrality of China in the international order should now be restored. But that is something a country like India will not accept. India does not look at an India-centric order, but it will not accept a subsidiary or junior position (to China) either. In the run-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China in May 2015, I had asked my Chinese interlocutors how we should deal with the simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers, and the joint statement devoted a whole paragraph to this question. Essentially, we agreed that our simultaneous re-emergence should happen in a mutually supportive manner, in which we are mindful of each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations. But that is the basic template — how we translate that into reality is the challenge. I would suggest that it is by no means ordained that India and China would be adversaries — we would be competitors, no doubt, but there will be elements of both competition and cooperation. How exactly the mix pans out remains to be seen.
On whether Doklam shows that existing mechanisms of cooperation have failed
No, and the credit for that goes to both sides. Through joint efforts on the part of officials and political leaders on both sides, we have put in place a fairly elaborate architecture to manage border-related issues. We have as many as six agreements (signed in 1993, 1996, 2003, 2005, 2012 and 2013) which together provide for all the requisite mechanisms and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to deal with all situations, and even very specific ones that occur from time to time — such as the patrols from the two sides coming face to face, or even going behind each other on the LAC (the claims with regard to which vary) — and in 95% of situations, it all works out beautifully. But sometimes, the patrols don’t follow the script, and you then have a situation like the one that occurred in 2013 (Depsang) or 2014 (Chumar) — but even in those cases, and indeed, in every single case, the standoff has been resolved amicably, and that is no mean achievement, given that our differences are fairly significant.
On whether the Chinese will continue to play by the rules
That is going to be a challenge. We don’t need more agreements for the sake of agreements, we must instead ensure that the existing agreements are implemented. For example, there has been an agreement since 1996 that we will arrive at a common understanding of the LAC. But in 2002, the Chinese unilaterally disrupted the process of exchange of maps, and there has been no progress in the last 15 years with regard to clarification of the LAC. The issue was raised personally by the Prime Minister during President Xi’s visit, but unfortunately, there has been no positive response from the Chinese side, and they are essentially stonewalling. There has been a pattern on the Chinese side of making commitments, and then disregarding those commitments, which is not a very comfortable situation to be in.
On whether the PLA has a veto over the leadership’s decisions
I do not buy the argument that border maps are not being exchanged because the PLA has vetoed the process. My understanding of the political dynamics within the establishment in China is that the party is fully in command, and the PLA does not defy the instructions of the party. I think what has happened is that they have reached the conclusion that clarification of the LAC is not in their interest, and they would like to maintain ambiguity with regard to LAC — partly because it gives them the space to keep moving the LAC, and partly because they are concerned that the LAC, as it is defined, may become one of the major determinants of the boundary, which they do not want to agree to at present.
On why despite ambiguity, the LAC is quiet, while LoC is not
I would suggest that it is the result of good diplomacy on the part of both India and China. Despite the differences between them, there has been no incident resulting in a loss of lives since the 1975 Tulung La incident (in Arunachal Pradesh), and this has been because, as I mentioned earlier, we have managed to put in place a fairly elaborate architecture of SOPs and CBMs which have by and large ensured peace and tranquility.
On whether the strains of the Doklam conflict have served to push Bhutan away from India
There is absolutely no doubt that Bhutan is being subjected to saam, daam, danda, bheda by its large northern neighbour, but if you look at the Bhutanese behaviour during the standoff, and the comments it made subsequently, I think the Bhutanese stayed the course. Their statement of June 29 (asking China to return to pre-June 16 positions) was very categorical, as was the statement of August 29 (welcoming the disengagement, and hoping it would contribute to the maintenance of peace and tranquility and the status quo along the borders of Bhutan, China and India, in keeping with existing agreements between the parties). During 24 rounds of boundary talks between China and Bhutan, Bhutan has maintained a very firm position. So, I don’t think we are in any immediate danger of Bhutan peeling away and taking a position that is detrimental to our interests. This is also because basic interests of India and Bhutan coincide on this issue.
On India’s handling of its neighbours vis-à-vis China
There are many factors here. China does offer itself as a countervailing force vis-à-vis India, which holds some attraction for countries in the neighbourhood. For some, such as Pakistan, it is more — their alliance with China has India as the strategic glue — but even others would like to use it to get a better deal. What we need to do in the neighbourhood essentially is to not compete with China in trying to outbid it; China has much deeper pockets, but we have different strengths, and we should try to build on those strengths. Tremendous natural synergies exist between India and its neighbours in South Asia, we need to build on those synergies, we need to ensure that the economic growth of India is seen as a huge opportunity for the neighbourhood, we need to offer non-reciprocal advantages to these countries, which motivates and encourages them to look at India as an opportunity rather than as a threat or a challenge. And I believe that with our focus on greater connectivity and a ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, we are, on the whole, moving in the right direction, even though there is a need to do more, and at a faster pace.
On why some neighbours sometimes look at India as the big brother
Well, it derives partly from the asymmetry in size between India and its neighbours, taken individually — which has its own dynamics. Sometimes, these countries have internal apprehensions that are very difficult to address. I have served in Kathmandu and Colombo, and I can tell you that these fears are not entirely reasonable. But this is also partly because of certain mistakes that we have made in the past, so I think there is need for some introspection on what we did that created this anxieties. All our neighbours — Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, even Bhutan — have a very strong sense of independence, and sometimes we are not sufficiently sensitive to their sense of self identity.