Shyam Saran: ‘China’s reaction was so vitriolic because it did not expect India to confront it at Doklam’

Former Foreign Secretary and strategic affairs expert Shyam Saran explained to readers of The Indian Express the ways in which China thinks, its motivations, and the changing contours of its ties with Pakistan.

By: Express News Service | Updated: September 29, 2017 8:45 am
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Shyam Saran is one of India’s most celebrated diplomats and foreign policy experts. He was Foreign Secretary from July 2004 to September 2006, when he played a key role in negotiating the India-US civil nuclear deal, and subsequently went on to serve as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Nuclear Affairs and Climate Change, and the Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board. He spoke with Jyoti Malhotra in Mumbai on September 19. Edited excerpts from the conversation:

On similarities and differences between India and China

The late 1940s, as India won Independence and the People’s Republic of China was founded, was a time of great hope that history was returning to Asia. Two of the richest, millennia-old civilisations of the world were ready to come back into their own after a phase of (colonial) darkness and oppression. Even before Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru had convened the Asia Relations Conference. Nehru certainly felt that any resurgence of Asia could only come about if India and China were able to work together and, for the first few years, this is what happened. But that hopeful phase did not last as the two countries engaged in the very difficult task of nation-building and consolidation of state power and, in that process, started to bump up against each other. Most importantly, Tibet, which was more or less an independent entity for many centuries, was occupied by China, and for the first time in history, India and China suddenly became direct neighbours. Despite both being Asian civilisations, they were, in fact, very different — their cultural and historical backgrounds, the ways in which they thought, all were very different. Over millennia, China had been essentially a self-contained power, and the development of Chinese culture had been, in a sense, rather autonomous — which made it insular, and not so comfortable with dealing with the rest of the world. India, on the other hand, has always been a crossroads culture — it lies at the intersection of maritime routes, and the monsoon winds connected us to both the western and eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean. Caravan routes into Central Asia spread Buddhism to Central Asia and to China. Over many centuries, India’s crossroads culture gave it a kind of cosmopolitan spirit, and made Indians, in a way, global citizens. It is partly because of the fact that these two are very different cultures, that frequent misunderstandings and misperceptions arise.

On how China sees itself in relation to other nations

Through much of history, at least in Asia, there were only two major powers, India and China, and it is said that at least up to the 18th century, 50% of the world’s GDP was accounted for by them. In a sense, what the Chinese are saying is that the spectacular growth of China over the last three decades is nothing more than China going back to where it once was. China’s perception of itself as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ is also because its very large empire was surrounded by smaller states, so there was this sense that China is the centre of civilisation, and as you move away from that centre, you have less and less civilised states. The fact that Japan or Korea or Vietnam adopted a lot of China’s culture was, in a sense, a demonstration of this cultural superiority.

Many of the smaller states would send tributary missions to China. This supplication was not necessarily a reflection of political reality, rather, it was a kind of ritual relationship that China established. There were situations in which China was itself a supplicant and a tributary to others — for example after they were defeated by the Tibetans, for quite some time, the Chinese empire paid tribute to the Tibetans — and China was also occupied by others, for example, the Mongols. Maybe the history that China presents is not a manufactured history, but it is certainly a selective history — trying to put forth a vision that is only partially true and suggesting, based on its current military and economic capabilities, that there existed a “natural order” in the past, a certain hierarchy in Asia, which had China at the top, and to which we should return. But even if we concede that in the past, China was surrounded by smaller and weaker states, that is no longer the case! You cannot by any stretch of imagination say that, Japan, for example, which is one of the largest economies in the world and a very powerful country, is somehow a subordinate, or should be one. The same goes for India, or Australia, or South Korea — there are several powers who will not accept the notion of a hierarchical system.

Also read | ‘China has demonstrated pattern of creeping encroachment… more Doklams can happen’

On how other countries should deal with an aggressive China

There is no doubt that the rise in China’s economic security has been nothing short of spectacular. However, we should not make the mistake of looking at GDP as the only metric of power. While China’s GDP is, indeed, five times larger than that of India, a number of things go into the making of national power — and the per capita income of China is still a fraction of what it is in the United States. In terms of the metrics of power, even if you take, for example, defence, despite the growth in China’s security capabilities, there is no doubt that the most powerful country in terms of deployment of power is still the US. It still has a military budget that is several times more than the next few put together. Also, knowledge is a very important source of power, and the US, even when it is in relative decline, continues to be the knowledge capital of the world, and is still the largest source of technological innovation. China is moving in that direction, but it still has a long way to go. I don’t think we should exaggerate the scale of the power that China represents.

We should not look at China only as a threat — China’s growth is also an opportunity, because of the huge source of capital it represents today, and the huge market it is when other traditional markets are still flat. We should have a more nuanced view of China — its emergence is a challenge, but the challenge has both positive and negative attributes. (As was signalled by the India-Japan-US trilateral on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting on September 18), whenever you have a major power emerging, there will be a countervailing coalition that will start to crystallise, in order not to maybe contain it — because that is very difficult to do in today’s interconnected, interdependent world — but certainly to restrain a unilateral assertion of power by it.

On what exactly happened at Doklam, what led to standoff

My view is that what happened at Doklam was not really directed so much at India. Bhutan and China had been negotiating on the settlement of their border for the past many years. They have had something like 24 rounds of talks, China has even made an offer that involves giving up some of the territory that it claims in northern Bhutan for the Doklam plateau, which, too, is under dispute. More than the territorial issue, China has been very keen that there should be diplomatic relations between the two countries, an exchange of embassies and trade, and it considers it very abnormal that Bhutan should be the only country in South Asia with which they don’t have these relations. I think this (the Doklam incident) was to nudge Bhutan in the direction of coming to some conclusion with respect to, say, the border issue — to send out the signal that it should not think that the (Chinese) offer is going to lie on the shelf until Bhutan decides to do something about it, and if it does not, there is the likelihood of China changing the status quo according to the claims that it has.

If in the process of nudging Bhutan, the Indians got a little more worried about the situation, so much the better, but that’s a collateral benefit. I don’t think that was the real motivation (for the Chinese). Many people ask me why there was such an unusually vitriolic reaction from China. They reacted in this manner because they were caught by surprise. They had not expected that Indian forces would confront them, that too in a third country. This was not part of the script. The military plan was presented may be to the Chinese leadership as a very low-risk, low-cost move; suddenly it became a very high-risk kind of a move. Much of the vitriol, the threatening noises that were made day-in and day-out, was partly to see whether it might get the Indians to step back. That did not happen. I think the Indian side was very mature, it did not rise to the bait. The objective from the Indian side, and I would say also from the Bhutanese side, was limited — which was to see how status quo could be restored. Whatever may be the fluff around this, the fact is that that limited objective was achieved. And in some senses, the relations are somewhat back on track.

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On whether a situation such as Doklam might arise again

It is difficult to say. I would say that having it defused in the manner that it was defused, was a good result. The good news is that for the past several years, despite the fact that we have had incidents like Chumar or Depsang, by and large, given the extent of the dispute that exists between India and China, actually this has been one of the more peaceful borders. The confidence-building measures that have been negotiated between the two sides have largely worked. A certain status quo has been in place for quite some time, and the longer the status quo continues, the less is the likelihood of either side wanting to make a radical change in it. Even though we have not been able to resolve the border dispute — and it does seem unlikely that we would resolve it in the near future — the fact is that both sides are reasonably confident that peace can be maintained.

The difference from the past is that on the Chinese side, there has been a tremendous development of border infrastructure, including highways and installations. India is also building its own infrastructure, even though the asymmetry between the two sides is still pretty large. The improvement of infrastructure has led to more frequent patrols, in more remote areas, than earlier. The chances of encounters between patrols from the two sides, too, have expanded. More incidents are taking place, and perhaps both sides need to acknowledge that the situation has changed, and perhaps upgrade their CBMs accordingly.

On the changing nature of the China-Pakistan friendship

For long, Pakistan’s role has been that of a low-cost proxy against India — things that you would not want to do in direct confrontation with India, there was a cheaper way of doing it through Pakistan. But I think we need to understand that the major objective of China in developing close relations with Pakistan has undergone some change. China is now looking at a global role, and a larger regional role for itself — and you have, for example, the One Belt One Road initiative. In that scheme, Pakistan has become very important. It is not only the terminus of land routes from Chinese Central Asia, Gwadar port is also very important for the maritime links that China is developing as part of OBOR. So there is now a certain new strategic dimension, and a longer-term value of Pakistan to China. As a result, China is now perhaps more committed to Pakistan and its security than it would perhaps have been earlier. Earlier, over a period of time, there was a certain attempt to appear evenhanded between India and Pakistan — today, if you look at what China has been doing, for example, with the (UN) listing of some of the Pakistan-based terrorists (like Masood Azhar), despite the fact that this is bringing some international opprobrium, they don’t mind. Or, standing as the one country preventing India’s entry into the NSG — this is something they were not prepared to do 10 years ago. Today, they don’t mind, because the value of Pakistan for them has grown over the last few years.

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