Gautam Bambawale is a former Indian Ambassador to China. In an E-Xplained event before a nationwide audience on Zoom, he interpreted China’s intentions in the build-up on the Line of Actual Control, and the implications of the stand-off. Edited excerpts:
On what is different about the Galwan clash and the build-up
The Indian and Chinese civilisations are both ancient civilisations but India’s civilisation can be summarised in what we call Vasudaiva kutumbakum, which means the world is one family. On the other hand, the Chinese way of thinking can be summarised in the word China. In Chinese, China is referred to as Chung Wo, which means middle kingdom or middle country, and their approach is that they are the centre of the world and everything else revolves around them. So they are at the centre, everyone is peripheral… they only worry about themselves. So you must start with this premise where there are two different peoples with two different approaches.
In the past there used to be stray patrols, which sometimes used to come face to face, but the number of troops was very small, it could be 40, it could be 50… it could be 100, 150, but it was only in the hundreds. This time around, a whole build-up has taken place in eastern Ladakh. The Chinese military has planned for this. Therefore, as the government says, the whole build-up is premeditated. In eastern Ladakh, not right at the border [but] a little bit in depth, there are several divisions of the Chinese Army which are prepared, at least 3-4 or maybe 5 divisions of the Chinese PLA. Now this can’t happen overnight. They were planning in early April to do some kind of military exercises in this area, and they quickly diverted the forces to the eastern part of Ladakh. India has also done a corresponding military buildup and therefore, the large numbers which are involved this time show that what is happening in eastern Ladakh in the summer of 2020 is quite different from what has happened in the past…
On the seriousness of the situation
When the PLA comes after having planned and prepared, it is not an accidental face-off between smaller groups of troops who may be patrolling that same area. So you have to ask yourself the question, why is he doing it? What is his message to us? And I think that there are two reasons. One is a tactical reason, one is a strategic reason. The tactical reason is very simple, he is trying to move his ground positions, where his troops actually are right up to the point, which he considers to be his LAC. Now, remember that there is no agreed boundary between India and China; also we have great differences of opinion… Now, what he is doing is, he wants to define this line unilaterally, bring his troops right up to the line and present us with a fait accompli.
On the strategic side, he knows very clearly that maintaining peace on the India-China border is a prerequisite for the relationship to move ahead. So if he undermines peace on the border, he says I do not want to have the current kind of relationship I have with India. So he is trying to browbeat us, trying to bully us, trying to show I am the superpower in Asia and you just have to take that lying down. India has shown, tactically on the ground, that we will not take this lying down. In Galwan we have blocked him at the LAC and our bottom line for the negotiations is the Chinese must restore status quo, which means they must go back to the situation as it existed before they started all these movements.
On why China is not declaring its casualties
They have traditionally never declared their casualties immediately after a clash or even a war. They take a few years. I think this is part of their system; they are not an open, transparent system.. As you know, our sort of estimate of the casualties suffered by the PLA is higher than what our casualties are. I don’t have a precise figure, we will never know a precise figure… We have come to that conclusion on the basis of what we have heard from people who have been on the ground… Our Minister of State who was a former Chief of Army Staff has put the figure at 43. I don’t know if it is 43, 23, or 63, but I am told by all accounts that the Indian Army gave an excellent account of itself. You can expect many casualties on the PLA side. We can quibble about the numbers; what is more important is that for the first time the PLA has taken battlefield casualties in over four decades, and I think that is a big message that Indian Army has sent, on the ground, to the Chinese PLA.
On the transition from Deng Xiaoping’s China to Xi Jinping’s China
The biggest change has been the economics of the country. If you go back to the late 1980s, in 1988, China’s GDP was almost the same as India’s. Today, China’s GDP is roughly 4.5 times that of India. And of course China itself has changed…
In the 80s, they used to abide by what was Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum that China must hide its strength and bide its time. Now it has bided four decades and it has grown very fast in these four decades, at roughly a GDP growth rate of 10 per cent every year. Now, the current leadership under President Xi Jinping — and more important than his position as President is his position as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China — they believe their time has come, and that they have to show how powerful they are. And they are doing this all over the world. They are doing this in the South China Sea by taking over and building new islands, which they then immediately start to militarise. They are doing it in Hong Kong with the new security law, which means basically that the ‘one country, two systems’ formula under which China took back sovereignty over Hong Kong is dead in the water. They are threatening Taiwan. They have a trade, technology and a wider sort of battle with the US. And they are also heating up the India-China border.
On how diplomatic negotiations take place in a situation like this
It varies from situation to situation. Let me take 2013 in Depsang. Troops on the ground told us they had their discussions about what’s happening and I picked up the phone and spoke to my counterpart in Beijing, but we also used the offices… In 2013 our Ambassador to China was of course Dr S Jaishankar, who’s today the External Affairs Minister, so he used to convey our messages to the Foreign Ministry of China. There were several rounds of such messaging from both sides, saying clearly what was, what should be done etc. and then eventually we insisted that our bottom line is that there will be no such visit by our Prime Minister unless this thing is resolved completely. We won’t even start planning for the visit until the Depsang incident has been resolved; that’s how it actually worked out.
If US, Europe and ASEAN countries can club together against China
For the last 2-2.5 years they (US) has been in this trade and technology war with China. I think increasingly, European countries are also seeing that China is a spoiler in, for example, the theft of intellectual property and so on. So I think economically there will be some kind of battle between these countries…
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On whether the incident in Ladakh is linked to Belt Road Initiative
No, I don’t think it is directly linked with it. Any number of suggestions are being offered as to why this is happening, I think the answer is… they are trying to actually control ground up till what is their idea of the LAC, and strategically they are sending India and the rest of the world a message, that look, we are the big boys here…
Transcribed by Mehr Gill
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