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Shyam Saran at Explained.Live: ‘China wants everyone to accept this is an Asian order dominated by China’

Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary and former chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, discusses China’s position in the new age of global conflict, in the context of the standoff at the LAC and the pandemic. He spoke before a nationwide audience on Zoom in this edition of explained.Live

The ambiguity is brought about only by the Chinese contesting where the LAC lies, says Shyam Saran

On what China wants out of the ongoing standoff in Eastern Ladakh

We are dealing with a subject that is today uppermost in people’s minds, that is how to really deal with the China challenge and this is not only in terms of what is happening at the India-China border… The important thing to do is try and locate what is happening today in a broader context. So let me make two or three points. One is that at least since the global financial and economic crisis of 2007-2008, two things happened. One is that the power gap between China and the US, both in economic and security terms, narrowed substantially. China recovered faster from the crisis. Secondly, while in the period before the financial/economic crisis, India was growing at something like 8-9% per annum, China’s economy, relatively speaking, was slowing down. So particularly during the time I was Foreign Secretary, the general international perception was that India is going to be the next China.

The power gap between China and India was large but it was shrinking. What has happened since 2007-2008? That gap is no longer shrinking, it is actually expanding.

Covid-19 has accentuated, that trend. There is a sense in China today that thanks to Covid-19 and the very early and very remarkable recovery of the Chinese economy from the pandemic, China is very well placed in terms of the future. So what has happened is that China sees an opportunity for itself to really emerge as the dominant power in Asia. And since China thinks of power in hierarchical terms, not in multi-polar terms, it would like everyone to recognise, to accept that this is an Asian order which is dominated by China, and you need to accept that. Today, I think what Xi Jinping is trying to put across is that the Asian century is the Chinese century; nobody else has space in that particular space. Today they feel, “Why should we give anything?” You know, “We are so powerful, the other side has to accept what we are trying to say.”

On whether the standoff is about China trying to ‘show India its place’

Well, if you look at Chinese media, they are saying, “Don’t underestimate our ability to teach you another lesson.” That you know the PLA is so much more powerful than the Indian Army is; if you try to in some way try to confront us, you will end up the loser.

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It is also, in a sense, in the context of the international relationship. What is the message which may be given to the US? It has started looking at most issues through the prism of the more confrontational relationship it has today with the US. It is looking at India also through that prism and is telling the US, this is a country which cannot even take care of its borders, and you are thinking of this country as a major component of your security relationship in this region. It is also, in a sense, sending a message to India, that if there is a confrontation with China, don’t think the US or your other friends can come and support you in any way.

The ambiguity is brought about only by the Chinese contesting where the LAC lies, says Shyam Saran

On whether India’s infrastructure projects along the LAC could have rankled with the Chinese establishment

Even with all the improvements that have taken place on the Indian side, I think we should be fairly clear that it is not an improvement which matches in any way, both the terrain advantage the Chinese have and the enormous amount of resources they have devoted to build up the infrastructure on their side. So, between 2007 and 2013, the two visits that I did [Eastern Ladakh], the remarkable change was that many of the hillsides on the Chinese side of the LAC had observation towers. There were surveillance cameras, for example, on a helicopter ride from Daulat Beg Oldie towards the Karakoram Pass. When you are flying, then you see there are surveillance cameras watching you right across up to the pass. That is why when Indian patrols leave their bases, the Chinese side immediately knows such a patrol is taking place… I wouldn’t say each movement but certainly in some of the key areas, they have surveillance capability which they did not have before.


On whether the Indian side has the capability to match this

Yes they do. More recently, they have been using drones etc to improve our surveillance capabilities. So there should not be impression that we have been sitting still. A considerable amount of improvement has been made on our side and will continue to be made, I am sure. But we have to accept the fact the other side has more resources and has a certain lead time in improving infrastructure on its side and we are still in the process of trying to catch up.

On differences in perception on LAC

We know exactly where the LAC is. They are all described on our Army maps with detailed coordinates; you have the various patrolling points which have been identified by the China Study Group on the LAC; you are very close to the LAC, up to which our patrols will be going and these keep getting revised as the infrastructure gets improved… Now if there is a difference in perception, it is not that we have a difference in perception about where our LAC lies. The difference in perception arises at various points. The Chinese say we have a different idea of where the LAC lies, so the difference in perception is not because we accept, “Oh that there is something vague here or something ambiguous here.” There is no ambiguity from our side.


The ambiguity is brought about only by the Chinese contesting where the LAC lies. And it is for that reason that we have the various Confidence Building Measures and also protocols, because the Chinese patrols are coming into these areas which are under our jurisdiction, but because they believe that their Line of Control is farther west and our patrols are going towards the areas which are farther east. Then there are protocols saying, “OK, when these encounters take place you should not engage in any kind of violence, you should not be carrying arms, you should politely tell each other that you are transgressing and you should disengage.” Those are there precisely because of this… the ambiguity created by what the Chinese say is the LAC.

On the PM’s statement that neither has anyone intruded into Indian territory nor has anyone captured any military post

I have already said that maybe that particular statement was open to misinterpretation, and was open to be misused by the other side, which lost no time in actually misusing it, to basically say that, “Your leader himself is basically saying that we have not intruded.”
I think that is behind us now and the Defence Minister has also made it fairly clear that we are facing a situation of transgression from the Chinese side. Otherwise, if there are no transgressions, then why should there be any kind of encounter between the two sides? So, that’s not something we need to reopen.

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But I think what we have to recognise is that those transgressions that have taken place, we are insisting that we should go back to the status quo as of April, while the Chinese side appears to be insisting that they will stay where they are, areas which they have occupied, as a result of the recent transgression. So that’s really the challenge: How do we persuade the Chinese side to really go back from the areas which they have occupied now as a result of the transgression? As of now, we do not seem to have reached that point… This, I suspect, is going to be a longer haul than usual and perhaps may extend over the winter months…

Transcribed by Mehr Gill

First published on: 14-10-2020 at 04:03 IST
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