Describing Monday night’s incident as an ‘inflexion point’ in India-China relations, Gautam Bambawale, India’s former ambassador to Beijing, said it was time for New Delhi to make a “deep reappraisal” of its policy towards China, because the old template that has been defining their relationship for the last 30 years was “no longer working”.
“The current paradigm of India-China relationship was set in December 1988 during then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China. The key thing of that template was that while we continue our efforts to find a resolution of the boundary dispute, while ensuring peace on the border, the interactions and exchanges in other fields must proceed forward. After that there have been several agreements and understandings, in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2013 and several others. The world has changed in the meanwhile, the two countries have changed, but our relationship has continued to be defined within that template. I think this particular incident should change that,” Bambawale, who served as India’s ambassador in Beijing between November 2018 and December 2018, told The Indian Express.
“This incident, in my view, is an inflexion point in India China relationship. Because, as our External Affairs Minister has also pointed out, it was pre-meditated from the Chinese side… I believe India now needs to make a deep reappraisal of its policy towards China, because the old template no longer seems to be working,” he said.
He said an important part of the conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in their recent interactions, including in Wuhan and Mamallapuram, was about redefining that template.
“Those interactions and summit meetings were an attempt in finding a new template, a new paradigm under which the India China relationship can be conducted. Unfortunately, that is still a work in progress, because of several difficulties, and competition between the two countries,” he said.
Bambawale said the government must evolve a domestic consensus on a new China policy, but it needed to be done quickly, in “finite time”.
“The government will obviously need to take a lead, but I believe the new policy must be based on a domestic consensus, for which political parties of all spectrum, and other stakeholders like diplomats, military leaders, academics and analysts must also be consulted. It would require extensive consultations but it is also important that we move on this quickly. This needs to evolve within a finite time,” he said.
But the important thing, he said, was not to go back to the post-1962 position after which the two countries had been maintaining that there could be no improvement in bilateral ties till the boundary dispute was resolved.
“That position is also untenable now. We cannot go back in time. So, while we cannot allow business as usual to continue after the Galwan incident, we must not say we will not talk with China till our boundary dispute is settled. I would say we need to talk more rather than less. But a redefinition of relationship has to happen, and I am sure there are lots of good ideas about how this can happen, or what shape it must take,” he said.
Bambawale said while there could be several triggers for China’s action on the border on Monday night, the primary motivation seemed to be the desire to take possession of the border as Beijing perceives it, without any regard to India’s position on the issue.
“There are many reasons that people are talking about. The change in status-quo in Jammu and Kashmir, for example, or the extensive construction of border roads on the Indian side because of which we are able to access areas right up to the frontier. An influential newspaper in Beijing said it was a signal to India to stay away from the US-China dispute and not take sides on that issue. All these could be factors in triggering the Galwan incident, but I don’t think any of these is the main reason. These, in my opinion, are post facto rationalisations. If there are twenty reasons why this happened, I think these would begin from number 11 onwards. Number one to ten, I think, is only one reason, and that is militaristic. The basic motivation seems to be that of any military that looks at a boundary and says if that is the line that I have to defend, then I better be closer to it. But here the line is not well defined. We have a different understanding of the line, and this time China seems to have decided to disregard our understanding,” he said.
“Now, why have they chosen to disregard our understanding? I think here the thinking was that they were strong enough to away with it. They have just found that they can’t,” he said.
Bambawale said the incident could partly be explained by China’s recent assertiveness in other areas as well.
“There is this general aggressiveness that China has been showing elsewhere as well, in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Straits, in the Indo-Pacific. Also, this is not entirely delinked with the Dokalam incident. I think China, sort of, wants to get back at India for the Doklam incident where we denied them access to a certain territory where they wanted to build,” he said.
“It is also clear that China was preparing for this for some time, because this kind of buildup requires planning. We have had skirmishes in the past, our troops have come face to face. But those times the numbers used to be much less, 20, 30 or 40 soldiers on either side. But this time, they came in large numbers, and, it seems, were prepared with things like iron rods and batons. Our side did not exactly use the same things, but they took their own measures, and that is why there have been casualties on both sides,” Bambawale said.
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