China sees India as a potential nuisance, let’s not be in a hurry to resolve the border dispute when the distance is as vast as it is now, Arun Shourie tells National Editor (News Operations) Rakesh Sinha in an interview days before Narendra Modi leaves for China.
How do you view the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to China?
Arguably the principal achievement of Mr Narendra Modi has thus far been the energy and the clear focus he has brought to foreign policy. A distinguished academic was pointing out the other day that the backdrop of each of the PM’s visits abroad has been China: those to Japan, to Fiji, to Australia, to the two Pacific Powers — US and Canada; the fact that our President was in Vietnam on the eve of President Xi’s visit to India; the Prime Minister’s visits to countries in the Indian Ocean. The GCF — the Greatest Common Factor — in these has been one: China. Hence, a clear focus.
Does this suggest that he sees China as the main problem for India?
I certainly cannot say how he sees China. But the fact is that, while Pakistan is the immediate problem, China is the principal challenge in the long run — and in part Pakistan is a problem because of China. China’s great skill has been the manipulation of power and the symbols of power. It has a definite view of its place in the world: that it must be the dominant power in Asia now, and the principal power in the world tomorrow.
And don’t forget the success that they have already achieved towards these goals. China is the most significant factor in international calculations today: its economy is five times that of India; its foreign exchange reserves are ten times ours; its defence spending is three-and-a-half times that of Japan. No country in Asia, and much farther afield, takes a decision without factoring in China’s likely reaction. On the contrary, even allies of the USA are only too willing to head for the Chinese door disregarding reactions of the US: look how 42 countries have already signed up for the Infrastructure Bank that will be dominated by China.
But isn’t the Chinese economy facing deep problems today?
Indeed, it is: the property and stock markets have swollen as bubbles. Local governments have been on a building spree through “shadow banking”. And so on. But China’s problems are not going to solve ours: all they can do is that they may give us a little more time. More important, who knows how China will react if it really landed in serious problems: will it lunge for external belligerence to divert attention of its people?
And please remember, nor is it just that they have acquired capacity, they have acquired the necessary reputation: that they are entirely capable of using force to enforce their interests and claims; that—the complete opposite of the US— China will stay the course: its territorial claims vis a vis countries that it regards as its rivals — Japan — or mere “squatters”— as it sees the countries with claims to the Spratly Islands, say.
Where does India fit into its worldview?
A fundamental objective of China’s strategic doctrine has been to “manage the periphery” — this originally meant the areas from which hostile hordes could descend and wreak defeats on the Chinese. But in general it means all areas from which China’s interests can be hurt: today, with the advance of technologies, etc., the US can affect China’s interests; and so, the US too must be managed. We, in any case, are literally on its periphery.
It views India as a potential nuisance—one that must be kept busy in South Asia. And it has a willing instrument in Pakistan to do so. The Wiles of War, a Chinese war-classic, advises, “Murder with a borrowed knife”! Second, the Chinese establishment has long felt that Indians are a docile people who will always be doing somebody’s bidding: first they did what the British wanted; then India was under the tutelage of the Soviet Union; now, in their assessment, it is becoming the instrument of the Americans.
Trade with China has grown to $70 billion today. Won’t this so enmesh the interests of India and China that China will come to value India’s partnership?
That is a complete delusion — the delusion that trade, and even economic interests in the large will deflect China from its central objective, of power, of domination. The Japanese leadership reasoned the same way twenty years ago. And see what they are experiencing at the hands of China today. Second, we must look at the nature of our trade with China: we are exporting raw materials — iron ore, bauxite — and importing finished goods: so many of our companies, for instance in electronic items, have become just traders in Chinese goods. Isn’t that precisely the kind of trade against which Indian nationalists, from Dadabhai Naoroji on, protested? And then, before going gaga over that figure of $70 billion, remember that is the total value of trade: it is made up of $15 billion of exports from India to China, and $5 billion imports from China into India!
What about soliciting Chinese investments, especially in what is one of the main priorities of this government, infrastructure?
Two points. First, assume a contract is given to a Chinese firm to lay a rail track: won’t that involve the same problems—land acquisition, etc.—that an Indian firm would have to face? And if you are prepared to clear the way for that Chinese firm, why not for an Indian firm? Second, several types of projects and infrastructure have security implications: power, for instance, telecom infrastructure certainly. And China’s record in penetrating networks, for instance computer networks, has been documented time and again: you just have to read the Munk Center’s report on how China penetrated computer networks of over a hundred countries — including India, of course — and used this to send key data from these in real time to Chinese bases; or the earlier Cox Committee’s report to the US Congress: you just have to glance through these and you will see what we will be opening ourselves to if we were to allow them entry into infrastructure in sectors like telecom. So, my response would be: extreme wariness.
You imply that India isn’t able to meet the Chinese challenge or threat on its own. What should it do?
First, as we are not able to equal China’s acquisition of influence, yes, we must seek common ground with all countries that are apprehensive of China today—for sharing intelligence and assessments; for coordinating positions in international organisations and negotiations; for technology acquisition, etc. For instance, we must exert ourselves to the maximum to make common cause with countries along the Mekong that are as worried by the steps that China is taking to divert waters. But we must always remember that, just as we will not go to war to safeguard anybody else’s interests, no one will go to war with China, or even sacrifice any vital interest of its own because China has grabbed more territory in Ladakh or Arunachal, or because they are diverting Tibetan waters to the east and north of China.
Look at the way NATO has remained paralysed over Ukraine. Hence, the first point is: closer relationships with other countries, most certainly; but there is no substitute for building what the Chinese call Comprehensive National Strength.
Second, true, there is a substantial backlash against China’s overt aggressiveness—from East and Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America — but we have to be able to and adroit enough to take advantage of it. The first requisite is to follow up on the Prime Minister’s visits we talked of earlier: execute the projects that have been announced or agreed with those countries. We also have a reputation for forgetting about the agreements and announcements that were made and the MoUs that were signed, once the visit is over.
Let’s talk about the PM’s visit. What do you think he should bear in mind?
First and foremost, he must bear in mind how the Chinese swept Panditji off his feet. They zeroed in on his intense desire to be a world leader. Remember how Chou En-lai — one of the 20th Century’s great masters of diplomacy — dissimulated as an eager student: asking Panditji about Indochina, about world affairs. Soon, Panditji was asking him whether, in addition to what Chou had asked, he would not also like to know about the Arabs, about U Nu, about the difference between the two types of Buddhism… The next day, Panditji wrote to Krishna Menon that he had found Chou to be not well informed about world affairs, but that after their meeting he was better equipped! And how the Chinese completely bowled him over during his visit to China — with uncountable crowds, and the rest. So much so that, after a strenuous day, Panditji was writing a long letter to Edwina Mountbatten: a wave of freedom has swept over China because of my visit, he wrote . . . What a tragedy.
At the least, we should not fool ourselves. When President Hu Jintao came to India in 2006, the then Foreign Minister told our Parliament that, as a result of the talks, China supported India’s case for becoming a member of the Security Council. There was absolutely nothing to that effect in the Joint Declaration. In fact, China was even then blocking and continued to block all attempts to enlarge and reform the Security Council.
I would go further. As Mr Shyam Saran reminded us in his K Subramaniam Lecture, the Prime Minister must remember that the Chinese regard deception, double-talk to be just elements of statecraft, and would be astonished, even offended, if you held the deceptions against them. He recalled how, on his visit to Peking, Mr R K Nehru had told Chou en-Lai that China’s statements on Kashmir seemed to call into question India’s position in regard to J&K being a part of India. Chou had asked, “Has China ever said that India’s position on J&K is wrong?” We had taken this to be endorsement of our position. On a subsequent visit, R K Nehru drew Chou’s attention to the fact that by then Chinese statements had begun mirroring Pakistan’s position even more closely. He reminded Chou of what Chou had said on their last interaction: “Has China ever said that India’s position on J&K is wrong?” Chou now asked in return, “But has China ever said that India’s position on Kashmir is correct?”
The same sequence had been played out with Panditji directly. Panditji had remonstrated with Chou how Chinese government maps showed vast swathes of India to be part of China. Chou had said that these were “old Kuomintang maps” and the Chinese government had not had the time to check them for accuracy. Panditji had taken this to be an endorsement of our position in regard to the border with China. When some years later, Panditji pointed to the maps, and reminded Chou of what he had said earlier, Chou turned around and said in effect, “Indeed, these are old maps. We have checked them. They set out the border correctly.”
And now the same thing has been happening in regard to the agreement on principles for settlement of the border dispute that was signed in 2005.
Does this mean that India remains suspicious forever, does nothing to solve the border dispute?
Not at all. We should, of course, explore whatever measures can be taken to minimise incidents on the border. But we really should, one, not be in a hurry to “solve” the dispute — especially not when the distance between China and India is as vast as it has become; two, always remember that an agreement is worth something only if you can make it expensive for the other side to violate it.
But what if some local commander in Ladakh takes it into his head to take a swipe? Decides to thrust a thousand Chinese soldiers into Ladakh at the very time their President is in Delhi? Are relations between two great countries to be mortgaged to local commanders?
It will be worse than foolish to make-believe that the foray at the border or the reiteration of the claim to Arunachal is the work of some local commander, or some PLA general. The PLA has always been subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party. President Xi is the chairman of the Military Commission also. And especially these days, the PLA leadership is very much on the defensive because of the anti-corruption drive: a very large number of generals and other senior officers are under investigation.
Therefore, do not fool yourself into believing that what happens is without direction from the high leadership of China. And look, not at what they are saying, look at what they are doing. One of our wisest strategic thinkers, General V Raghavan, tells us how they lull others by talking “strategic reassurance”, even as they foment “tactical turbulence”. And in our case, they are moving fast to reinforce not just tactical but strategic inequality: from Arunachal to the ring of ports, to the projects they are executing in PoK; from the planned railway line to Kathmandu to the militarisation of Tibet; from blocking ADB loan for a mere technical study for a project in Arunachal to preventing reform of the Security Council; even as they forcibly alter the rules of international order in the South China Sea and in regard to the Air Notification Zone in East Asia . . .
So in your view what should the government be doing?
First and foremost, we must speak clearly to the Chinese about our concerns: about their assertions that Arunachal is just a part of “Southern Tibet”; about infrastructure projects they are executing in PoK [even before the latest announcements in Pakistan, there were already 35 of these]; about the transfer of arms, of atomic and missile know-how to Pakistan; about incursions across the border; about diversion of Tibetan waters; about the military bases in Tibet; about naval bases around India.
Won’t raising these issues guarantee a failure of the talks?
Josh Malihabadi put it well: Badi kartaa hai dushman aur hum sharmaye jaatey hain! The adversary rains evil and we cringe in shyness.
Raising issues apart, what more should the government do?
We must do everything possible to speed up development of the Northeast—and that does not mean just throwing money at the region; and ensuring that people from the region feel welcome and esteemed everywhere in India. Beware of opening up the border towards Kunming: that will only clear the gates for China to suck the Northeast into the Chinese “sphere of prosperity”. Second, we must reflect on what reconciling ourselves to Chinese occupation of Tibet has cost us. Our interests, our security are deeply intertwined with those of Tibet. There are several reasons why China is now fabricating and pressing its claims in regard to Arunachal. But one reason clearly is that it is preparing itself for the post-Dalai Lama time: that no reincarnation may be claimed to have taken place in Tawang, for instance, as is said to have happened in the case of the Sixth Dalai Lama. The slightest easing on such matters will have catastrophic consequences. Whatever the Chinese say, we must leave no one in any doubt that we will continue to support the Dalai Lama, and his successors.
We should go further and think in terms of a Buddhist civilisational challenge to China: careful observers of China report that large numbers of Chinese are turning again to dharma: including relatives of very high personages of the current government of China. But to do so, we must learn about Buddhism. We must revere those who practise it: especially the masters who are in India itself. Everyone will see through our efforts if we just use Buddhism as a device to attract tourists. Nor can we convince anyone that we are the land of the Buddha, that we greatly treasure the teachings and memory of the Buddha, and simultaneously try to snatch the Bodh Gaya temple from Buddhists.
What if you were asked to suggest just one or two things to the PM?
Don’t worry; I am not going to be asked. But if I were asked, I would say: one, do not disregard the institutional memory of the Ministry of External Affairs; more than that, two, spend time with those — persons like General Raghavan and Shyam Saran whom I mentioned — who have spent years and years studying China, and its methods. When you meet them, reflect carefully on views and assessments that are contrary to your instincts: remember the consequences that flowed from the heavy hand by which Panditji throttled the views which he said were contrary to his world view—those of the Counsel General in Lhasa, the Political Officer in Gangtok… to say nothing of the letter of Sardar Patel.