India-China ties will be reset after LAC stand-off, says former NSA Shivshankar Menon
This story first appeared in The Hindu
India and China must fully reset ties, says former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, cautioning that any move to allow buffer zones, mutual pullouts and suspending patrols at the Line of Actual Control sends out the wrong message that both sides are equally responsible for the aggression.
What do you think will be the lasting impact of the stand-off at the LAC with China?
Well, I think there’s no question that, after this, India-China relations will be reset. I think there’s no going back to the situation before [Ladakh stand-off]. I do think this has been building up for some time, that India-China relations have been getting more and more adversarial for some years before this. But certainly what China did this time: pressing forward on multiple points along the LAC, then changing the definition of what she claims to be the LAC, the deaths for the first time since 1975 [in June 15 Galwan clash]. All this, I think, represents a significant change in Chinese behaviour and actually calls into question the whole structure of agreements and confidence-building measures that were put in place since 1988 and with the 1993 agreement, which had kept the peace on the border for some time.
It’s been very hard to be too specific because, frankly, both governments’ strategic communication has been abysmal. There’s a lot of spin, a lot of leaks, a lot of motivated articles in the press. But there’s very little authoritative commentary by the government and even what they say, they then backtrack, clarify etc. So, it is difficult at this stage to comment on the particular details of what is happening and what has happened in the last few months. But this is still a crisis. I don’t see this as having been solved yet or being behind us. And I am sure that India-China relations will have to be reset after this.
Let’s look at some of the details of disengagement we are hearing about. There is the idea of pullback on both sides, creation of buffer zones, suspending patrols to points on the LAC that we used to traditionally patrol… what do you make of some of these terms?
Well, I think it’s actually dangerous, to speak of disengagement pullback, withdrawal, buffer zones. These suggest that we are withdrawing from territory which we have controlled consistently, and that we were part of the problem to start with. China stopped us from doing our normal patrols in these areas, which we’ve done for years. The Chinese have stopped us from doing so at several points since April. And I don’t hear anybody saying that we are going back to those points. So, frankly, if we are withdrawing from territory that we have controlled, I don’t understand what is happening here. As I said, we talk about the fog of war; this is the fog of peace. And there isn’t enough information coming out clearly. But it seems to me that we are setting a dangerous pattern.
In fact, we are actually teaching the Chinese the wrong lesson. And this started with Doklam, where we negotiated withdrawals by both sides from the face-off point in 2017. The Chinese then proceeded to establish a very strong, permanent presence on the plateau, leaving the face-off point itself free. Before that, they used to visit once or twice a year, patrol and go back, just to signal the claim, but now they’re actually sitting on the plateau. I don’t think this is a military failure. In fact, the military knows exactly how to deal with these situations and has dealt with them very well. But I think it’s a political and diplomatic failure to not call them out for changing the status quo, something that China committed to maintain both with Bhutan and with us.
So, frankly, [China] learned the lesson that as long as the Indian [government] could walk away with a propaganda victory, they could actually make gains and change the outcomes on the ground in their favour. And I think the risk is that we see the same kind of thing happening now here in Ladakh. I’m not saying it has happened yet, but there is a real risk here. In other words, what we’re seeing is really more of the same strategy that China has followed in the South China Sea where she changes facts on the ground, presents you with a fait accompli, takes two steps forward and then negotiates one step back. And if we are agreeing to a similar kind of arrangement, no matter how temporary you say it might be, all these temporary arrangements tend to have tactually become relatively permanent.
I saw an analysis somewhere saying that in cases of such fait accompli in the last 35 years, 50% of them have actually become permanent. I mean, they’ve just stayed as they were for the last 35 years. So, there is a risk here that we’re actually you know, reinforcing the wrong lessons.
So are you saying that status quo ante is something that has to be enforced soon or, in fact, there will not be a status quo ante, we’ll have to negotiate a new normal at the LAC?
What we need to do is insist that China implements what she’s committed to implement under the agreements, what she says she is committed to do, which is to respect the LAC and maintain the status quo.
What should India really be looking out for next?
Well, you know, this is much more than just limited tactical gains of one four or five, eight kilometres in one place or another on the border. Fundamentally, I think, amounts to much more. It’s a much bigger political, diplomatic act by China than just some local military tactical gain, you know, overlooking the DBO road, and they know there will therefore be a reexamination not just of our ties with China. As a consequence, there will be a strengthening of our ties with other countries with whom China does not have such good relations — whether it’s the U.S. or other countries concerned about China.
So, you have to wonder why did the Chinese do this? What they’re doing suggests that they’ve come to the conclusion that India has already crossed a certain point in its relationship with the U.S. and is effectively working with the U.S. on China. If they have come to that conclusion, they could be doing this to actually show the U.S. that, look, they can’t count on India as an ally in dealing with China.
They could also be doing it to show other neighbours that if they want security with China, then there’s no point relying on India, India can’t even take care of its own territory. And that could be one of the reasons why they do this. None of this will ever be said in public, not even, possibly, by Global Times. But it seems to me that we have to look for broader reasons. And that is why I say that the fundamental basis of India China relations has been brought into question and must be re-examined by us. We have to re-examine our assumptions about Chinese behaviour and about why they have done this and the effects of this on our broader policy in South Asia, with China’s other neighbours, with the U.S. and so on.
There is a suggestion now that India could militarise the quad or bring the Indo Pacific concept, which Prime Minister Modi once said was a geographical concept, and make it a strategic concept. Do you think that is the way for India to counter China?
Well, that’s not the entire solution because India-U.S. congruence actually applies to the maritime domain. That’s where it is most evident. You know, when you look at the exercises we do, when you look at the issues on which we have convergence, it’s really the Indo Pacific. Our problem with China right now is on the land… it’s a continental problem and that problem is not going to be solved by the U.S.. That’s something we have to solve by our own self-strengthening.
To the extent that there is a broader Chinese challenge to us, and to the extent that China is the greatest challenge that we face, both diplomatically, geopolitically and in other ways, then, yes, certainly, we will work much closer together with others who share our interests and in the Indo Pacific or the Indian Ocean. India and the U.S., Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, other countries have an interest in keeping that entire body of water open, secure and available to all of us for our trade for our peaceful uses, as it should be under international laws.
You spoke of the congruence with Washington, yet the one message that India sent out during this time was the visit by the Defence Minister to Moscow….
It’s never been binary, either the U.S. or Russia or even U.S. or China. We’ve worked with both and we will continue to work with both. Like it or not, China is your biggest neighbour, is your biggest trading partner and goods. If you add services, then it’s the U.S.. There are thousands of Indian students studying in China. It’s not as though these are not exclusive, mutually exclusive.
The U.S. might have an Act [CAATSA] which says that if you buy weapons from Russia, they will do various things. But they haven’t applied it to us so far. And I hope good sense prevails, they see the common interest. Russia is still the source of our major military platforms. And it’s not that we can suddenly decouple from Russia and why should we? Russia has been a reliable friend, a trusted partner in this field long before we developed this kind of relationship with U.S.. I do think that one consequence of what we’ve seen happening in Ladakh and the whole reset of India-China, will be stronger India-Russia relations as well.
During the stand-off, we also saw certain economic measures being taken by the government. How do you think these measure up in the larger stand-off with China?
That’s why I’m talking about a fundamental reset in the relationship, because public opinion itself will force some of these steps. And let’s see how far the public takes the boycott of Chinese goods, how much more they are willing to pay for things to avoid buying Chinese goods. That’s one set of issues.
Certainly from the Government of India’s point of view, it makes sense to ensure minimal Chinese presence in critical infrastructure, and to try and reduce dependencies in critical sectors, whether it is APIs for pharmaceuticals, whether it’s our telecom sector, whether it’s power, FinTech etc, we’re very dependent on not just Chinese investment in our various companies but Chinese technology. So, there’s a whole host of steps, which I think will be part of this broader reset of the relationship. In the heat of the moment, of course, people will say boycott completely and so on. I’m not sure that that’s where we will end up. But there will be a cutting of dependencies.
After the Doklam crisis, you had spoken of the need for a new “modus vivendi”, and we did see informal summits between the Prime Minister and Chinese President Xi Jinping. After that, now you are speaking of a reset. Give us a sense of what you see as the diplomatic roadmap ahead?
You know, right now we’re in the middle of the crisis. So, everything is possible. I would say all three things are possible: We could go the 1986-88 way after Sumdorong Chu when the Chinese came in and sat on territory on our side in eastern sector. And we ended up with the Rajiv Gandhi visit, and the new understanding the modus vivendi of ‘88, which kept the peace actually for several years, and enabled us both to develop and grow. Or we could go the 1959-62 way, which is a steady downward spiral in the relationship where public opinion and actions drive the two sides into conflict, which is the worst option.
Thirdly, we could go into a sort of “no war, no peace”, an indeterminate space where relations are much more adversarial. We still talk to each other, do some trade, some business. But basically it’s not a comfortable or working relationship, which goes very far. This runs the risk of deteriorating at any time without any larger sense of framework within which to operate, agreed by both sides. I think the last is the most likely at this stage.
These are not governments with very clear visions that they have spelled out of where they want to go. Both countries today are at a stage where ultra-nationalism is what constitutes legitimacy for the government’s authoritarian leaders. They find it very difficult to compromise and to actually to do the bargaining and to evolve a new modus vivendi, which takes into account the new situation, the new balance. So, therefore, my expectation is sort of muddling through for the time being, but that always contains the risk of things getting worse.