Sino-India clashes a wake up call, says former diplomat

Sino-India clashes a wake up call, says former diplomat

This story first appeared in ETV Bharat

In an exclusive interview with senior journalist Smita Sharma, former India’s Ambassador to Beijing Ashok K Kantha said that if India and China do not settle the boundary dispute, horrific clashes will continue. He also commented that now may not be the time for PM Modi and President Xi to hold direct talks without ascertaining all facts.

New Delhi: India and China must confirm and clarify the Line of Actual Control at the earliest, if the relations need to keep moving forward, said former diplomat Ashok Kantha.

In an exclusive interview with senior Journalist Smita Sharma, former India’s Ambassador to Beijing and currently the Director of Institute Of Chinese Studies (ICS) Ashok K Kantha commented that if India and China do not settle the boundary dispute, horrific incidents like the clashes at Galwan Valley which killed at least 20 Indian soldiers will continue.

He underlined that the immediate priorities have to be to continue the process of de-escalation, disengagement and there must be clear political directives from the top.

Kantha felt that now may not be the time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping to hold direct talks without ascertaining all facts, but there has to be high level political and diplomatic engagements as the military talks are useful but not adequate. He also added that China has stalemated the borer settlement process for the last 18 years as it wants a deliberate ambiguity to use as leverage against India.

Here is the transcript of the conversation:

Former India’s Ambassador to Beijing emphasized on the need for having clear political directives from both sides

Q: After decades of peace and tranquility at the India-China border, has the nature of the LAC changed permanently now following the violent clashes?

A: Clearly, something extremely unfortunate has happened. For the last 45 years despite problems of alignment we had at LAC and International Boundary, India and China working together had ensured that the LAC remained relatively peaceful. There were no incidents resulting in the loss of lives on either side since 1975. That is behind us. We need to look at how to move ahead from this present situation which is extremely serious. We should not downplay the seriousness of the present predicament we are in. What needs to be done is to see there is no further escalation. We should not rule that out. When the standoff situation began we mentioned that there is always a risk of an accident taking place when you have armed personnel face to face over an extended period and that is what has happened on Monday evening. So there is a need for very clear political directives going from both sides to respective girder guarding forces to try and ensure the situation is de-escalated as soon as possible. Then we have to take a series of steps to bring back the situation under control once again.

Q: But the de-escalation process will be very complex with army men on ground emotional, sensitive, and tempers volatile. So chances of things worsening much higher including serious flare-up other points where standoff continues?

A: I will not rule out a flare-up at some other point along the LAC. I am reasonably confident that both sides would like to see that the flare-up does not result in a broader conflict. In fact, both India and China invested a lot in maintains peace and tranquility in border areas. We have put in place fairly elaborate architecture of CBMs (Confidence Building Measures), SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) to see those border areas remain peaceful. Clearly, that has not worked in this case. So we need to do some introspection and take some immediate steps. A clear message going down that there should not be any further escalation. The process of de-escalation and disengagement must continue and must be brought to its logical conclusion of restoration of Status Quo Ante. We cannot accept a situation where the Chinese side is allowed to retain gains made through unilateral action taken by them since April this year. Restoration of the situation as it existed in April before we had recent sets of incidents is very important. Then we need to review SOPs, see what went wrong, and equally important need to look ahead and take some remedial measures. We cannot accept the present situation where there is a great deal of ambiguity about the alignment of LAC. We must clarify and confirm the LAC. We have a formal understanding in this regard. We had agreed to exchange maps and move towards a common understanding of the LAC. The Chinese side has stalemated that process over the last 18 years. This should be a wake-up call. We must resume that process. And can we really live indefinitely with a situation where we have such major differences on the boundary question? The task given to two SRs (Special Representatives) since 2003 has been to find a political settlement to the boundary question. They made some good breakthroughs initially in 2005 when we agreed on guiding principles and political parameters for boundary settlement. Since then there has been no original breakthrough. They need to refer to the original mandate. This is not a problem we can put in the back burner indefinitely. If we do that we will pay a price through horrific incidents like what happened at Galwan Valley.

Q: Are the existing mechanisms and boundary protocols past their shelf lives?

A: I do not think these SOPs or CBMs are past their shelf lives. I have been intimately involved in negotiating some of them. I can tell you that they are excellent. What is missing is the proper implementation of those CBMs. We should not throw the baby with the bathwater. We should stick to the CBMs we have with renewed commitment on both sides to respect them. We must scrupulously respect the LAC as we are committed to do.

Former India’s Ambassador to Beijing underlined that the Chinese side has shown a deliberate proclivity to maintain ambiguity regarding the alignment of LAC

Q: Should there be a direct conversation right now between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping or given the number of casualties, now is not the right time to talk?

A: Without knowing full facts, I would not like to assert a suggestion that PM Modi should pick up the phone and speak to President Xi. But there is definitely a need for contacts at a fairly high level through diplomatic channels. It is useful to have meetings between Border Commanders. But we have always felt that that channel though useful is not adequate. We need to give more contacts at the diplomatic and political Level. It could perhaps be a conversation between SR’s of the two countries who are tasked to look after the border issue.

Q: Does the political directive trickle down to local commanders? Experts believe these intrusions were coordinated, pre-planned, and directed at least from the Western Command Theatre of the Chinese PLA. So will political messaging help?

A: There is no doubt that these are not localised incidents. Most of the intrusions and border incidents we have seen since 5th of May have been across a very wide frontier from Sikkim to Western Sector. Clearly, we would not have that many incidents at multiple locations taking place without a decision at a very high level in the Chinese hierarchy. There is a decision on the Chinese side but does not necessarily mean that on the Chinese side there is no interest in ensuring restoration of a measure of peace and tranquility along with border areas. Like us, the Chinese side is also invested in ensuring relative peace in border areas and it is time for us to retrieve a difficult situation. We have a very complex and complicated relationship with China.

Q: But will clarification and confirmation of the LAC suit the Chinese who perhaps prefer a volatile border as a leverage to keep Indian pinned?

A: I agree that the Chinese side has shown a deliberate proclivity to maintain ambiguity regarding the alignment of LAC. That suits them. That is why despite a formal understanding and written agreement between two sides to move towards a common understanding of the LAC, they have stalemated the LAC clarification process over the last 18 years. But the message needs to be re-iterated very forceful to the Chinese side that if you wish to keep India-China relations moving ahead in a relatively positive direction, border areas must remain peaceful. It is a key understanding between two sides that a peaceful border is an essential pre-requisite to ensure that India-China relations remain constructive.

Q: Will China agree to the restoration of status quo ante? The PLA Western Command Theatre spokesperson in a statement claimed sovereignty over the entire Galwan river and MEA has said China was unilaterally trying to alter the status quo.

A: LAC is not about sovereignty. It is about a given position. It is LAC as it exists on the ground. So both sides are committed to not to alter LAC as it exists. What Chinese are doing in recent weeks is to alter the LAC. What happened on Monday, if you look at the MEA statement, the indigent resulted from Chinese action to alter the status quo in Galwan River Valley notwithstanding consensus that was reached between border commanders on the 6th of June. So respecting the status quo, not allowing it to be altered is a very important requirement. So I am a little worried when some media reports talk about the buffer zone to be on our side of LAC. We should not accept any restrictions on patrolling which we have been undertaking on our side of the LAC. It should not only be the restoration of status quo in terms of Chinese personnel moving back to their side of LAC but also no restriction on patrolling or development of border infrastructure on our side.

Former India’s Ambassador to Beijing commented that India and China are engaged in relationships that are inherently complex, complicated, and difficult.

Q: Former NSA SS Menon in an interview said these negotiations must not be done in public through media, but silence can be read by Chinese as non-negotiable things being acceptable. What should public messaging be like now? PM Modi has not given a single statement in the past 24 hours on the killings, is this silence conducive.

A: I do agree that these negotiations are sensitive in nature, they cannot be conducted through media. But there is also a need for greater transparency. Our side story also needs to be put out. As a practitioner in the past, I am aware there are limits beyond which we cannot share facts in the public domain. But there has to be better communication from our side. Also, we must prevent speculations based on leaks or ignorance that are avoidable.

Q: PM Modi and President Xi have met 14 times in 6 years, PM has visited China five times. Is this a failure of his China diplomacy? How important is a public message from the top leadership?

A: It has been very useful to maintain contacts at the level of PM Modi and President Xi. Engagement at the highest level has contributed to ensuring that India and China are engaged in relationships that are inherently complex, complicated, and difficult. We have seen ups and downs. At present we are seeing a serious dip. But I believe political engagement is extremely important and we should not question that.

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About Smita Sharma

Smita Sharma is a senior award winning independent journalist. She writes on foreign policy and security issues for various news organisations including ETV Bharat and Huffington Post. She was the Consulting Executive Editor for TV9 Bharatvarsh and Deputy Editor with The Tribune in the past. In more than 16 years of her journalism career she has also been a bilingual prime time anchor and foreign policy Incharge with leading TV news channels- India Today/ Aajtak/ CNN-IBN/ IBN7 and DD News. Her reportage of the Kashmir conflict in 2010 won the Ramnath Goenka Award. She is a an alumni of the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies (DKI-APCSS) in Hawaii.