Menon: Peace Prevails but the Old Modus Vivendi With China is Under Stress

In the second of a five-part interview centred around his new book, Choices, former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon discusses the border issue with China and the role of the special representatives.

Former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon’s book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy (2016) deals with five major ‘choices’ the country made on the diplomatic front. In an extended interview to The Wire, Menon answered questions on each of those issues. In this segment, the topic of conversation is China – specifically India’s decision to conclude an agreement with China in 1993 on maintaining peace and tranquility on the border, and its consequences. 

Siddharth Varadarajan: There’s enough literature in the public domain – statements by former ministers, the letter that Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote to the Americans when India exploded nuclear devices in 1998 – which suggests that China looms large in our calculus on nuclear matters. You have devoted the opening chapter of your book to efforts that India has made, pretty much going back to the ’50s, to finding some kind of an amicable settlement to the boundary issue.

You’ve traced the tortured history from the ’50s’, the ’62 war, the long period when there wasn’t much happening between India and China, then of course the breakthrough visits of Vajpayee as foreign minister and then Rajiv Gandhi. And, then of course the 1993 agreement that Narasimha Rao ushers in, which is the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA), which establishes a mechanism for ensuring that nothing untoward happens on the boundary.

It would seem – and I’m playing devil’s advocate here – that in the broad sweep of history, if you consider the choices that confronted India on the India-China boundary issue – the initial ‘swap’ that the Chinese leadership proposed to India in the late ’50s and early ’60s, of the eastern for the western sector, and then, of course, what’s happened more recently, in particular since the Special Representative (SR) mechanism started, the BPTA seems like small change.

In your book you’ve captured the kind of angst that many in the bureaucracy felt at giving a certain sanctity to the line of actual control (LAC) – because of what this may mean for the legality of India’s claims. But I was left wondering why anybody in the MEA have been so upset about that, given that today —

Shivshankar Menon: We are victims of our own success, in a sense! See, the BPTA worked, but if you think of it, within 30 years of fighting a war on the world’s most disputed boundary – the largest boundary dispute in the world – both countries signed a legally binding agreement to respect the status quo and to settle whatever differences they had through peaceful negotiations – that’s a big step and it certainly was a big step for us.

In 1962, parliament had passed a resolution that we would get back every inch of territory that was India. This agreement in ’93 said, ‘without prejudice to the stands of both sides of where the boundary may lie’ and that we’ll continue discussing that, we will respect the LAC etc. I think that’s a big step. It was a big step when it was taken, which is why we had to go through the kind of internal consultations politically with the opposition leaders, with everyone, in the build up to the agreement. Now that it’s worked and kept the peace, and if you look at it, it’s actually our most peaceful border of all the borders we have – it’s the least defined but it’s the most peaceful – then, now everyone says that yeah so what, wonderful, but we take it for granted. It wasn’t like this and frankly it could have been much worse, because this is after all a disputed boundary and as both sides increased their capabilities, moved up towards boundaries and came into increasing contact with each other, as had happened in ’86-’87 in Sumdorong Chu in Wangdung [Arunachal Pradesh], the possibilities of things going wrong were really quite high. So the agreement was important at its time but you know once its successful you say, ‘of course’. It’s like Columbus and the egg. In hindsight it looks simple and easy.

I think it was quite a brave political step at the time and there was a certain concatenation of circumstances which helped.

SV: It also, in a way, unlocked the India-China relationship in the sense that as long as you’re a prisoner to that uncertainty –

Menon: It also did another thing. The boundary until then was central to the relationship. Everything used to depend, until the Rajiv Gandhi visit in ’88 when you finally said we’ll discuss the boundary but we also won’t let it stop the development of the rest of the relationship. But the salience of the boundary issue in the relationship today is very low. Your issues with China today are different from those issues of those times. Today, it’s really about an expanded definition of both your interests, of your rubbing up against each other in the periphery which you both share. It’s a very different situation from what used to obtain. And, I think this is proof that with creative diplomacy, even something very big like a boundary dispute, and with all the emotion that it arouses on both sides – look how well we’ve managed it. I think actually, it’s quite a success, the fact that you can ask your question shows what a success it has been.

SV: And yet elements of the Peace and Tranquility Agreement remain incomplete, unimplemented.

Menon: There is more to be done. In fact, you know it’s interesting, I was talking to friends in the army the other day who retired. I mean people who’ve worked together and they were saying we need to take the next steps because we need to now also make sure that face-offs, we have ways, we have standard operating procedures of handling face-offs and confrontations and so on in areas where both sides think it’s on their side of the LAC. But they say we need to take the next steps – to even prevent the likelihood of that happening – and I think it can be done. The ’93 agreement itself provides for mutual and equal security and if we use that as a principle and idea that Vajpayee, who was then in the opposition, suggested when we were in the process of negotiating it, and which then the PM Narasimha Rao took on board and said, ‘yes, put it in’. If we can build on that, then I think there are ways of moving forward and actually strengthening peace and tranquility.

SV: One of the important elements of that agreement – perhaps it wasn’t part of the formal text but emerged subsequently – is this idea of exchanging maps. And that remains incomplete for the crucial sectors.

Menon: I think China’s declared fear is that once you fix the LAC as a line on a map, that’s going to become the boundary. And, both of us say–

SV: Which was the Indian fear prior to even–

Menon: It’s still the Indian fear. I mean, neither side is satisfied with the status quo as the boundary, converting the status quo into the boundary. So I think that neither side actually wants to [exchange maps]. And frankly, if there’s no trouble, the last death on this boundary was in 1975 in Tulung La, and that was by accident, in the fog. So I’m not sure that there is, what they say in Tamil, ‘it’s not a head going matter’. It’s not something that’s about to explode.

SV: You make an interesting observation in the book when you note the relatively slow progress in resolving the boundary settlement and you mention that this is because both India and China assume, or believe, that time is on their side. And you’re saying it’s not clear who is right but as long as they do so, progress won’t happen. Then you also offer an analysis of what happened in 2014 when President Xi comes to India [in 2014] and you have an incursion happening – very embarrassingly timed for Modi and I would say for the relationship but one which Indian policy makers still haven’t got their heads around in terms of what this ultimately means. You lean towards those who believe it was a testing of, or signalling to, the Indian side by China that ‘look, we take our claims very seriously’. If that is indeed the case, and if there is an element of adventurism in Chinese thinking, this doesn’t augur well.

Menon: Well the alternative augurs even less. If this was as, some people think or choose to think, a ’rogue operation’ some local commando decided–

SV: Where the president didn’t have full control–

Menon: Yes, and to do that when a president is visiting, that suggests – really for me that is much more worrying, the thought that at any time this thing could explode because somebody has a bad day and decides that some local commander has… That for me is a more worrying thought than that I’m dealing with an organised state which is trying to signal, which is using every possible way to try and manage and handle this relationship. And I would rather make that assumption and then draw whatever conclusions and deal with it. And so far, my experience, at least in dealing with the Chinese since 1974, is that it is a coherent state and it is a very centralised, organised state. And especially the use of military force, even at the height of the Cultural Revolution when internal order was not so good, even at that time, there were very strong controls on the military and the use of force. So I have very little reason to believe that [the 2014 incident on the border] was accidental or some rogue action.

SV: Why would you discount a third option, which is that the Chinese are trying to tell the Indians, that look, we both need to get serious about [the boundary]. They were, after all dealing with this situation where Modi has been in power  a few months. and he hadn’t yet announced who India’s Special Representative would be. There was no indication of what the thinking of the new government was.

Menon: Well, if it was meant for that, then you would expect them at the table to come with something. And it’s been two years since and it hasn’t happened. So, I actually mention that as the third possibility but I think after two years of no new proposals, no pressing for a settlement, no real progress towards the settlements, I think, one can probably rule it out. But of course, we’re not in the room, and I hadn’t been in the room for two and half years now.

SV: In your book, you chose to focus almost entirely on the border peace and tranquility agreement and not on the SR process–

Menon: Because I am not writing about the India-China relationship. In fact all these five instances, I am writing about the choices that the government makes. In fact, the book was more about the process. I was running a study group [at Harvard] actually and I was surprised that people’s idea of how government works and how government makes choices is very limited. And most of the people actually believe the propaganda, which is that we are eternally consistent, we’re omniscient, we know everything and we are always wise and we never make mistakes. Which, of course cannot be true of any human being.

But the BPTA, for me, was a moment when we made a big choice and it was a moment of major choice. Yes, there were earlier choices, but as I said I chose these five because these were the ones I was associated with in one way or the other and I saw the decision making.

SV: If we look at the formulation that emerged through the special representative talks – on political parameters and principles for an agreement – where there’s a salience accorded to settled areas and the opinions of the people in the settled areas. Of course, the formula highlights, implicitly, that the treatment of unpopulated areas might in some ways be different. Now, in the Indian press, with perhaps some encouragement from Indian officialdom, the reference to settled areas was taken to mean that this is in someway a Chinese concession, that places like Tawang in Arunachal… There’s been a fair amount on this in the media, though obviously you never said this.

Menon: This is over-interpretation. Chinese is a very literal language and it does make a difference which language you actually think in, actually. In Chinese, at least you follow the letter of the word, and there are many more words in Chinese than there are in English. So, the levels of ambiguity in Chinese are actually much less than in English. I wouldn’t put all these constructions, that, ‘Oh, because he didn’t say something, if he says this, the corollary must be true’ and therefore other things.

We had an instance of this in 2008, I remember. We went and talked to the Chinese twice in Beijing before the NSG exemption and the Chinese said to me that we will not be the ones to oppose you and we have nothing against India.  I came back and in Delhi people immediately jumped, oh the Chinese will support us. And I said, no, they haven’t said they will support you. All they have said is that they will not be the only ones who oppose you, which is a very different thing. It doesn’t limit their other behaviour, nor does it guarantee that they will ever support you unless they are the only ones left in the room, which is of course what happened. Well, that’s how it worked. Well, that’s how it was worked. So I think we need to be very careful in these things and especially for diplomats, precision is essential. You cannot over interpret and read and then base your actions on it.

I will give an example. For instance, we assumed, many of us in India – that because the Chinese withdrew after the ’62 conflict to what would have amounted to the McMahon line in the east and to their claim lines in the west at that stage – okay, that’s all they really want and that this will be a base of a settlement in the future. [This] never has been offered by the Chinese ever since and it is a very dangerous decision, I think to make assumptions out of silence and to extrapolate it. So I would be a little careful on these lines.

SV: You mention the lack of progress in the SRs process in the recent years. I would say it’s been quite a while since we have heard or seen anything.

Menon: I would say the SRs have served a very useful purpose but it hasn’t been settling the boundary. I think they’ve maintained the peace on the boundary, they’ve also done yeoman’s service for the bilateral relationship, moving it forward. Many of the things that you have now, the strategic economic dialogue and so on, were first discussed, agreed in the SRs’ conversations. And they have done this strategic survey about the situation around the world of what’s happening in our periphery, whats happening in the world, which has been very useful because it’s very good to understand where the other one is coming from and how he sees the rest of the world and what he is likely to do.

SV: So you wouldn’t accept that it’s been a wasted opportunity?

Menon: Not at all. I think it’s critical to have a direct, authoritative channel between the top leadership of two large neighbours like India and China, both of which are changing so quickly.

SV: So even if that would not serve their stated purpose, you all the additional stuff that has been grafted onto it–

Menon: Their purpose has grown and I think it’s just become more important.

SV: To come back to the formulation you made about time – how each country believes that time is on its side. If I were to suggest to you that when we talk of time being on one country’s side over the other, we’re talking of disparities between the militaries and in overall comprehensive national security – the power gap between the two. In ’62, when certainly India didn’t perceive a huge power gap,  we had a parliament resolution which says every inch must be given back. Today, even a hard boiled [Indian] realist would love to fall back on an as-is-where-is kind of an agreement that if only we could go back to the offer that the Chinese made before the war, then this may be something acceptable. I want to submit to you that there is an absolute and there is a relative power difference, and that perhaps time is on India’s side because even if the relative gap between the two doesn’t close, India’s absolute capabilities – and any astute Chinese leadership would be looking not so much at what’s the difference but what damage he can do to me – will necessarily be rising. So to that extent, maybe postponing the settlement – and maybe the SRs doing other stuff – is not necessarily a bad thing.

Menon: I agree with you actually for slightly different reasons but I agree with your basic conclusion that both India and China today have much more at stake with the rest of the world and with each other. And therefore, frankly, the benefits to them of tension, of any potential conflict are really minuscule and I don’t see either of them seeing gains out of that, which they might have seen in ’62, I mean the Chinese certainly did. So it makes sense and it’s not just the absolute power or the relative gap or just the perceptions. It is also once you have stakes abroad and your commitment to the rest of the world is much more than before, you actually have much more to lose. So it’s a combination of all this – your perception of the future, your need to avoid not just embarrassment but actual damage to your interests – and we can both do serious damage to each other. I mean that’s a fact today, and that’s not a good situation to be in. So why would we then go down that road? I think both our countries have shown that we have much more important things to do. We have to transform India. The Chinese have major jobs of internal change, transformation, adjustments and reforms. For me it’s logical that we sort out our differences, or learn how to manage them, and then we build the rest of the relationship.

SV: The formula that you mentioned in the book – which in a way drives China’s policy towards the US, which is its preeminent rival – is that they focus on economic, diplomatic and military means, and in that order. Would you say that that is a sensible formula for India to also look at vis-à-vis China?

Menon: At this stage of our development, I think it we should really concentrate on internal balancing, on building ourselves up first.

SV: Do you think we get the order wrong sometimes?

Menon: No, I don’t think so, only when people argue about these questions. Maybe in the media you may hear talk about military options but within government, within anybody responsible, I have never heard anybody talking like that. If you look at our policy, it has been fairly consistent.

SV: If you were to sum up the India-China big picture, it would obviously be that here are two powers with an unsettled boundary that decided that we will work on that but not let anything come in the way, we are going to grow our relationship on every other front. It seems like a pretty good formula if it could apply for India and Pakistan, but it doesn’t!

Menon: Well, we suggested it to Pakistan in ’94 itself. I remember J.N. Dixit, the foreign secretary, suggesting it. As far as China is concerned, I must add, however, I think that the old modus vivendi, which for 30 years kept the peace and helped us to arrive at where we are, I think it is under stress now. The signs are clear – the NSG membership, the Masood Azhar listing, these various little instances, China’s sensitivity to what we do in the South China Sea, our sensitivity to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and so on. That’s because China has changed, we have changed, and our interests have grown, both of us. And, therefore, it’s natural that we rub up against each other. I think it’s time that we actually evolved, or we actually grew that modus vivendi, that framework within which we operate. And we need a proper strategic dialogue between the two of us to actually sort that out.

Next: Shivshankar Menon on India, Pakistan and the problem of terrorism