Menon: India-China Informal Summit a Good First Step, Need Actions Next

In conversation with former National Security Advisor and foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon on Wuhan, India-China cooperation, peace in the Korean peninsula and more.

New Delhi: Post the Wuhan summit, the real hard work has only just begun in shaping a structured framework for relations between India and China. The countries need to manage their differences as they ‘rub up’ against each other’s periphery in a time of global uncertainty, former National Security Advisor and foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon said.

Over two days, on April 27 and 28, Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping spent time in each other’s company for over nine hours in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Billed as the first ‘informal’ summit, the two leaders discussed their visions for development and how they are reflected in external policy. With no joint statements or agreements, there were separate press releases issued by Indian and Chinese foreign ministries.

In an interview to The Wire, Menon said an ‘informal’ summit was a good first step in striving for a new formal framework for the relationship, which has gone through a difficult period in the last couple of years.

It will only be the actions of the two governments that will reflect how the signalling from the leaders for a more cooperative partnership will be implemented, said Menon.

A more “neutral” position by China on India and Pakistan would be one of the quick moves that Beijing could undertake, he suggested. The other key areas for cooperation could be maritime security and terrorism.

Menon said that China could give assurances on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to allay apprehension about its intentions in that region.

He strongly backed strengthened cooperation between India and China on terrorism, pointing out that while the terror groups targeting each country may be disparate, the source of their ideology is the same.

Menon also spoke about the euphoria generated over the recent inter-Korea summit, expressing caution about declaring victory too soon.

Excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity:

You must have read both the Chinese and Indian statements. What are your views about the outcome of the ‘informal’ summit?

I am glad that they chose to lower expectations before and to do it this way. Rather than struggling to produce one set of words, each one said what they did. Clearly there was some level of coordination, even though there are differences in emphasis on terrorism and other things. But that’s why there was a summit, because there were differences to sort out. I thought it came out well.

Is this the new political dialogue that you were advocating between India and China?

I think it is a useful step, but I don’t think this can replace a structured strategic framework between the two countries – where both sides have actually discussed their interests, red lines, what bothers them, their differences and where they can cooperate and work together. Because it is a very complex relationship – some competition, some cooperation. It is a relationship positioned in a new situation also right now.

Shivshankar Menon. Credit: Reuters

Shivshankar Menon. Credit: Reuters

In their press releases, both India and China did specifically mention that their meeting was taking place in an atmosphere of global uncertainty.

For me, the main significance of the meeting is of both leaders simultaneously putting their personal stamp on the relationship.

They are not so much saying that they want a solution to this issue or that issue or that they have indicated a very direct way forward. No. That comes only after hard work from both sides.

Look at the Rajiv Gandhi visit of 1988, when we had obtained an idea of a framework, of a modus vivendi of how both countries would deal with their differences and so on. It was a result of a year-and-a-half of preparation from both sides. Same with (Atal Behari) Vajpayee’s 2003 June visit, when we again resumed the relationship and started the whole SR (Special Representative) process.

I see this (informal summit) as slightly different. This is just the beginning of the process. (It is) saying that we as leaders are committed to maintaining a decent relationship, and obviously now other people will have to work out the strategic framework within which the relationship will go – work on the differences, work on the commonalities.

Why is it required to make it so personality-oriented?

I think you had to do it because there was a lot of friction in the relationship. There were many signs of stress over the last three to four years. Doklam was the last, but before that there was the Masood Azhar listing, Nuclear Suppliers Group membership etc.

In a structured system like the Chinese system, most ordinary Chinese would assume that none of this would happen without the approval of the leadership. So it is important that the leadership is seen saying ‘No, that is not the kind of relationship we are looking for with India’.

Now you can speculate about motives from both sides. In both countries, you have a situation where you have leaders who are projecting themselves as strong. You can talk of a personality cult in both countries, actually. It makes sense for them to take responsibility.

Do you think that this kind of informal summit would have taken place if Doklam had not happened? Is this a direct result of the Doklam crisis?

That’s speculation. They have been meeting regularly and they have been talking alone also regularly, even in the past.

And there had been no change in the status of those ‘stresses’.

The stresses have been going on. But I think that they specially went ahead and did this to show that we are committed to a different kind of relationship. That’s important. However, as I said, the hard work remains to be done in this case. You are doing the process the other way around. You are giving the signal from the top first. But now the systems have to actually engage.

That’s what I wanted to understand. How will this signal lead to resolutions on matters like NSG, or Azhar listing or the differences on OBOR?

I don’t think that it matters very much. What really matters is what the government actually chooses to do and how it goes about engaging with China. Also what China is willing to do on these issues, because the summit and those two statements do not give a very clear indication of action. I would now watch what both sides do, rather than the words.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan. Credit: PIB

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan. Credit: PIB

Do you think that China can show some flexibility on disputes, like on NSG?

I am not sure NSG is a really a very urgent matter. I have said it before. Even when it came up two or three years ago, I remember saying, frankly what do we need it for? We can do everything that we want to with 2008 exemption. So NSG I don’t think is the right issue.

What issues would you consider useful to gauge the new direction of the relationship?

On terrorism, certainly there is a lot more we can do together.

So a positive development on the Masood Azhar listing?

Even if Masood Azhar was listed tomorrow, do you think that it will stop? Will anything change? I don’t think Masood Azhar’s condition will change even.

For me, these are only signs of stress.

If you look at the substance of the relationship, there are big things that China can do very quickly. One, for instance, is that it can return to a much more neutral position between India and Pakistan that it used to have. Chinese President Jiang Zemin stood up in the Pakistani national assembly in December 1996 and told them to do with India what we do – discuss your differences, but cooperate where you can.

Secondly, trade imbalance is something they can easily deal with.

Thirdly, maritime security. If we have to look for things to do, in maritime security for instance – they can provide assurances to us about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. That has nothing to do with ownership or legal status.

Why would the Chinese need to give assurances to us?

Because Chinese actions have made people doubtful of them. Because they are making claims which are not very clear, on whether they extend only to the islands and the seas around them, or the nine dash line. Now, there is an unbroken line on the maps. So no one is clear on what it means.

If they say that as far as peaceful maritime commerce and freedom of navigation (are concerned), there is no hindrance, it matters to us and the world.

So there are things that can be done. Our basic problem is that we rub up against each other in the periphery, which we both share. That is something which has to be talked through. Because none of us have an interest in instability in our periphery. Neither of us want to see the rise of extremism or terrorism in our region. Both of us need a stable periphery, if we need to concentrate on our domestic economic development. It makes sense to have a proper conversation on these issues.

The informal summit, we were told, did not go into specific issues.

At that level, you can’t go into the details of what bothers you, what doesn’t bother you. You have got a sense of direction from the leaders and that’s what the statements reflects. Whether it translates into action and how much, all that we will see now.

On terrorism, Indian government officials had, of course, touted that China has been party to naming and listing of terror groups in multilateral joint statements like Heart of Asia (and BRICS). 

Each one will have their own list. Obviously what bothers them is what happens in Xinjiang – what threatens them directly. What worries us obviously is the groups that target us. Ultimately, they all come from the same ideological source. They come from the same region and that’s why we are cooperating in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation together against terrorism.

Did you speak with China on terrorism when you were in the government?

We have been working and talking with China on this for a long time, since the Narasimha Rao government.

Do you think China trusts Pakistan on terrorism?

They choose to project the image that they trust. But on occasion, they have also had PLA people say in public, about four years ago, that Pakistan actually abets them (Uighur militants) in Xinjiang. But their public posture is that ‘We trust Pakistan, Pakistan is our friend, they are also a victim and we need to recognise their effort’.

Isn’t the language and phrasing used in the two press release largely recycled from previous joint statements, which also talks about balanced relations?

People are comfortable with language that they have used before. They know what it means. Both sides know. It’s easier.

That’s why I said that this is an important step. It is a signal, but it is not the new strategic framework for the relationship that you might have gotten from a carefully organised summit.

You must have seen the language that was used on strengthening military to military communication. India’s statement said that both leaders have ‘issued strategic guidance’ and went into some details. The Chinese statement was more brief on this point, stating that the ‘two militaries will strengthen confidence-building measures and enhance communication’.

For this summit, I am not going to get into parsing of the language. I don’t think that’s the whole point of it. If it were, then they would have negotiated a joint statement and then you could actually say that this was a Indian text and a Chinese text and what they accepted or didn’t.

But right from the beginning, they told you, we are not producing a joint statement. We are not trying for the words here. So I wouldn’t approach an analysis on the basis of words. I would look at what is significant first and what does it means for the context. It means that we had a difficult relationship. They are both saying that we are not happy with the difficult relationship and we want to improve. Whether they can do it, how they do it – frankly, it is too early to say.

Also, both sides emphasised in their press releases that they have strategic autonomy in their foreign policy.

We have said that for a long time. But, it is good to hear us speaking about strategic autonomy again. We used to use it earlier, but in this government, I am not so sure…

Why has this phrase made a comeback this time?

Because India is unique. And India has to speak for herself, stand on her own two feet. Nobody else shares your interests 100%. So you can’t be a subordinate ally. You can work together with different people on different issues. You will find partners, but it will be multiple partners where your interests coincide. But ultimately you have to be autonomous and take responsibility for your own future.

We were told that there was a free-wheeling discussion between the leaders at the informal summit. But isn’t that the norm during restricted meetings and lunches during formal summits too?

Leaders always talk. They talk over meals… That’s what they are good at. They are politicians. But I think that the idea here was without the pressure of having to produce a joint statement, without having to go through reading prepared statements, without going through the formalities of a visit, they can concentrate on the quality of the conversation. It was informal so you don’t have to do it with a sense of formality. That’s really the gist. Otherwise there is no question that the programme was prepared. Look at the photographs, they are pretty well planned and posed.

The delegation level talks seemed to have the usual accessories.

There was the table, flags… Well, some people are comfortable with the formality.

And if you look at the record of informal summits, it is not very encouraging. There was Sunnylands, there was Mar-a-Lago or if you look at the Reykjavik summit between (US President Ronald) Reagan and (General Secretary Mikhail) Gorbachov. The only one that we did without any agenda was Agra (summit with Pakistan in 2001).

Judging from the results, this may have been called an informal summit, but there was certainly prior preparation.

In fact, I was a bit surprised when you said that both sides didn’t hype it up. Chinese media was comparing the upcoming informal summit to Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark tour.

Global Times, I don’t think, represents Chinese media. Chinese media is useful because it represents what they want you to know or think. So, when Chinese media changes its tone and goes to the other extreme from threatening war one day and within six months, goes back to saying ‘no-no, we are very good friends’ – it is a signal to their own people and to the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean that it describes reality and I don’t think we should ever make that mistake.

Can I ask you to speculate on the motives for the timing of the two leaders, to have met now?

That’s completely guesswork now. As I said, for me, it is the uncertainty in the international situation. The fact that nobody knows where it will go and that we have more important things to do.

China has more important things to do, whether it is trade war, the situation around Taiwan, South China Sea, East China Sea or Korean nuclear issue. They have lot of things on their plate. But, more importantly, they have huge domestic issues. If you read Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress, it has a long list of things they have to do. It is mainly an internal speech, not about the outside world. It is about the whole restructuring of the Chinese economy, how to avoid the middle income trap…

In fact, discussing their domestic priorities was very much top of the agenda during this summit, we were told.

We have also huge domestic priorities. We have elections next year. So both governments have lot of things to do.

It was not part of the public statements, but apparently one of the concrete outcomes of the informal summit was the possibility of a joint economic project in Afghanistan.

This is the point. If we are rubbing up against each other in the periphery, we need to see where our interests coincide, where we can work together. This is not a straight zero sum kind of calculation. Like I said, we both have a common interest in a stable, peaceful periphery, free of extremism. That is something we should build on. Doing such a project in Afghanistan would be one such example.

US troops walk outside their base in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, July 7, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

US troops walk outside their base in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, July 7, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

Didn’t you discuss such a proposal with China earlier?

We had discussed it earlier and they had been positive about it.

What happened to those discussions?

I don’t know what happened after that. It was in 2010-12. We talked specifics, but in principle, they wanted to see what’s possible.

From their point of view, once the Americans announced withdrawals from Afghanistan, it became clear they didn’t want a vacuum that was filled by others.

And with 2012 drawdown, there was a sense of uncertainty over Afghanistan.

There was a huge level of insecurity. We discussed it with the Chinese, the Russians. We were all talking to each other on what could be done, what is happening.

So is that the reason that the discussions with China on a joint project petered out, as the situation in Afghanistan was not very reliable?

At that time, things were certainly quite uncertain. But I think you have a similar situation today, but on a larger scale of uncertainty. You are not quite certain on where you want to concentrate on what’s important to you – which is developing India.

Returning to what you said about both countries rubbing up against each other’s periphery, how do we use this signal from the leaders to ameliorate situations, like in the Maldives, where China’s role has distorted the ties between India and Maldives?

For me the only way to deal with these things is to talk it out openly amongst ourselves. I am not sure at what level you would do this. But you need to have places where you can actually talk about what bothers you and what doesn’t bother you. It should be clear to the other side which ones will affect the relationship, to what extent and so on.

That’s why you need a strategic framework and within that, proper strategic communication between the two.

Do you really think that China will give an honest answer on questions, for example, on their investments in the Maldives or Sri Lanka?

This is not about, ‘Can you trust? Can you believe?’ These are very good abstract nouns.

You must trust him to follow his self-interest. He must trust you to follow your self-interest. What you do is tell each other your self-interest – how you see it, what really matters to you. That’s how you come to an understanding. He must assume that you are rational and vice versa. That’s the basis.

And then you measure it against his actions and come to your conclusion. You must also be ready to go through the same process for the other side. Ultimately, it is the intersection between actions and interests and how he chooses to pursue them, and whether it intersects with your interests and actions.

On a different topic, how do you look at the outcome of the inter-Korea summit? Do you think that de-nuclearisation is possible in the peninsula?

I have a feeling that everybody has a different meaning of de-nuclearisation. When he (Kim Jong-un) says complete de-nuclearisation, does he mean Global Zero? Does he just mean no to US nuclear threat, which then includes US bases in Japan and elsewhere? Nobody knows.

What they have done though is to make it possible for the meeting with President Trump to take place. They have also averted the immediate prospect of conflict, which from South Korea’s perspective is a big gain.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend a banquet on the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Credit: Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend a banquet on the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Credit: Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters

The South Korean president has already suggested that US president should get a Nobel Peace Prize.

They make these remarks in anticipation, I guess.

What will be a successful Trump-Kim summit?

It depends on how you define success. Is de-nuclearisation the only definition of success, or is to bring tensions down? Is it creating some stable deterrent structure in the region? After all, there is Japan and China to think about.

Whatever you do in Korea will affect the security of everybody else. Will he (Kim Jong-un) give up the missiles? Since 1988, he has been firing missiles at Japan. So there is a lot of paths to this… We assume that what they are expressing as intention is good. But let’s see where it goes. Because we have gone through periods of intense optimism in the past, like during the visit of (former US Secretary of State) Madeline Albright.

Do you think that President Trump can take credit?

Let him do something first.