Expressing a view that will surprise many people, one of India’s highly regarded former ambassadors to China, who has also served as High Commissioner to Pakistan and Ambassador to Bhutan, has said “India’s standing in the neighbourhood and world has gone up several notches because India has shown it is willing to stand up to China’s bullying.”
Asked if he was saying that India is more highly regarded than previously, Gautam Bambawale emphatically replied “absolutely”. However, Bambawale accepted this is an answer many will find surprising or, even, paradoxical.
In a 35-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Bambawale said it is “significant” that restoring status quo ante to what it was in April “finds no mention in the Joint Statement”.
He added this clearly means “the two sides are far apart on this issue”. However, he said the fact that the Joint Statement talks about border areas and not the Line of Actual Control – although all the boundary-related accords and protocols refer to LAC – “is not something I find special or alarming”.
Bambawale said there are clearly two implications behind China’s behaviour in Ladakh: tactically, the aim is to move the ground position of the LAC. In other words, China is moving its control of land right up to where China thinks the LAC lies. Strategically, he said, China’s aim is to show India and the world that there is a huge asymmetry between China and India. As he put it, China wants to show “it’s the hegemon and India is much weaker”.
Bambawale told The Wire that what’s happening in Ladakh is very different to what happened at Depsang in 2013 and Chumar in 2014. The number of troops involved this time is much larger. He added that to move such a large number of troops can only be done with planning and premeditation. His point was obvious. This is not something China has done overnight. It has been carefully planned.
He added that India needs to respond with leverage in both the military and policy areas. He said the policy area can be further sub-divided into two – the economic sphere and the political sphere. The sizeable military build-up by the Indian army, in response to China’s behaviour, is a clear sign that India has responded adequately in military terms and the Chinese know this. In political terms India needs to build-up its relationship with Australia, Japan, the United States i.e. the Quad countries.
When questioned on whether India has economic leverage to cause China sufficient pain to make it change its behaviour, Bambawale emphatically argued that it did. He did not accept that China would already have factored in any disruption in trade, which is anyway only 2% of China’s trade, or the debarment of Huawei from India’s 5G development plans. As he put it, “India has a huge telecom market. 900 million. If Chinese companies like Huawei cannot participate it’s going to be quite painful.”
Citing Sumdorong Chu in 1986 which took seven years to resolve, Bambawale said, “Time is on India’s side”. He said “a combination of leverage will work in the long run”. He cited how India’s banning of TikTok had led to several countries like the United States, Australia and, even, Japan, rethinking or reconsidering their relationship with TikTok.
However, Bambawale was critical of the government’s failure or reluctance to share more information about what’s happening in Ladakh with the Indian people. As he put it: “The government should share more information with all of us about what’s happening on the border in Ladakh rather than allow leaks to define the narrative”.
Bambawale told The Wire that he did not find it reassuring that point 5 of the Joint Statement issued by the Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers committed both countries to a new confidence building mechanism. He said “a whole series of confidence building measures already exist. An entire architecture which has been implemented over 30 years. But it has been junked by China since May. China has violated every principle that existed”. He said the earlier confidence building measures have now been thrown “into the dustbin of history”.
However, Bambawale added that “it’s a good thing the Foreign Ministers met in Moscow. It shows a channel of communication is open.”
Finally, when asked whether he fears that if it comes to war Pakistan might open a second front, Bambawale, who has also served as High Commissioner to Pakistan, said: “I don’t fear it. I know they will.”