'Continuing Chinese Intrusion Worrying, Modi’s Response Took Pressure Off Beijing': Shyam Saran

The former foreign secretary tells Karan Thapar that we don’t have serious economic options that will deter Beijing.

New Delhi: In a comprehensive interview covering multiple aspects of India’s relationship with China in the light of the 17-week-old Chinese intrusions into Indian territory at multiple points in Ladakh, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said the situation is “very worrying”.

He said although further talks are planned and he hopes they can yield results, at the moment as far as China is concerned it is behaving as if disengagement is completed. He said India needs to be patient and, citing the example of Somdorong Chu in 1987 which took seven years to resolve, he added India must be prepared for a lengthy process before a satisfactory result is reached.

In a nearly 50-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Shyam Saran, who is an acknowledged expert on China, said whilst one of China’s motives for the intrusions in Ladakh could be tactical i.e. to alter the alignment of the Line of Actual Control, another was undoubtedly to show the world that China is the big power in Asia and, simultaneously, cut India to size and put it in its place.

Whereas Deng Xiaoping told Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 that the 21st century would be India and China’s century, the Chinese leadership of today believes that it’s China’s century alone and there is limited or perhaps no room for India alongside the expanding growth of China.

Map of Ladakh. Image: Google Maps/The Wire

Saran said that one option which India could have exercised earlier on was a quick and focused counter by intruding into Chinese territory at a point along the LAC where India has a military advantage. That would have given India bargaining space and provided a quid pro quo to facilitate a Chinese withdrawal. Many people believe this is how India responded in 1967, 1986 and 2013. Whilst not saying it was an error not to do the same this time round, Saran did emphasise that it would have given India bargaining space and wondered why it had not been done.

When questioned by The Wire, Saran also readily agreed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June statement that “neither has anyone intruded across our border nor is anyone intruding” undermined India’s position and took the pressure off the Chinese.

Although the present intrusions are limited to Ladakh, Saran said it’s possible there could be other intrusions along the rest of the 3,488 km border in Arunachal or in the central sector. He also accepted that if India were to accept the Chinese intrusions in Ladakh as a fait accompli there is no guarantee China won’t attempt to repeat them a little while later. In other words, the present intrusions cannot be seen as a one-off. They could be part of a recurring pattern.

Saran also held that just because military level talks have not produced satisfactory results up till now is not a reason for discontinuing them and seeking to negotiate at the ministerial level. This was the point at which he counselled patience and cited the example of Sumdorong Chu.

Questioned about the Chief of Defence Staff’s comment on Monday that “a military option … is on the table”, Saran said it was possible that this is intended as a message to the Chinese to encourage Beijing to be accommodating in forthcoming talks. However, he pointed out that exercising a military option could easily lead to conflict which is likely to include the deaths of soldiers.

Also read: India Needs a New Military Grand Strategy

Asked how Pakistan would behave if there were to be a conflict, Saran said that Pakistan would look to exploit the situation to its advantage. At one point he also talked about how Ladakh is a part of India where the country faces a two-front threat.

He made it clear that whilst India has America’s verbal support it is extremely unlikely that America will fight our battles for us. If it came to conflict we could receive American equipment but he did not think there was any further support we could expect.

In part two of the interview (i.e. after the commercial break) Saran told The Wire that India does not have great or serious economic options that will impose serious economic costs on Beijing. Even a decision to rule out Huawei’s participation in 5G would not change or influence Beijing’s thinking, largely because this has probably already been factored in by the Chinese.

He said that whilst trade with China is substantial when seen from the Indian side, from the Chinese perspective it only represents 2% of China’s exports. Cutting this off would not deter Beijing and change its behaviour.

Indian army soldiers rest next to artillery guns at a makeshift transit camp before heading to Ladakh, near Baltal, southeast of Srinagar, June 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Saran told The Wire that any rethinking of India’s relationship with or attitude towards Taiwan or The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile at Dharamshala would undoubtedly provoke a serious response from the Chinese. He pointed out that China had played a substantial role encouraging and fuelling insurgencies in the North East in the ’70s and ’80s and it might seek to do the same again.

On the other hand, Saran said, there is growing global concern about China and, therefore, a substantial measure of sympathy and understanding of India’s present position. But it is another matter whether any country will damage its own relationship with Beijing to support India.

Whenever there are problems between India and China they create space for our neighbours and that is certainly the case this time round, he said.

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However, even if prolonged Chinese occupation of Indian territory in Ladakh damages India’s standing amongst its neighbours it is unlikely to have a similar impact internationally. If anything, global concerns about the response of China and its behaviour means there are many countries who wish to see and support the rise of India and an improvement in our capacity to stand up to China.

Finally, asked whether the perception of 10 or 15 years ago that the 21st century would be India’s and China’s century has now altered, with China racing ahead and India pushed down to number two, Saran said this could change if India economically develops itself. Unfortunately, the policies and reforms necessary for this have not as yet been implemented.

Saran cited the example of how the world’s perception of India and China altered between 2003 and 2010 because India’s growth rate was accelerating past 8% whilst that of China was slowing down. So even if it still takes India several years or decades to catch up with China, the impact of India’s accelerating growth would alter perceptions to India’s advantage. Unfortunately, at the moment, China continues to grow whilst India’s growth is turning negative.

He ended the interview by saying that as things stand India may have the will to challenge China but it does not have the capacity.

The above is a paraphrased précis of Shyam Saran’s interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire. Watch the full interview for accurate details