Not just India but the world has to deal with Chinese hubris: Shyam Saran

The former Foreign Secretary cautions “you should inflict pain only if you are able to withstand pain” and points out that India’s supporters will supply weapons but will not fight our war

Not just India but the world has to deal with Chinese hubris: Shyam Saran

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran was at the centre of negotiations of the India-United States civil nuclear deal of the 2006. He was of the view at the time that as India enters the club of nuclear weapon countries it should learn to accept the pressures involved in the high-stakes power game.

In an interview with National Herald, Saran looks at the multi-dimensional India-China relationship and predicts that India can stand the military heat and that it needs to calibrate its economic sanctions against Chinese technologies and imports.

Saran is at present a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)in New Delhi. Following is the text of the interview:

Is the present stand-off at Galwan Valley going to be a prolonged one? Is there a likelihood of the Chinese blinking first? Can India hold off the Chinese at the LAC for as long as it takes?

It is difficult to predict how the current stand-off may end. I have no doubt that the Indian armed forces have the numbers and capabilities to hold their ground over an extended period. We have had similar stand-off situations before which have persisted over fairly long period of time, most recently at Doklam. So, we should be prepared for a prolonged impasse even though efforts to resolve it are ongoing.

Is there an international fallout of this skirmish, which could pressurise Beijing to rethink its aggressive strategy?

The international concerns are whether the rise of China will indeed be a peaceful one. China is showing itself as a selfish power, ready to trample on the interests of other countries whenever it believes the situation is propitious.This may prove to be short-sighted.

There is already a push back to its unilateral assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea. What has so far been a loose coalition of major powers such as India, the U.S., Japan and Australia, what has come to be known as the Quad,may become more crystallized and take on a more explicit role of constraining Chinese behaviour. However, we should be realistic enough to acknowledge that as far as the threats from China or Pakistan are concerned, we will have to deal with them ourselves.

Our partners may be ready to support us, provide us with weapons, technology and intelligence, but they will not fight our battles. The bottom line is that what will deter China from putting pressure on us is the rapid development of our own economic and military capabilities.

Will India-China relations go into a‘sullen phase’ at diplomatic fora like BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) or even the India-Russia-China trilateral?

Since we took the decision to go ahead with our participation in the India-Russia-China trilateral even after the grave and violent incidents at Galwan, I presume there is still an expectation that the present impasse could be resolved. There is no need to take precipitate steps at the moment. We can afford to wait and watch before making up our mind. We have to bear in mind that the BRICS and SCO also have other partners with whom we have very good relations so it is not just China that we should think of.

It appeared that in the last six years Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had developed a personal rapport, and it was seen as a sign of bonhomie in India-China relations. Did India read China wrong?

It is always possible to be wise after the event. India-China relations are adversarial and competitive in nature. The challenge has been how to manage this relationship in a manner that does not affect the pursuit of other national aims, in particular the rapid economic and social development of the people of India. There has always been a mix of cooperation and competition.

For several years there has been a political consensus on pursuing a policy of engagement with China but without letting down our guard. Regular leadership summits helped to keep the relationship on an even keel. This enabled both countries to maintain relative peace and tranquillity at the border and this is an important achievement.

As our action at Doklam demonstrated, we did not allow the engagement at the leadership level to inhibit us from taking a bold step in confronting Chinese transgression. It is not an either/or situation. But leaders must be clear that at summits they are representing their respective countries and that personal equations cannot be a substitute for substantive relations.

The current series of incidents suggest that the substantive relationship has moved towards a more competitive phase because China’s calculations have changed. It sees its role in Asia as the dominant power and insists that others, including India, defer to that. In 1988 Deng Xiaoping had conveyed to the then visiting Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that there could not be an Asian century without India and China. What Xi Jinping is conveying now is that the Asian century can only be a Chinese century and India must accept its place as a junior not an equal partner. This will be unacceptable to India.

What is the kind of course correction that is needed in the Modi government’s China policy?

There has to be an acknowledgement of the changed context of the relationship. We will need to rework the longstanding assumptions which underlay our China policy so far. Not that those assumptions were misplaced but that in a changed situation they have lost some of their relevance.

There will need to be a readiness to enhance our military capabilities to meet a heightened threat on our borders. Greater attention will have to be paid to regaining our influence in our sub-continental neighbourhood because the growth of Chinese presence here can tie us down and prevent any credible regional or global role. The recent developments in Nepal are ominous. They can greatly complicate our security. India will have to be more active in strengthening and consolidating a countervailing coalition of major powers which share our concerns about Chinese unilateralism.

There are some anti-China hawks in the Indian strategic community who would want India to needle Beijing on Tibet,Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang? Does it make sense for India to go into diplomatic aggression like the Americans under the present Republican administration seem to do?

You should inflict pain only if you are able to withstand pain that will inevitably come your way as a consequence.

If China has vulnerabilities, so do we. Our moves must be carefully measured. They should be substantive and not just symbolic. The U.S. is still the most powerful economic and military power in the world. We are not. Options available to the U.S. may not be available to us. So, we have to tread carefully and in a calibrated manner especially since we are deeply preoccupied with the Covid-19 crisis and its serious economic fallout. Posture must not be mis-aligned with real capabilities.

Is economic retaliation in terms of restricting Chinese imports of goods and investments the way to counter Beijing’s military belligerence at the LAC?

The India-China trade and investment relationship cannot be business as usual.China cannot seek to take advantage of the size of the Indian market and investment opportunities while at the same time threaten India’s security.

Like other countries we have allowed ourselves to become overly dependent on China even in areas of strategic importance such as magnets, rare metals and a range of electronic components. Chinese presence in India’s digital and start-up segments is also significant. However, this situation cannot be changed overnight and limiting these imports may cause major disruptions to our industry.

So instead of knee-jerk reactions, we should identify areas which are strategic in nature and which have significant security dimensions and where we need to put in place indigenous alternatives or diversify sources of supply.

Since China is the world’s second largest economy and the largest trading nation putting a trade and investment wall between India and China may not be feasible but it is certainly possible to adopt targeted measures. The video streaming platform Tik-Tok, had India as its largest and fastest expanding market. Denying it access to our market is a powerful message that it cannot be business as usual. Similarly, rejecting Huawei for our 5-G market will be a blow to China because of the scale of India’s market. A few carefully selected moves like these rather than across the board bans and restrictions would be more effective.

What could be the motive for Beijing to open up a hostile front at this time when the world, including India and China, are facing the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic slowdown?

It is Chinese hubris. Since the global financial and economic crisis (GFEC) of2007-08, China has come to believe that the U.S. and the West in general are in terminal decline. On the other hand, China continues to grow at a relatively impressive rate even if its economy is slowing down.

It emerged relatively unscathed after the GFEC and has continued to shrink the power gap with the U.S. its main rival. The power gap with India has widened in its favour and seems likely to expand.  Its occupation and militarisation of the strategic islands in the South China Sea have gone unopposed. It has expanded its presence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. More countries have signed on to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) despite concerns over indebtedness and loss of political agency.

The Covid-19 pandemic may have been unleashed on the world because of Chinese missteps, but it is China which appears to be making a quicker recovery from the crisis than other major powers. This is reinforcing the Chinese belief in the superiority of its own authoritarian system and its enhanced economic clout. This is seen as a window of opportunity to further expand Chinese influence rather than an occasion to underline its internationalist pretensions.

India is a target because no other country in Asia has the potential to emerge as a leading power in its own right and contest Chinese dominance. We need to understand the drivers of Chinese behaviour and act accordingly.

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Published: 3 Jul 2020, 8:56 AM