India must insist on return to status quo on border in talks with China, says Shyam Saran

India must insist on return to status quo on border in talks with China, says Shyam Saran

Former National Security Advisory Board Chairman says multiple rounds of talks prove Chinese encroachment occurred in 2020, regardless of govt. statements

Two years after the Galwan clashes on June 15-16, 2020, in which 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers and possibly more, were killed, the government says it has still not ascertained why China amassed its troops in such large numbers at the border, despite 15 rounds of military talks at the Line of Actual Control and 10 rounds of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China Border Affairs official-level talks. In a conversation with The Hindu ’s Suhasini Haidar, former Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and author of the new book How China Sees India and the World Shyam Saran lists a number of reasons, adding that New Delhi must continue to push for a return to status quo ante , or the situation prior to April 2020, when Chinese transgressions were first detected.

It’s two years since the clashes in Galwan, with the worst casualties in decades. Why do you think the Galwan clash and all that followed has happened?

The India-China border [prior to 2020] was seen as kind of a model of how two countries had enough maturity to deal with a disputed border, maintained peace and tranquillity at the border, and allowed the relationship in other areas to flourish. What Galwan [clash] represented was a departure from that particular trend that we had in the past decades. Why did this happen? One is that China’s view of power is very hierarchical, it is very sensitive to the balance of power amongst major powers. I think in the context of the growing asymmetry of power between India and China, China’s sensitivity to Indian concerns has diminished. China thought it could do this and get away with it. Secondly, over the last decade or so, while there has been very major improvement of infrastructure on the Chinese side of the border, India, which was lagging behind, actually began to catch up. Unlike the past, where Indian patrols and Chinese patrols had infrequent encounters, there is now a big increase in the number of times they encounter each other along the LAC in Ladakh. These encounters have become a little more tense in nature with more assertiveness on either side, which we have not seen before.

[Thirdly,] Since the global financial and economic crisis of 2007-2008, there has been a growing asymmetry of power between the two countries in terms of economic capabilities, in terms of military capabilities, even in terms of, you know, technological capabilities. Meanwhile, the asymmetry of power between U.S. and China has been diminished, even though China is still behind the United States of America. In that context, India’s growing relationship with the United States is also seen as, somehow, not a very friendly act towards China, that China perceives a certain kind of a threat arising from this closer relationship between India and the U.S.

Do you think India’s reorganisation of Jammu & Kashmir in August 2019, when the Home Minister asserted that India would take back areas under Chinese and Pakistani occupation, was one of the factors?

That could have been, but don’t forget that even after the events in Jammu & Kashmir and the change in the status of Ladakh, we had another informal Xi-Modi summit in Mahabalipuram. So even if there were Chinese concerns over those events, it does not seem to have stood in the way of China finding value in continuing with the series of informal summits.

It is also two years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that China has not entered or held any Indian territory. How does China view India’s responses? Is it better to be more discreet and deal with China bilaterally?

The fact that we have had what about [15] rounds of talks between India and China on the situation on the border would indicate that there has been, in fact, encroachment on the Indian side or the border… otherwise, what are we talking about? If Indian patrols are not being allowed to go to areas which they have been patrolling in the past, is that not a change in the material situation on the border? Whatever may be the statements made, the fact is that we are dealing with a situation where China has advanced territorially in areas which we have been claiming as our own, and exercising jurisdiction over. Whether or not it is a good policy to remain low key on this issue, that is a matter of debate. Perhaps you can explain this by pointing to the fact that we are engaged in a series of consultations or negotiations with the Chinese side, on trying to, you know, get back to the status quo ante. Some progress has been made, as we saw on the Pangong lake side and also in Galwan. Perhaps there is an expectation that through torturous negotiations, maybe we might be able to make some further advances.

Is a return to the status quo ante of April 2020 at the LAC still a possibility?

I think it [ status quo ante] should be an objective because China has made a material change in the status quo, which both sides had agreed repeatedly that they will not unilaterally try to alter. So I think the Indian side is fully justified in asserting that if relations have to come back on track, this is what is needed. Making that stand on the Indian side is important. Certainly, I would say we should not give up that position.

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar has pointed to the 1987 Sumdorong Chu stand-off, indicating that this stand-off may take as much time, that is, seven-eight years to resolve. Do you agree?

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar is right that it took a fairly long time for us to be able to resolve the Sumdorong issue. But in the case of Doklam, we were actually able to defuse this within a shorter period of time. And I relate that to the overall, you know, geopolitical situation. Now, could there be another similar kind of a geopolitical situation which may arise in the foreseeable future, where China once again sees it in its interest to bring down the temperature on this front, particularly in the wake of the ongoing Ukraine war? Possibly. And for that reason, I think it is important for us to keep asserting our our stand that in order to get the relationship back on track, we need to go back to the status quo.

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