New Delhi: The ongoing Ladakh stand-off has sanction from the Chinese leadership, and it has continued for over a year because Beijing wants to show New Delhi and the world that it is in a “higher league”, according to former foreign secretary Shyam Saran.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint one year since the Galwan Valley clash, Saran said Beijing has now formed a mindset that all Asian countries will have to recognise that the “hierarchy” in the continent is headed by China. Thus, he added, it is high time India builds up its own capabilities to reduce the growing asymmetry in power.
“A major kind of an event like that of Ladakh stand-off would not have taken place without sanctions from the highest echelons of the Chinese leadership. So, we should not make a mistake that this was a local incident or this is something which was done by some local commanders,” he said. “This clearly had sanctions of the highest level of Chinese leadership. If it did not, then they would have by now tried to resolve it.”
“The fact that they have continued with the border standoff means that there is a kind of a decision that, in this kind of context of international relations, we (China) are better placed to really sort of put India down, and making the world realise and making India realise that you are not in the same league as China,” he added. “You (India) should know your place.”
China, he said, expects Asian countries to recognise its position in the “hierarchy in Asia… whether you like it or not”, and that “countries who try to resist it or who try to confront it, they will suffer the consequences”. “So there is a certain mindset behind it,” he said.
Saran added that there is a risk the Ladakh standoff could become another episode of the Sumdorong Chu kind, referring to tensions on the border in Arunachal Pradesh that began in 1986 and took nearly a decade to resolve, but without violence.
He also said there is a case for both India and China to revisit and update the five border agreements signed over the years, as was decided between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow last year. But, he said, that can be done only when China restores status quo ante.
“The updation of the CBMs (confidence-building measures) can only happen once we manage to restore the status quo ante,” Saran added, saying the border protocols need revision since both sides conduct vigorous patrolling due to improved infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
‘China thinks it has some bargaining chips’
Saran, who is now a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said “it is a matter of concern” that despite tensions having been resolved in the Pangong Tso area, one of the points of friction amid the ongoing standoff, the situation at the others — Depsang, Hot Springs and Gogra — has remained the same since April-May 2020, when the border row began.
“We are at that point where we have to try and assess what is it that is preventing China from going ahead with what has been a positive process. From the Chinese side, it has been, if we do this, what are we going to get in return?” he said.
“They think it will be a concession on their part, I think their own thinking is we have some bargaining chips in our hand and why should we (China) give those up unless we have something of value which is given to us in return and this is where perhaps we (India) are stuck.”
However, he emphasised that, in such matters, there needs to be “patience and perseverance” in dealing with China, and New Delhi “should not give up easily”.
“There is no doubt that the disengagement process has certainly taken much longer than perhaps we might have anticipated. I think there was a kind of optimism that we were able to resolve the Pangong Tso area issue and there were also statements by both sides as if we will now be able to move to resolve some of the lesser issues pertaining to the Depsang Plain or the Hot Springs area. But that has not happened,” he said.
As far as Depsang is concerned, he added, the real point of conflict is that India was not allowed to patrol till the point where its perception of the Line of Actual (LAC) lies. This, Saran said, is the reason why the standoff at Depsang happened in 2013 that later got resolved.
“Now the situation is, we are confronting one another, but the main issue is that we are not being able to mount the patrols that we used to do in the past and until that happens, there is no restoration of the status quo ante,” he said.
‘Asymmetry in power, shrinking the gap’
Saran, who served as chairman of the National Security Advisory Board till January 2015, said the “real credible answer” that India can give to China — that will prevent them from subjecting the country to military coercion — is by building its own capabilities.
“If there is only one country that has the potential to catch up with China, it is only India. But for that very difficult decisions are required at home and that is, how do we get certain that we go back to a high growth trajectory?” he said.
He added, “The border issue should be seen as a symptom of that larger challenge that we are facing. If you are seen over the next 10 years as significantly shrinking the power between the two countries, that itself will be a very important signal.”
Saran said “shrinking the gap” of power disparity between both countries would also open up multiple diplomatic options for India to deal with Chinese belligerence.
This will help reduce the Chinese pressure in India’s immediate neighbourhood as well, he added.
“The potential for doing that is there. It is a question of whether or not there is a willingness to take those difficult decisions which will put us back on a high-growth path because the Chinese economy is slowing down,” he said.
‘India should not leave SAARC to China’
According to the veteran diplomat, India should make an effort to boost some of the regional initiatives like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN).
He noted that SAARC is the only South Asian initiative that has all the countries of the subcontinent involved. But he pointed out that China is an observer in SAARC.
“Only India should lead SAARC … If we distance ourselves from SAARC … China is already an observer in SAARC. There had been various proposals that China should be made a full member of SAARC. If we are not there, what stops some of the other countries from actually bringing in China as a full member of SAARC? There are risks involved in distancing ourselves from SAARC,” Saran said.
The SAARC process got stalled when India called for the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan in 2016, after a terrorist attack on a military camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, killed 19 soldiers. India subsequently boycotted the 2016 SAARC Summit, which was to be hosted by Pakistan. Bangladesh and Afghanistan followed suit. It has been pending since.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)