China not prepared enough to handle a cultural giant like India as neighbour, says Shyam Saran

Only a handful of Indian diplomats have had the experience of understanding China like former foreign secretary Shyam Saran did.

During an interactive session hosted by The Indian Express, the 1970-batch IFS officer, who served in China on various occasions, spoke on the intricacies of the bilateral relations between the two neighbours and the way forward for the two Asian giants especially after the recent Doka La standoff.

Doka La crisis unprecedented for China

While breaking down the Doka La crisis, which has dominated the news cycles in India for over two months, Saran said that standoff precipitated due to China's disbelief that India could stand its ground and come to Bhutan's rescue.

"China were caught unprepared to confront India. Beijing never thought that Indian troops would enter a third country (Bhutan) and defend the disputed territory. When the plan did not go as per the script, then the Chinese indulged in vitriol to deter India from emboldening itself," Saran said.

With China's state-sponsored media continuing to toe to a belligerent line, the Indian media feared an imminent border skirmish akin to the 1967 Cho La incident.

However, better sense prevailed and the standoff ended on 28 August after India and China agreed to withdraw their troops to their respective sides of the border. Saran called this a "significant success" for diplomacy but also speculated on other reasons for the ceasing of hostilities at the tri-junction.

"Of course, diplomacy played a major role in diffusing the situation. But one cannot deny there may have been other factors too. BRICS Summit was supposed to take place in Xiamen and the Chinese would not have wanted it to be impacted. Another was an internal factor. The Communist Party of China will be holding its meeting in October, which is crucial for Xi Jinping, who is hoping for a second term as general secretary," Saran said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit at Xiamen. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit at Xiamen. PTI

Bhutan: an unsolved puzzle for China

While Doka La is essentially a bilateral issue between China and Bhutan, Thimpu enjoys protectorate-like status vis-a-vis New Delhi. As per the 1949 friendship treaty, Bhutan's foreign and defence interests are taken care off by New Delhi.


This is a major problem for a resurgent China, which is looking to build strong trade and security ties with all South Asian countries. "China considers it to be quite abnormal that Bhutan does not have any diplomatic relations with it," said Saran.

However, the lack of diplomatic ties did not deter Thimpu from dealing with Beijing over the border issue. According to the ex-diplomat, Bhutan and China engaged in 24 rounds of talks in at least 20 years.

Saran claimed that China had also offered to give up on some territories in northern Bhutan for the Doka La plateau. "But as the talks were inconclusive, the standoff could have been China's ploy to nudge Bhutan to either accept the offer or face military action," he said.

Lauding India's foreign policy establishment for not losing sight of its objectives while bringing the Chinese to the negotiation table, Saran said, "As a major power, India dealt with the issue with maturity. Both nations had only one limited objective and that was to enforce the status quo. Both India and Bhutan succeeded in it."

China's action at Doka La partly historical, partly ambitious

Quoting extensively from his latest historical cum personal memoir How India sees the world: From Kautilya to the 21st Century, Saran said that in order to understand China and its geopolitical action, one needed to look back at its ancient history.


"China always thought itself as a centre of civilisation. It has been an insular nation-state and not very good at dealing with the world. This is the reason for frequent misunderstanding it has with its 18 neighbours," Saran said, adding, "With rapid economic growth, China wants to recapture its predominant position in Asia. For much of its history, the Chinese empire was surrounded by smaller and weaker tributary states. With China becoming world's second-largest economy, it wants to signal that this old political order is the natural one."

The recent standoff with Bhutan may be a manifestation of China's ancient belief of being a superior power, but the geopolitical dynamics have changed, Saran said. China never shared a border with India, but after the 1951 annexation of Tibet, both became neighbours. For the first time ever, China had to face an unimaginable prospect of neighbouring another cultural giant. On its western frontier too, China had to face the humiliation of witnessing an erstwhile tributary (Japan) becoming a global economic power.

Saran, now a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research, argued that a rising China would like to play a larger role in the world. "A country whose security and economic capabilities are growing, China would naturally like to have a greater say in regional as well as international affairs," Saran said.

However, he urged India and several South East Asian countries to counterbalance China, which has been attempting a "unilateral assertion of power" like in the case of Doka La and the South China Sea dispute.

File image of Shyam Saran. Saran served as the foreign secretary between 2004 and 2006. Reuters

File image of Shyam Saran. Saran served as the foreign secretary between 2004 and 2006. Reuters

India-China relations: The way ahead

Despite Doka La and a series of border incursions in the past, Saran was hopeful that such incidents would not derail the growing relationship between the two countries. Arguing for cooperation between India and China at global platforms, Saran said, "Both countries must come together to achieve to change some international regimes and also shape some new ones. For example, the climate change. If China and India work together they might be able to get a better climate change regime than if they work separately."

Trade ties between India and China have boomed in the last decade. However, China has had an upper hand in the bilateral trade as India's imports is five times greater than its exports to the country. While the trade deficit which stands at $51.9 billion (2016-17) is a cause of concern, one cannot ignore the fact that India is a humongous market for Chinese companies.

"The record over the last several years has been the remarkable ability of two countries of keep border skirmishes at backburner and focus on the economic opportunities that both countries provide. India and China need to expand the economic and commercial relationship, which over the period of time may help manage political problems too," Saran said urging increased economic ties between the two Asian giants.

However, despite booming trade ties, there are two major issues that remain unsolved: The growing bonhomie between Pakistan and China, and the border dispute at the eastern and western sector.

Pakistan, a key player in the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has always remained a low-cost proxy for China to trouble India, felt Saran. "What China cannot do with India directly, it would do it through Pakistan," he said. However, the former foreign secretary added that the relationship has matured over a period of time and is now more strategic in nature than in the past. Pakistan's security is in the long-term interests of China, claimed Saran.

"Till 1958, China was ready to live with MacMahon Line as the border. Till 1985, it was a package proposal for India: You keep what you have in the east (Arunachal) and we will keep what we have in the west (Aksai Chin). We rejected it. From that year onwards, the goalpost shifted to the eastern sector, as China asked for 'meaningful concessions' there. For India, it would be unacceptable to give up substantial territories in the east. The question now is whether what is acceptable to Indian political establishment is also acceptable to China's communist regime. At the moment, I don't see any convergence on the issue between the two countries," Saran told Firstpost on the sidelines of the event.

While not very optimistic of a solution to India's territorial dispute with China in the near future, Saran said that an amicable resolution can take place only on mutually agreeable terms.


Published Date: Sep 21, 2017 04:23 pm | Updated Date: Sep 23, 2017 12:49 pm



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