by Padma Rao Sundarji
On the eve of his trip to China on 9 May, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in an interview explains how the tense standoff over the position of Chinese army camps in Ladakh were resolved and how the two nations are working to improve relations between them.
Q: Mr Khurshid, after 19 days of a tense standoff, Chinese troops have withdrawn from territory they occupied 19 kilometers inside the provisional Line of Actual Control (LoAC)that divides India and China. A diplomatic victory or a compromise? What persuaded the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to leave as suddenly as they came?
Salman Khurshid (SK): Pessimists always prefer negativity and hostility. Our negotiations with Beijing were quiet, otherwise it would have complicated matters. But even when the diplomacy worked and the PLA withdrew, warmongers didn’t want to admit they were wrong so instead claimed that India had ‘compromised’. Okay, assume we did. But unless the word is used for an unreasonable, one-sided deal – in which case it becomes a euphemism for defeat -, surely compromise is not such a bad thing ? Just because China did something unacceptable, should we have expected it to curl up and go to sleep? We talked. They listened and wanted to talk more. We said we would, after the withdrawal. They agreed. Where’s the evidence of a ‘deal’?
Q: Indian army officers confirmed that they dismantled a tin shelter in Chumar which overlooks the Karakoram Pass controlled by China, merely because Beijing objected to it. Why? Indian troops also withdrew to 3 kilometers further inside India from Daulat Beg Oldi, where the two sides were locked in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Where was the need for that withdrawal, if Daulat Beg Oldi is Indian territory anyway ?
SK: Chumar is an area that has been patrolled by Indian troops every day since ages. The troops may have erected something there as shelter against the chilly wind. Now, if they removed that temporary shelter because somebody said it should not be there and erected it somewhere else, that’s hardly a sell-out. When you talk and want things to improve, a gesture of goodwill is surely not taboo ? And no, there was no retreat. All border patrols merely returned to their respective bases, so did those of India and China. Our base just happens to be 3 kms further inside India, while theirs is about 19 kms away.
Q: So was, or was not the Chinese occupation of Daulat Beg Oldi for 19 days a 'border violation'?
SK: It certainly was. A patrolling platoon of the PLA decided to pitch tents in Daulat Beg Oldi. We questioned first, whether it had a legitimate right to patrol that area and then, to strike camp there at all. On the other hand, there are hundreds of such border violations on our mountainous borders to both China and Pakistan. It is not always possible for the intruding side to prove their legitimacy. Staff meetings and diplomacy resolve such issues. We have not conceded our principles, there was no quid pro quo. Both sides are merely back to where they were before April 15.
Q: Beijing has built up impressive infrastructure through Tibet right up to the border. It could mobilize several units within weeks. And yet, it reportedly wants India to dismantle its own infrastructure altogether.
SK: Look, if two countries want to improve the chemistry between them, they can certainly tell each other to slow down the construction of a road, or to go easy on an airstrip. Those are suggestions, not conditions. Of course we are not going to dig up roads that we have already built. But dialogue is what encourages greater trust.
Q: Its been 51 years since a bloody war between India and China, and 15 rounds of bilateral talks have yielded little. India and China still disagree over their approx. 4000 km long border, relations between the two nuclear neighbors are still fraught with tension. Why?
SK: Even at the height of the standoff last month, there was no tension in the body language – neither of the armies nor of the negotiating sides . In fact, nobody in the Indian army was even half as aggressive as some of the heated rhetoricians I saw on fiery debates on Indian news television, night after night. Our army and I were accused of being ‘soft’ but that’s rubbish. The Indian army was extremely confident and prepared, but sensitive to the issue and keen to resolve it amicably.
Q: Given its ageing equipment, crumbling infrastructure, and troops vastly outnumbered by the PLA, what else could the Indian army be?
SK: An incorrect perception. It was Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav who asked what happened to the 72 strategically important roads that he, as a former defence minister had ordered. When one no longer holds a portfolio, one is not privileged to daily briefings and understandably misses out on developments. So we clarified that only 4 remain to be built and he was satisfied. Besides, we now have two mountain divisions. We will soon have a mountain strike force. The trouble is, if I start listing all that we have done, you will immediately accuse me of challenging China by showing off. Some Chinese reporters asked me whether India’s first ‘concern’ was China. I asked them to drop the word ‘concern’ because it would not translate well into Chinese. China is India’s first priority. The Asian century cannot be India’s alone, we are realistic enough to realize that. The Asian century will be that of India and China. We are working on that that together.
Q: But China has struck an aggressive note on its eastern borders too. It is massively equipping its army.Beijing’s intimate relationship with India’s archenemy, Pakistan, is going from strength to strength. How can there be talk of an Asian century with China?
SK: A prepared China and an aggressive China are two separate issues. Be it submarines, strike forces, missile delivery systems or nuclear weapons, China’s preparedness is important because we have to factor that into our own strategic planning. We can’t forget about China and focus only on Pakistan. Yes, we do worry about some aspects about Beijing’s relationship with Islamabad. China’s stand on Pakistan-administered Kashmir, its collaboration with Pakistan over nuclear weapons. While we can’t force China to give up its friends, we do bring our concerns to Beijing’s notice. As our relationship matures, we hope they will be taken into account.
PRS: You are leaving for China this afternoon. Border talks will involve a give-and-take. Many analysts wonder why India still persists with its claims on Aksai Chin, a remote and inhospitable area. Is there -at least - new, innovative thinking on the border issue this time, that you and your team are taking along ?
SK: In negotiations, you can never give up something now in the hope of getting something in future. You have to place all your cards on the table till a final solution. Adjustments can only be made then. Both and China and we know this. You know, there are two mechanisms - one for the LoAC and one for the border issue. The map is the same, but on it, we will each draw what today's line is and where - we think - it ought to be. Right now, we have agreed upon the principles and guidelines. We are undertaking the processes. We don't know yet what the result will be. It will take some time.
Q: Why is emerging power India, not expanding its sphere of influence as a pro-active player in global politics, perhaps even donning the role of a ‘global security and vigilance force”?
SK: Given their historic positions on military non-intervention and self-restraint, Germany and Japan ought to understand India’s position better than most others. India’s historic position is non-interference. That fits with our philosophy, the Indian mindset. Exceptions – such as in Sri Lanka in the late eighties - are only at the invitation of a government . Even then, we go for peacekeeping, not peace enforcement. Because of our economic standing, we now find ourselves seated at the global “high table”.
India plays a major role in the G-20 and within BRICS. But if you look at our role in Afghanistan, on the Syria issue or in any multilateral peace initiatives in central Asia, you will see that we are either observers, or dialogue partners. We will help build capacity and strategic safeguards for other countries. But we will never ever commit ourselves to interference. Kabul has hinted at a defense pact with us. But we are holding back. We will train their officers, give them non-lethal equipment but that’s about it.
Q: Do you see parallels between the attempts to ‘contain’ China and those to contain Germany in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as some European analysts do?
SK: India has firmly rejected all efforts to make it a part of any ‘containment’ of China and will continue to do so. Irrespective of our bilateral issues with China, we will not be a “pivot” for anybody else to ‘contain’ our neighbor. The comparison you make is somewhat far-fetched. Last month too, people compared the PLA incursion to the 1962 war between India and China, moaned that they will occupy us gradually.
The global situation today is different, the context has changed completely. Nobody is prepared to take an antagonistic position on China, even if they have differences. For instance, both Vietnam and Japan have huge trade links with China, to plan any ‘containment’ in that context cannot be envisioned. China wants to move fast on its border issues with India. We have faith that dialogue is the right path.
Q: Since December 2012, a series of brutal rapes, killings of women and incidents of gender violence has dominated international headlines on India today. Is India’s reputation damaged beyond repair?
SK: Now, I will use the word 'concern'. Sadly, international media reports focus only on the ugliness, not on what is being done. There are new laws, in place, new orders to the police. Nobody writes about India’s transition from a rural to an urban society. Before these terrible incidents of rape and for decades, India saw terrible urban riots across the country. They were much worse and on a much larger scale. But nobody asked us at the time whether those riots were giving India a bad name. Reporters who care for India do their homework and ask informed questions. Those who don’t, report one-sidedly and only to score points against India. New York and South Africa are not a lot better. And yet, incidents there are reported differently.
There was terrible pedophilia at the hands of a BBC employee. While the rapes in India came to light very quickly, it took the world 20 years for that terrible incident at the BBC to come to light. And when it did, it was reported in an aseptic, matter-of-fact manner. But comparisons are odious and yes, we are deeply saddened. But solid research will show reporters that violence against women is not just about policing or courts. In India, it is closely linked with sociology, community relations and hypocritical morality. It is that hypocrisy we are working on. And we will succeed.
(The German version of this interview first appeared in German daily 'Die Welt' on Thursday/ © Axel-Springer Verlag, Germany)