An expert on Chinese affairs, SRIKANTH KONDAPALLI is Professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He completed his Chinese studies in India as well as in China, and obtained a Ph.D. He learnt Chinese at Beijing Language & Culture University.
He has written books on China and his articles on China have been published in leading Indian and international journals. He got the K Subramanyam Award in 2010 for Excellence in Research in Strategic and Security Studies.
In an interview with ASHOK TUTEJA, Kondapalli talks about, among other things, the India-China military stand-off, trade ties between the two countries, and why China has become aggressive against its neighbours.
Q. Do you see the possibility of the current Sino-Indian military stand-off at Eastern Ladakh coming to an end any time soon?
A. On 10 February 2021 after the Chinese side indicated disengagement from the Pangong Tso theatre, the Indian side responded positively and both began the disengagement and de-escalation process.
Both sides exchanged a detailed written agreement for “phased, coordinated and verifiable” disengagement and “synchronised de-escalation” of troops at the western sector of the border with China, although implementation of this is a complex and complicated process given the violence that erupted on 15 June last year at Galwan that left 20 Indian soldiers dead (and four Chinese, according to Beijing).
If China and India have to focus on their respective nation-building processes, they have to come to terms on the border sooner than later. It is not clear if the current disengagement process is coming to an end soon. Following the 1988 agreement between India and China during PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing, it was decided that pending territorial dispute resolution, peace and tranquility should prevail in the border areas in order to focus on other aspects of bilateral relations like trade, economy, tourism etc.
Now that we have uncertainty on the borders, caused mainly by China disregarding the five agreements on confidence building measures, India has stated that peace on the borders is essential to re-starting bilateral relations. On the other hand, China is arguing that bilateral relations should be improved forthwith regardless of the situation on the borders.
Moreover, China stated that India “should meet half-way” on the borders which was rejected by India stating that first China should go back to March 2020 positions on the border. These suggest that the disengagement process will mostly likely be slow.
Q. The last round of senior commanders’talks apparently did not yield a positive outcome. Don’t you agree with suggestions that the standoff can’t be resolved unless there is intervention at the highest political level on the two sides?
A. The 11th round of corps commanders meeting did not result in a joint statement indicating that there were mutual differences in implementing the disengagement process. The meeting comes after a series of online interactions and physical meetings between the two ministries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Ladakh to meet the troops.
He also gave a “free hand” to the Indian military to address the issue on the borders. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Tibet although it is not clear if he had meetings with the military. President Xi Jinping made statements to his troops for “battle ready” preparations. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Mr Rajnath Singh met their Chinese counterparts in Moscow.
The National Security Advisor had telephonic interactions with his Chinese counterpart, the Special Representative on the border issue. All these suggest that the leaders are aware of the situation on the borders. As the militaries of both countries are under civilian control, it is certain that the border incidents since March 2020 have been cleared by the civilian leaderships.
In this backdrop of continuous civilian leadership association with the situation on the borders, it is doubtful if their “intervention” again would result in disengagement. It is possible that the issue could be resolved if the costs for one or both parties are high. China relented in February this year because after their occupation of Pangong Tso Finger 8 to 4 areas, the Indian military occupied the Kailash ranges which proved costly to China.
Q. Even if the current situation in Ladakh is resolved,do you think IndiaChina relations can ever become normal again?
A. Eventually, the situation in Ladakh will be resolved although the time frame is uncertain. India’s basic position is that peace and tranquillity should prevail on the borders before bilateral relations could become normal. Secondly, if China had reneged on the five CBMs agreements signed in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 and deployed troops in March 2020 in the areas close to the Line of Actual Control, then there is no guarantee that China will not disturb peace on the border again in the future.
Mutual trust that has been built since the 1976 diplomatic normalisation has been destroyed by China in the last one year’s military misadventures in the western sector. China has to first show its sincerity in resolving the issue for normalising relations.
Q. Can India trust China after the Ladakh stand-off?
A. The June 15 incident last year has destroyed trust between India and China. The incident led to the deterioration in bilateral relations. In order to rebuild trust again, it may take ages. The current Chinese Cold War statements reflected in their extreme nationalist tabloids or official statements on “what is right and wrong” does not help resolve the trust levels between the two countries.
India had initiated the two “informal summit meetings” at Wuhan and Chennai in hopes of improving and stabilising relations with China in the context of the current global disruptions. Yet India has been left high and dry with the situation in the western sector of the border. The twin tragedies of Galwan and Covid-19 pandemic that spread from Wuhan (when three students from Kerala returned) have led to public anger in India.
Q. China wants decoupling of trade ties from the border issue between the two countries. Do you think India can afford to do that, given the public sentiments against China after the Galwan Valley clash?
A. China’s position is that regardless of the situation on the borders, India should open its market to Chinese products. This has also been the theme during the RCEP negotiations. While China has not yet addressed the huge trade deficits (of over $900 billion in favour of China in the last decade), it still wants to explore the Indian market.
Even though it has become a member of the World Trade Organisation and recently championed globalisation, it is still restrictive in its trade practices with non-tariff barriers and others to the detriment of Indian products. On the other hand, India had stated since 1988 that peace on the borders is a sine qua non of the bilateral relations. These two positions have to be reconciled before normalising relations.
Q. Why has China become so aggressive against all its neighbours over the last few years,especially after the outbreak of Coronavirus?
A. The 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017 (which is under implementation till 2022) stated that China should “occupy the centre-stage” in regional and global orders.
In addition, China’s leader stated that its “core interests will not be sacrificed for developmental interests” suggesting that Beijing will be assertive on its perceived interests on Tibet, Xinjiang, South China Sea, Taiwan, Senkaku Islands, borders with India and others.
China’s emergence since 2010 as the second largest economy in the world following its favourable engagement policies with the United States which diverted global investments, markets, technologies and others to China helped the latter to flex its muscles.
China has become the largest trading partner with over 128 countries in the world and frequently exercises political pressures on them. While China stated that it tackled Covid 19 pandemic in an “open, transparent and responsible” manner after the 23 January 2020 lockdown of Wuhan, over 5 million people from Wuhan travelled to different destinations in the world (including three to Kerala), thus spreading the pandemic.
As every country today is busy addressing Covid-19 infections, China thought this is an opportunity for further assertiveness. This is clearly visible in the Taiwan Straits, South China Sea, India-China border areas or coercive diplomatic postures on Australia or other countries.
Q. Why is the ‘Quad’ grouping an anathema to China?
A. Much of the China rise is in the high seas — investment flows, imports and exports (nearly $4 trillion), ship building and others. Much of China’s encroachments are also in the maritime domain — South China Sea, Senkaku Islands, the “two ocean strategy” since 2009 (on Indian and Pacific Oceans) and others.
The “Quad” and the Indo-Pacific focus is on maritime areas as well — Pacific and Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and South China Sea. The Quad and the Indo-Pacific signatories are advocating free and open region, rule of law, freedom of navigation, maritime security, infrastructure, counter-terrorism, North Korean WMD proliferation and others.
On all these issues, China has to answer a number of questions. It walked away from the UNCLOS dispute resolution in South China Sea and eventually The Hague tribunal quashed in July 2016 any “historical claims” in the region. China’s “territorial sea” concept is exclusive and has no scope for high seas free transport. China’s proposed Code of Conduct intends to be an exclusive club.
Also, the proposed Quad+ could include Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia or other countries, in addition to UK, France and Germany which have shown interest. This is problematic to China as it is a beneficiary of the Asia-Pacific construct since the 1980s and the ground seems to be slipping away for new actors like Japan, Australia, India and others.
Q. Do you see the possibility of China joining hands with Russia and Pakistan to counter the ‘Quad’?
A. China has criticised the Quad for being a Cold War relic, with ideological (democracy) leanings and exclusive regional grouping. Russian foreign minister Lavrov criticised the Indo-Pacific in December 2020 and recently visited Guilin in China and New Delhi and Islamabad. It appears, although Russia is not a major maritime country, at China’s behest and for realpolitik considerations, it has been siding with China.
Western sanctions on Moscow for its role in Crimea are also a major driver in Russian calculations. It is not clear what would be Pakistan’s role as it is still a major non-NATO ally of the US, although there were tensions with the US on counter-terrorism compliance issues.
Q. Do you foresee any possibility of India and China joining hands to meet the challenge posed by Covid-19?
A. After Covid-19 began spreading, India and China cooperated in organising health officials’ online coordination with SAARC countries and Eurasian countries. Both are also cooperating at the UN-led Covax initiative on vaccines.