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INTERVIEW: China foreign policy expert Yun Sun on border dispute, what went wrong in India-China ties, and more

In an interview to Network18 Group Consulting Editor Praveen Swami, eminent China scholar Yun Sun talks about the withdrawal of troops on both sides and the understanding of what the LAC is.

September 15, 2020 / 05:50 PM IST

Amid the ongoing India-China border row, the foreign ministers of both sides met in Russia on September 10, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers' meeting.

In an interview to Network18 Group Consulting Editor Praveen Swami, Yun Sun, eminent China scholar and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington DC, talks about the possibilities around the withdrawal of troops on both sides, the understanding of what the LAC is and what went wrong in the India-China relationship, among other things.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Q. I will ask the same four questions I did last time, so the first thing, we just had the two foreign secretaries meet and come up with a five-point deal, a great consensus for defusing the crisis? How optimistic are you are that this is going to lead firstly to withdrawal of troops, the significant withdrawal and secondly to a permanent solution to this problem?

A. I think, well, if you look at the exact wording of the five-point agreement they encourage discussions about disengagement and troop withdrawal, but there is no specific timeline as for when that will happen or when that will have to happen. We know that by October, in about a month the weather condition in that part of the disputed border will be quite inhabitable. So, I hope that the clinical components, the agreement and the weather condition on the ground together will promote a decision by the two militaries to disengage and withdraw. But I have to say that judging from what the Chinese military is trying to do and what the Indian military is trying to do; I am not particularly optimistic this time.


So, maybe both sides will withdraw the majority of their troops since tens and thousands of troops are very difficult to be kept in their region, but for complete disengagement and complete withdrawal I am not particularly confident. I am even less optimistic about the permanent solution. This issue has existed for seven decades and we know that both sides have their historical evidence, have their territorial claims and have their legitimate claims in their view. So, this issue has not been resolved, evidently suggests that there are particular political obstacles and also practical obstacles on both sides.

So, although this time the tension has escalated to I would say rather unprecedented level since 1975, I don’t expect a permanent solution.

Q. Yun, I think it would be helpful for our audience to understand how China... okay, let me rephrase that question. One of the interesting things about this particular joint statement is that it does not refer to the restoration of the status quo unlike the earlier joint statement that came out of the meeting between the two special representatives. It would be very helpful I think for our audience to have some sense of what China actually makes of this thing we call the Line of Actual Control? What is its understanding of where it should be? And why has this issue become so important after apparently lying dormant for some decades?

A. Well, I have read many papers by a distinguished Indian strategist about the issue of Line of Actual Control (LAC). And I would say that amongst Indian strategist there is also some recognition that there is not one LAC. There is an Indian LAC and then there is also – sorry, there is the Indian LAC and there is also the Chinese LAC. And these two lines do not overlap. And in particular in the western sector because troop deployment for the whole year, the whole year around the troop deployment is not feasible in the western sector of the disputed border; that means by the time winter begins each year both sides will withdraw their troops but it also means that they both come back the next year and by the time that they come back they may not stick to the line that they stationed them in the previous year. Instead they were trying to patrol and they were trying to advance to the LAC that either side believes that they are entitled to.

So, I think this issue of the disputed or disagreement over the Line of Actual Control, I think both sides agree it's the origin of the reescalation of tension every year but then the question is how could the two sides reach consensus, as for what line really should mean? Or what it should really look like? And I think that there are two approaches; there is a political approach that two sides can negotiate on a negotiation table. Both sides will present their historical evidence, make a legal argument and try to show why their claim of the Line of Actual Control is more legitimate than the other. But I think the recourse of such negotiation for this many decades has also suggested that that method is not really working out because both sides have their evidence and neither side is able to convince the other side.

So, the political negotiation has become increasingly impractical and that leaves to the other option which you mentioned in our last conversation -- the option that India and Pakistan have adopted in the Kashmir which is that if the Line of Actual Control cannot be negotiated it can only be consolidated by the stationing of troops, by the confrontation along the disputed border so that within this pulling and hauling both sides will get a clear sense as for where we are and where they are and in that constant military interaction and almost I am sorry to say standoffs end of confrontation, a Line of Actual Control will eventually emerge.

Q. Do you fear that there is sort of large standoffs involving tens of thousands of soldiers and one which you say could begin again next spring as both sides jostle, could escalate into a full-scale war and that too between two nuclear weapon states? Is this a realistic possibility or will the political leadership in your view be able to contain it?

A. I think it’s possible but it’s not very probable, or we say that in policy circle possibility always exists but is it probable? I don’t think the likelihood for this is particularly high, I think for one, I don’t believe either India or China wants the war with each other, along that disputed border. Neither side is seeking a war with the other side in order to achieve certain agendas. So, I think both sides are finding themselves in the security dilemma, which means that the increase of the Indian security by troop deployment increases the Chinese insecurity and the Chinese will in turn increase their troop deployment so that it can feel a little bit more secure. But I would like to draw the distinction between scrimmages and conflict or war. Scrimmages can happen especially when the troops are deployed so close to each other.

Like remember the confrontation a couple of years ago, so I agree with you. I think the number of troops and how close they are to each other do increase the possibility of a scrimmage, a confrontation on the ground. But I think for those scrimmages to escalate into a full conflict or even a war that involves nuclear weapons like you just mentioned that requires political leaderships to see it. So, I would say a war is a political decision but scrimmages can happen practically on the ground.

Q. In the big picture, Yun, the decades of the ‘90s and most of the early 2000s were repeated when many analysts were very optimistic about the India-China relationship, trade was growing, people-to-people contact was increasing and there was even hope that a border resolution, a settlement may be hammered out. But from 2000, we have seen these scrimmages picking upwards steadily, all the way from little incidents in 2008 to Doklam and this now. What went wrong in this relationship?

A. That’s a great question. What went wrong? I think to begin with, the context of this evolution is that back in the ‘90s, China was keeping a low-profile, China was trying to build its domestic strengthens, build its comprehensive national power. And I would say that in the ‘90s and in the early 2000s neither China nor India saw each other as a significant threat. And it could be because neither country was at a stage where they felt like a global power and their global power ambition was not inflated.

So, on that I would say that the international financial crisis did give China at that point, we will see this quite clearly starting from 2008, 2009. All the international events gave China a sense of – the inflated sense of empowerment.

There was a financial crisis and China saw itself doing fairly well in the crisis. There was also the Obama administration’s inauguration and during the first year of the Obama administration the United States had a long list of issues where it was seeking China's cooperation from AfPak to North Korea, from Iran to climate change. So I was based in Beijing at that time. So I knew that all those messages coming from the United States were translated as a signal, by the Chinese that, oh, the US is weak, the US is weakening, and the US now needs our cooperation to address its issues.

So I will say that around that time, the Chinese sense of empowerment started to grow. And I think that's also around the time where the Chinese see itself as a growing global presence. And of course, then later in 2013, with the Belt and Road Initiative, we know that the Chinese developed this blueprint in order to go in the western direction, Central Asia, South Asia, and that inevitably led to the clash with India, in the South Asian subcontinent, which India sees as its traditional sphere of influence.

So I think especially coming to India, China-India relations, the Chinese perception is, well, traditionally, maybe South Asian subcontinent has been India's sphere of influence. But the Chinese government see the Indian presence as exclusive, meaning that South Asia is not often limited to China. So when China looks at the smaller nations in South Asia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Chinese see the need, or doesn't see any need to be denied or any legitimacy to be denied access or influence or presence in the South Asian region, and that inevitably will lead to the Indian reaction, seeing that China is trying to creep into India's backyard or its sphere of influence. And I will say if the position of China and India was reversed, China will feel the same way about India.

Like for example, when we see India trying to pursue cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, especially a defence cooperation with countries like Vietnam, the Chinese are extremely nervous. They feel that India is trying to come to China's backyard and trying to steal China's sphere of influence. So I will say that, in this case, I think the Chinese could have done a better job to reassure India about its benevolent intention and about the utility or the ambition, or what they're trying to achieve in South Asia. But then, of course, if the Chinese agenda is indeed that, well we want to compete with India, for sphere of influence in South Asia, I think for them to clarify that probably it's not going to be helpful either.

Q. A final question Yun, there's a lot of talk in Washington and elsewhere about a coming decade of strategic containment of China about, trade wars, about pressure being mounted in various directions. Assuming all of this actually gathers some kind of significant momentum, how do you see that affecting China's strategic behaviour in years to come, and particularly in the context of South Asia?

A. That's another excellent question. I think seeing the rising great power competition, as we say it, or the strategic containment of China, creates momentum in China about its strategic environment. I think most directly the Chinese reaction is that if the US is trying to isolate China, then China cannot be isolated. As I told you, China needs to improve relations, needs to accommodate its neighbours and try to pursue a better relationship so that this separation, decoupling of the supply chain, the desire to decouple China from the international community would not be successful.

Q. That doesn't -- excuse me just -- doesn't apply to India, the better relationship thing.

A. I think it does apply to India, because if you look at the China-India rapprochement in 2018, remember the beautiful meeting between Xi and Prime Minister Modi in Wuhan, near the Eastern Lake, that was – the cherry blossoms, I think 2018 really represented a pretty abrupt turn of China's policy towards India, especially after the Doklam standoff in 2017. And I think the primary reasons that motivated the Chinese turn position is the US-Indo Pacific strategy is when China saw that the US is reaching out to India, offer India strategic leverages.

China reached out to India to say that, well, we don't want to be alienated from you. We still want to build a good relationship with you. And if you remember the Chinese leader elevated the China-India relations to an unprecedented level calling it, I think the unprecedented cooperation between two emerging powers facing this new century, something to that effect.

So I will say that the logic, the first reaction that I mentioned, China wants to avoid being isolated, it applied to India. But I think that led to the second layer of reaction, which is that the Chinese saw that while the US and China were competing for regional countries favour, well covering their alignment choices, what has happened, at least in the Chinese view, is that it inflated the demand of regional countries on China. And the logic became that well, I'm just repeating what the Chinese are thinking or what they see that happened with India is that, well, India felt its external environment has improved to an unprecedented level. Therefore, both the US. and China are trying to curry favour with India.

So in the Indian view, if China really wants a good relationship with India, then China should be more accommodating about its Indian requests. And the list of such requests is fairly long. So there is a border dispute. There's also the relationship with Pakistan, there are trade relations. There's also the Chinese presence in South Asia. So I think from the Chinese perspective, the improved external environment of India has translated into a message of India's strengths. So India believed that its improved position that has warranted more compromise -- more concessions from China.

I think that's something that the Chinese felt that they couldn't deliver. And they're not going to, they want good relations with India, but they're not going to sacrifice their territory in their minds as legitimately Chinese territory to serve that purpose. And I think there's also a psychology in China that points to this unfortunate Chinese perception, which is that if China makes a concession to India, because India is now in a better position, the Chinese concession will not be interpreted as Chinese goodwill. It will only be interpreted as a result of India's improved strengths. So by that token, by that logic, India is going to make demands for more concessions, and instead of reciprocating to what the Chinese would deliver.

So I think these are the -- I call them stereotype thinking that China has accumulated through this many years of working with India, and they're unlikely to change in a short term.
Praveen Swami
first published: Sep 15, 2020 05:50 pm
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