Interpreting India

Understanding the Line of Actual Control with Shyam Saran

Episode Summary

Srinath Raghavan is joined by Shyam Saran as they discuss the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Sino-Indian border. They discuss how the LAC impacts and is impacted by the relationship between New Delhi and Beijing.

Episode Notes

Srinath Raghavan is joined by Shyam Saran as they discuss the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Sino-Indian border. They look at the way in which the LAC impacts, and is impacted by the relationship between New Delhi and Beijing. 



Shyam Saran is a Senior Fellow and Member of the Governing Board at Centre for Policy Research. He is a former Foreign Secretary of India and has served as Prime Minister’s Special Envoy For Nuclear Affairs and Climate Change. After leaving government service in 2010, he has headed the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a prestigious think tank focusing on economic issues (2011-2017) and was Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board under the National Security Council (2013-15). 

Srinath Raghavan is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie India. He is also a professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University. His primary research focus is on the contemporary and historical aspects of India’s foreign and security policies. He has written a number of books spanning international relations, strategic studies and modern South Asian history. 


Additional Reading:

1. How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century by Shyam Saran 

2. As the LAC heats up, reading China’s playbook by Shyam Saran 

3. A Clash in the eastern Ladakh by Shyam Saran 


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Episode Transcription

Srinath Raghavan:         00:08                Hello, and welcome to interpreting India. I'm Srinath Raghavan and this is a podcast presented by Carnegie India. Every week we bring to you voices from India and around the world as we unpack the role of technology, the economy, and foreign policy in shaping India's relationship with the world. In the light of the recent coronavirus outbreak, we are now recording and producing episodes of Interpreting India remotely. The recent violent clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the line of actual control, the first since 1975, have led to a serious escalation of tensions between the two countries. Transgressions across the boundary occur periodically and are typically settled through established military and diplomatic protocols. However, the recent clashes have highlighted the utter inadequacy of these measures with the potential to alter Sino Indian relations in the years to come. How has the boundary dispute, especially the lack of clarity on the Lac impacted the relationship between New Delhi and Beijing over the past three decades?

Srinath Raghavan:         01:15                Why do some incidents result in standoffs while others do not? What does the current situation portend for the future of Sino Indian ties? To discuss these questions and more, we have with us today, Ambassador Shyam Saran. Ambassador Saran is a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. He was a career diplomat and has formally served as India's foreign secretary, as Prime Minister's Special Envoy for climate change, and as the chairman of the national security advisory board. Apart from stints in China, he has also held ambassadorial positions in Indonesia, Nepal, Myanmar, among other places. Ambassador Saran is the author of the book 'How India Sees The World: Kautilya to the 21st century'. Ambassador Saran, welcome to the podcast, delighted to have you with us today.

Shyam Saran:                02:07                Thank you. Thank you, Srinath.

Srinath Raghavan:         02:09                I want to begin by asking you for your view of the current situation along the line of actual control. There seems to be a bit of lack of clarity on what exactly is the situation, because on the one hand, statements from the government suggest that there is no Chinese incursion onto the side of Lac that India considers as its side, but there is a lot of newspaper reporting. There is satellite imagery and ofcourse we have had this clash in which 20 Indian soldiers and an officer have died. So I was just wondering if you could begin by giving us your assessment of the situation as it prevails on the LAC at this point in time.

Shyam Saran:                02:47                Thank you, Srinath. You know, we are faced with a situation where the flow of information leaves much to be desired. I think, you know, when, the government itself, does not fully brief the public about what the current situation is, then naturally there will be speculation. And, I would not place too much, you know, store by the satellite imagery or, some of the very elaborate analyses that we have seen because frankly speaking authentic information as to what is happening on the ground is not really very clear. So, I think we have to be a little careful in the manner in which we make these kind of assessments. Having said that, it is very clear that at Galwan, a very serious incident took place in which 20 of our soldiers lost their lives, perhaps an indeterminate number also, were lost on the Chinese side and it is also very clear that this involved a difference of opinion in terms of, you know, the presence of the two sides, on the line of actual control. So that much appears to be fairly clear. We also know that, previous to this, there had been incidents at the Pangong Tso area where clearly there has been a Chinese transgression on our side of the line of actual control. You know, the so-called finger four to finger eight area, which we used to patrol, but those patrols have been hampered by a strong Chinese presence. There is also no doubt that there has been a buildup of forces, both on the Chinese side, as well as on the Indian side. So these are, you know, facts which are available to us. Now in making the assessment, we have to take into account the fact that this is not a isolated incident that, as I said, there have been also incidents at the Pangong Tso area. Previous to that, there was an incident on the Sikkim-Tibet border.

Shyam Saran:                05:26                These have happened within a certain short period of time. So it is not as if these are, you know, isolated instances on the border because this may be local activism. The fact that there has been a buildup of troops on the Chinese side also could not have happened with fairly high level, you know, approval. So this is a new situation. That much is very clear. The level of violence is also new. We have not seen this level of violence in the past. And the buildup of forces on the Chinese side is also a departure from the past. So we are facing a new situation.

Srinath Raghavan:         06:13                If you have to think about what prompted the Chinese to make these particular sets of coordinated moves at this point of time, and also to escalate the situation on the Galwan site, what would you think are the three most important drivers? You know, you have observed China over so many decades, and thoughout this period, as you have pointed out, you know, there's hardly been any incident which has gotten out of hand in quite this way. Why do you think the Chinese have decided to change course at this point in time?

Shyam Saran:                06:42                It is not perhaps reasonable to, you know, cite only one particular factor, because I think there are several factors which have gone into why the Chinese have chosen to act at this time in such a manner––as escalatory manner as you pointed out. So let me begin by pointing out. So I do not think that we can point to just one factor as explanation for Chinese behavior. I imagine that there were a multiplicity of factors, which sort of came to a head, about the same time. So let me begin by pointing out the approximate cause and the approximate cause appears to be that the infrastructure development, which has been carried out in the Eastern Ladakh area in particular, the Demchok, DBO road. This has obviously had the effect of changing the balance in the area somewhat in India's favor. Although I would say that the asymmetry between Indian capabilities and Chinese capabilities is still quite significant, but yes, the Chinese had been objecting to the border infrastructure development on our side and perhaps this was seen as giving us a tactical advantage, which then they tried to neutralize. That is one aspect. The second aspect, and here I am, you know, referring back to a lot of the literature we see in the, on the Chinese side, particularly from some of their South Asian think tanks that there was also unhappiness about the change in the status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the creation of Ladakh as a Union Territory. And in the course of that change, you know, certain statements made by the Home Minister relating to the recovery of not only Gilgit and Baltistan on the Pakistani side, but Aksai Chin on the Chinese side. Now, even though this was explained to the Chinese side, that there was no change in terms of India's relationship with China. perhaps there has been some suspicion about, or a heightened mistrust as a result of this. So this has also been cited as a, as one of the reasons. And I think the other aspect is the broader aspect. And I think the broader aspect is that, you know, I have pointed out that China thinks very hierarchically in terms of power equations. And, it certainly believes that there should be in terms of say an Asian order, there should be a hierarchical order, with China as the dominant power. So if you are talking about an Asian century, which Deng Xiaoping in 1988 said that, you know, the Asian century cannot be possible without both the emergence of India and China, and even a certain partnership between them. I think the Xi Jinping view is very clear that an Asian century can only be one which is led by China and therefore any pretensions on the part of India to aspire to some kind of a equal status and role must be put down.

Shyam Saran:                10:30                And the Indians must be taught where their place is. And this is also a refrain, which you see coming out in some of the writings on the Chinese side. So there is that overall geopolitical aspect of seeing an opportunity, especially with the kind of disarray in which the rest of the world is-- that this is an opportune time to get countries with the pandemic so there is a certain, certain opportunity that should be taken advantage of. So there is a, there is a, I think a whole Matrix of reasons why this has happened. And this has happened at this particular point of time.

Srinath Raghavan:         11:19                I'd like to ask you a little bit more about the point on infrastructure. Now, the lack of parity and the strife that China had made, especially in the early 2000s, in terms of border infrastructure development-- This was something that you had pointed out when you were still in office as Foreign Secretary in the mid-2000s and subsequently about eight-nine years later, when you were Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, it was, again, something that you had underlined as an area, that we, which is to say India, has to get its act together in a much more coherent and cohesive fashion. How do you think this particular activity from our side-- has it really picked up? I was recently reading an article by a Former Chief of the Research and Analysis Wing who pointed out that under the Modi government, you know, construction of infrastructure, et cetera, has taken a kind of a turn, which it simply did not have in the past. But I was just wondering, do you think that this has been a serious point of concern as far as the Chinese are concerned?

Shyam Saran:                12:28                Let me point out that, you know, I was asked to undertake a border infrastructural surveys by the then UPA government and specifically by Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, himself. So the first infrastructure survey I carried out was in 2004, then I repeated the survey in 2007. And then as you said, as chairman of the national security advisory board, I did another survey in 2013 and I covered virtually the entire stretch of India's borders with Pakistan, with China and also I had done some earlier work on Nepal, as well as on Myanmar. Now in that context, I would like to point out that certainly in the early stages, there was very significant asymmetry in terms of, you know, border infrastructure between the Chinese side and the Indian side. No doubt about that. And several proposals were made by me, for improving the infrastructure on our side and a considerable amount of work was even carried out during the UPA years. And I have no doubt that these projects have been continued and perhaps even, you know, accelerated under the present government. So I don't think it is a matter of, you know, the previous government did not do anything. And it's only the, the government now, which is doing this. I think, there has been a commitment to improving border infrastructure now, for a considerable period of time. And very significant improvements have been made. Many of the plans, which are being carried out today are actually plans, which have been on the, on the anvil, for quite some time. so there is no doubt that there has been across the board there has been a lot of improvement in border infrastructure.

Shyam Saran:                14:35                And I would add, that even though the improvements have been made, there is still quite a distance to go. It's not as if we have overcome that asymmetry. Now, to what extent this has been a matter of concern to the Chinese? Of course, the Chinese have been expressing their concern, you know, repeatedly about the development of border infrastructure on our side. At a certain point, I think they had even suggested that we should come to an agreement to freeze any kind of border infrastructure development on either side of the LAC. And we had very rightly rejected that, because that would mean freezing the asymmetry in favor of China. So having been in a very dominating position in the past--to have that dominance, in a sense, eroded over a period of time, I'm certain that on the Chinese side, they would have been concerned about this. And as I said, right in the beginning that the proximate cause of what may have happened in Galwan, of course, has been the development of the the Highway links in the area, very importantly, the revival of the advanced landing grounds at DBO, at Chushul, at Fukche, at Demchok itself, these have improved our supply situation. And of course the Chinese would find it a matter of concern.

Srinath Raghavan:         16:07                So one of the things that Chinese have been doing in the current situation is to exploit the ambiguities around where exactly the line of actual control runs, because so far the Chinese, even though they have at various points of time going back all the way to 1956, suggested that they have various conceptions of where their claim lines in this area lie. They have never been absolutely clear in terms of indicating cartographically, where exactly their line of actual control as perceived by them actually runs. And it is that ambiguity, which allows them to consistently push things forward. And over a very long period of time, India has, especially in the 1990s and then in the 2000s attempted to see if the Chinese might be willing to clarify the line of actual control, not to settle the boundary, but clarification of the Lac itself. But the Chinese seem to shy away from it all the time. Why do you think they are so reluctant to embark on such an exercise?

Shyam Saran:                17:03                The short answer is that the ambiguity helps them to carry out the, kind of, you know, transgressions that they have in the recent past, and also, during earlier such confrontations. So let me point out that one, where does the LAC lie? What is the alignment of the LAC whether it be Eastern or the middle or the Western sector? We should be very clear that we are fully aware of where the LAC lies. So there is no ambiguity about the alignment of the LAC, as far as the Indian side is concerned. I'm saying this because inadvertently perhaps, sometimes an impression is given that, you know, there are differences of perception on the line of actual control. And it seems that there is some ambiguity about its alignment even on our side. No, there is no ambiguity on our side; ambiguity arises because at various points the Chinese side raises doubts about where the LAC is, but we have no doubts about where our LAC lies. So this should be clearly understood. And also, in the same manner. It is not correct to talk in terms of buffer zones, or talk in terms of, you know, zones which are, you know, no man's land. These are completely, you know, terms which are certainly not appropriate in the current context. Now, please recall that in 1996, when we concluded the peace and tranquility agreement with China, the Chinese and the Indian side committed themselves to an exercise for the clarification of the Line of Actual Control, because both sides recognized that without a clarification of the line of control and identification of areas, where there may be divergences of opinion with regard to where the line lies, it would be difficult to maintain peace and tranquility. And this 1996 commitment has been again reiterated in 2005 when we signed the very important political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the India China border question.

Shyam Saran:                19:42                So it is not that Indian side has pressed China to agree to clarification. And this has been a demand on the part of China, which China has raised. What we have is a case of China refusing to in fact, deliver on the commitment that it has made; That it would sit together with the Indian side and clarify the LAC. And why are they not agreeing to that exercise? I think, it is precisely because it gives them a certain advantage in terms of, you know, raising these kind of, you know, issues at various points of the LAC, arguing that, you know, according to their perception, this is where the line of control lies. And I think from our side, there should be a continuing pressure on China to deliver on this commitment. We should not let go of this, of this requirement because it works to our disadvantage.

Srinath Raghavan:         20:44                And of course we have this process of where the special representatives of the two countries meet periodically to talk about the boundaries. And again, that process in the mid to end 2000s actually did make much more progress than it has ever since. But do you think China has, especially over the last decade, become much more reluctant to talk about the boundary itself as a whole, not just the LAC?

Shyam Saran:                21:08                That is the impression I have, because in a certain sense, you know, 2005 was the high point, because if you look at the political parameters and guiding principles, it actually incorporated principles, which earlier the Chinese side was resisting. For example, that, you know, well defined geographical features should be taken into account when, you know, trying to settle the border issue or that the interests of settled populations should be taken into account. And these were very important for us because, you know, in terms of the, you know, watershed principle in terms of, you know, the interest of the settled population, it was important that these principles should be accepted and they were accepted in the political parameters and guiding principles.

Shyam Saran:                22:00                And as I mentioned to you, even in 2005, there was a reiteration of the commitment to clarify the line of actual control. So, why has that, changed? Well, I have argued that 2005 fell during a phase where even though there was a power asymmetry between India and China, but India was growing at a very rapid rate, while the Chinese economy was slowing down. If you recall, we were growing at the rate or something like 8 to 9% per annum. In many ways the international perception at that time was that India was going to be the next China in terms of economic and commercial opportunity. That was the time when a term like the BRICS came up and India and China were even seen as the two emerging economies, which were able to work together on issues like say multilateral trade regime, climate change. I was the chief negotiator on climate change leading up to Copenhagen. And I can say, you know, very explicitly that China was a good ally in many of the issues that we were fighting for. So that was a period where, perhaps in Chinese perceptions also, it was important that a certain, positive relationship should be maintained between India and China. However, this situation began to undergo a change post 2007. We had the financial and economic crisis of 2007, 2008. The Western world, including the United States of America was very badly affected by this crisis. China, on the other hand, emerged relatively unscathed from that crisis and perhaps in relative terms both economic capabilities, as well as military capabilities on its part, it had managed to, in a sense, shrink the asymmetry of power with the United States.

Shyam Saran:                24:21                And by contrast, India's growth rates started slowing down. And if, you know, India's more outward looking policies, its embrace of globalization--There seemed to be now some doubts about that. So there was perhaps a sense in China, that the old paradigm had changed. And this was reflected in the very frequent sort of reference to China's economy, being, you know, five times the size of India's economy. Our Indian friends should realize that, you know, the situation has undergone a change; basically saying that, you know, you are no longer in the same league as us and then this game, with the assertion that, you know, this is an age of great power relationships, a new type of great power relationship that is between China and United States. So benchmarking China with the United States, not benchmarking China anymore with other emerging countries like India, like Brazil, South Africa, which was the case earlier. So, I think we have to recognize that at least in Chinese perception, there is a big change in the geopolitical landscape. And in that landscape, India is very much a junior partner.

Srinath Raghavan:         25:50                Ambassador Saran, you have served in many countries in India's neighbourhood which are also neighbors of China. And I was wondering from that perspective, how do you see Sino-Indian relations being perceived in our neighborhood? You know, is there a sense that the Chinese want to put India in place so that India's own neighbors then feel a bit more emboldened in dealing with India or getting closer to China? I mean, clearly the Chinese footprint in our neighborhood has also been expanding quite dramatically.

Shyam Saran :               26:19                You are right. I mean, the Chinese footprint is expanding in our neighborhood. And the latest example of that is, you know, Nepal's decision to, you know, come out with a new map, incorporating a fairly significant chunk of Indian territory into Nepal. Certainly, Nepal feels that, you know the kind of tension between India and China and the power asymmetry between India and China also gives them space. In a sense to even cock a snook at India.

Shyam Saran:                27:00                So our neighbors are very sensitive to the state of relations between India and China and not just India and China, but the state of relations between India and other major powers. And this is also the reason why, you know, I would go back again to 2005, 2006, 2007, because if you recall, this was also the period of very major transformation in Nepal, in which India played a very important role. Now would that be possible today? That is debateable. I would hope that it is still possible for India to leverage the very strong affinities it continues to have with each of its neighbouring countries. India could still emerge as the engine of growth and also for post- COVID recovery economic recovery for these countries. But that requires making certain very important choices. The fact is that I have said before also that in your neighborhood, if you leave open spaces, somebody is going to walk in.

Shyam Saran:                28:16                And I think to some extent that is what has been happening. I still believe that despite China having made certain important gains in its relations with some of our neighbours, the assets which we have, the leverage that we have in terms of our relations with our neighbors, we still have an edge over China, but it requires very, very intensive, sort of diplomacy, and great deal of nurturing of our relations with our neighbors to ensure that. That somehow has been somewhat missing.

Srinath Raghavan:         28:55                So in the current context, it is being said also that India too has some choices to make, and that in some ways, you know, the problem has been that India has never clearly chosen in the past, and that the current crisis should be a wake up call for New Delhi to say that it has to make itself very clear that where it stands in the broader strategic equation between the United States, and China and so forth. And there is also a view you know, my colleague Ashley Tellis who was also on the same podcast a couple of weeks ago. And he articulated this standpoint that, you know, in some ways, India has to realize that internal balancing is not really an option for New Delhi, at least in the short run. So, you know, clarifying its overall strategic orientation is going to be of paramount importance, in the current context. How do you see these arguments and claims about how India should position itself more broadly?

Shyam Saran:                29:51                So one thing should be very clear that, you know, in our confrontation with China, or if there is an armed conflict with China, we are not going to get any of our partners to come and fight our battles for us. These battles have to be fought by India itself. We cannot depend upon others. Having said that, of course, having strong security arrangements, having strong political relations with other major powers in particular, the United States of America, but also, you know, countries like Japan or Australia, Southeast Asia, important countries like Indonesia and Vietnam. I'm also with Europe, you know, a strong relationship with Europe, a strong relationship, continuing the relationship with Russia, you know, having that kind of network of strong relationships gives India more room for maneovre than it would otherwise have. Now, this business of having to choose where to be--I'm not sure that that is the right way of posing that question, you know, economics, we say, you know, we work on the margin.

Shyam Saran:                31:11                So diplomacy is also to some extent working on the margin. It is not an either or situation. It is more a situation where, what more do you do incrementally here? What less you do incrementally somewhere else? So as to have the right mix. You know, I don't think we should place ourselves in rigid positions because when you are placed in a rigid position and do not have much flexibility, then your room for manoeuvre then diminishes. And I would not like India to be in that kind of a situation. That is something that we should recognize. And even if we are looking at say the relationship with the United States of America, do not forget that in the United States also, there is a strong sort of a strain of thinking that why do not we recognize the reality of China's emergence. Why do not we recognize that China, as a great power, is likely to expand its influence and it is quite natural. This is what the United States of America has done also in the past. So is there not an argument for coming to some kind of an understanding, some kind of modus vivendi with China. Now, if that were to happen, then, you know, we would be in a sense left in the lurch. So we have to be conscious of the fact that it is in our interest to build our relations

Srinath Raghavan:         32:40                With the United States of America because that is, I believe that is in India's interest, but we should still keep some room of manoeuvrefor ourselves because situations change, relationships and equations change. Relations between China and Japan-- it keeps, you know, evolving. China and Japan have very, very strong and dense economic relationships. That is a factor that Japan has to consider. So, while there is great sense in, for example, further crystallization of what we have called the Quad or the Indo-Pacific strategy, I think certainly that is in India's interest, but I would not like to go into a direction where India sort of becomes part and parcel of a, kind of a rigid military alliance. I do not think that this in India's interest.

Srinath Raghavan:         33:39                I'd like to finish by coming back to the situation on the line of actual control. Despite this big clash happening there, the Chinese do not seem to be in any mood to move towards a status quo ante or the restoration of the situation as it existed before they carried out their actions. Meetings on the ground are continuing, but clearly, there is no sign that the Chinese are likely to ease up at any point in time. So given this situation, how do you think, you know, India should be managing both the current crisis and looking forward to how to manage relations with China in the context where such situations are likely to recur in the future and against the background of the knowledge that some of the things that we took for granted in terms of boundary management protocols, et cetera, have broken down in this instance with very tragic consequences.

Shyam Saran:                34:32                So one important point to remember is that we already have several very good agreements on the maintenance of peace and tranquility on the border. And despite occasional confrontations, including the current one, by and large we have been able to maintain relative peace and tranquility on the border. So the success of those agreements in providing a fairly extended period of a peace on the border should not be underestimated. And I think we, our efforts should be to try and strengthen the implementation of those agreements and very importantly, to press for the clarification of the LAC, which is also a very important provision in those agreements. So I think, strengthening of those agreements. Yes, but I think those agreements by themselves are quite good agreements. One, we have one, from 2003, we have one in 2006, we have then in 2005 and then the latest one in 2013.

Shyam Saran:                35:49                So we have, I think a number of very good agreements for maintaining peace and tranquility. The one thing missing has been this clarification of the LAC, which should be something which we should now press very, very hard for. That is one aspect. The second aspect is that yes, there is a certain obduracy on the part of the Chinese side, but, you know, we have seen this in earlier instances as well, including in 2017 in Doklam where in fact, the Chinese position publicly expressed was a far more confrontational and, I would say far, far more negative than we see publicly, at least currently. So, there is no need for us to be in a great hurry with regard to the you know, resolving this issue. If there is a certain statement, but we hang in there and we refuse to, in fact, concede that, you know, whatever kind of, you know, pressures that China is putting on the LAC.

Shyam Saran:                37:04                This is something that we will somehow, or the other acquiesce in--I would say that we should not give that impression. There is no need for us to prematurely sort of take her decision that one way or the other, this has to be resolved. We have faced these kind of confrontations in the past, and we have hung in there sometimes for a very long period of time. You would recall, for example, in the case of the Sumdorong Chu incident, the standoff continued for, I think a few years before we were able to resolve it. So, taking, taking a leaf out of that book , I think––okay, if we have to be prepared for the long haul and we have to be prepared for an extended period of standoff, so be it.

Srinath Raghavan:         37:56                Ambassador Saran, thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing your insights. It was great to have you on the podcast.

Shyam Saran:                38:01                Thank you very much Srinath, thank you!