Interview of Major General S B Asthana by South China Morning Post on Latest Border Standoff and impact on China-India -US relations

Sharing an email interview of mine taken by South China Morning Post (SCMP), regarding latest border standoff between India and China and its possible implications on the India-China-US triangular relationship. The interviewer is Mr Jiangtao Shi of SCMP. An interesting interview with incisive question on the subject and related issues from extremely popular Newspaper. My responses are dated 28 May 2020. Worth reading (8 minutes read).

SCMP

While details remain sketchy about the latest border confrontation in the North Ladakh region and near the pass of Naku La along the Sikkim border early this month, tensions remain high as both sides have significantly increased their troops in the remote Himalayan mountains. Many believe it’s the most serious standoff since Doklam. How serious do you think the latest flare-up along the disputed “line of actual control”, especially compared to previous scuffles and standoff, such as the 2017 Doklam face-off? 

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

In my opinion, all standoffs between China and India are serious and need to be avoided. Both countries have own perception of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and in certain areas these perception overlap. Both sides patrol areas up to own perception of LAC; hence in overlapping areas, it is termed as transgression by opposite side. In most transgressions troops patrol and go back to their bases. In case the troops do not go back and make arrangements to stay in particular areas claiming to be own it leads to standoff, as the opposing side is also under compulsion to do the same. Previous scuffles in recent past were case of response to transgressions and did not involve standoff. It cannot be termed as confrontation as yet, unless it results into some military offensive action. The standoff in some areas of Ladakh like Galwan Valley is different this time, because China did not claim/patrol this area earlier; hence has intruded in Indian territory and India will certainly defend its territory. The seriousness of this standoff will depend on how fast Chinese troops go back to pre-standoff positions. The conciliatory message by Chinese Envoy on 27 May following similar remarks by Chinese foreign ministry the previous day, are welcomed developments amidst rising rhetoric. This faceoff is different from Doklam faceoff because that was a trilateral issue, and this one is a bilateral issue. The level of rhetoric is lower, so far, and we are yet to see how long it continues.  

SCMP

What’s your assessment of the implications of the recent border standoff on India-China ties? Is it true that the summit diplomacy between the two countries has failed to address the trust deficit and achieve concrete results towards finding solutions to the long-running border dispute?  

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

The border problem is complicated in absence of any written border Treaty between Peoples Republic of China and India post-independence, as China selectively fails to recognize any treaty between Tibet and British India in Indian context. Over a period of time both sides have dug their heels pertaining to their claims. In such circumstances any possible resolution will involve give and take of some territory. In China-India equation giving anything, has a heavy political cost both sides. What is doable and inescapable is delineation, delimitation and demarcation of LAC, which must be pursued to prevent transgressions and faceoffs. The confidence building measures (CBM) can prevent conflicts, but not incidents on LAC. To my mind this will happen only, when the political/strategic cost of not doing so will increase in comparison to doing so. It is for this reason that 22 rounds of talks have not yielded any worthwhile results. The standoffs certainly are not good for bilateral relationship and bridging trust deficit. The Summit Diplomacy has wider ambit, addresses many bilateral issues and border resolution is one of the many issues like bilateral trade and many more. It has its own significance; hence should not be restricted to Faceoffs only. 

SCMP

The timing of the latest standoff is intriguing. It occurred as both sides were supposed to host events to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties, China announced plans to repatriate its citizens from India due to coronavirus, and Beijing’s role in the Covid-19 has prompted a global awakening of the authoritarian “China model” amid a brewing US-led backlash. 

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

The standoff and 70th year of diplomatic ties do not seem to be related. The standoff has more to do with Chinese desire to assert at a time when it has passed through the peak of the Novel coronavirus pandemic and others are struggling with it. China has developed its infrastructure up to its perception of LAC and wants to deny the same to India; hence has chosen this time to assert to block progress of infrastructure development along the borders. Every country has responsibility to protect its citizens. India had repatriated its citizens from Wuhan, when it was amidst pandemic; hence I do not read much in Chinese doing so, when COVID-19 cases are rising in India. I do not feel that anyone buys Chinese praise for its authoritarian model in fighting pandemic, as next door Taiwan has combated the pandemic in a much better way, with democratic norms and more freedom to its people.  

SCMP

Many IR experts are also perplexed by China’s aggressive diplomacy in the wake of the coronavirus. While China may have been hit hard by the pandemic, it has become even more assertive on multiple fronts, especially on the blame shifting over coronavirus, geopolitical rivalry with the US, taming Hong Kong, and sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. What’s the rationale behind Beijing’s hard-nosed diplomacy and its position on the India-China border dispute, which seem to have left China increasingly isolated and laid bare its own limits?  To what extent has the coronavirus further complicated bilateral ties? 

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

China got over the pandemic cycle of Coronavirus earlier than other major countries. China has used it as an opportunity to assert itself on multiple fronts, which is being looked at as unfair, thus refuelling the global anger against it. The global anger against China regarding Novel coronavirus is more against its hierarchy for alleged coverup to delay global response and not much on the question of its origin nor is it against the population of China, which is increasingly been seen as victim of authoritarian policies of hierarchy like Hong Kong. China is being seen to be taking unfair advantage in its assertion in Indo-Pacific by speeding up its Incremental Encroachment Strategy in South China Sea as well as LAC.      

Amidst US -China Trade war and strategic competition having commenced before the pandemic, in my opinion the rationale of China being over assertive at the time of pandemic comes from Sun Tzu’s thoughts of ‘Strike adversary when it’s weak and preserve yourself when it is strong’. China is leaving no stone unturned to make quick gains when US is struggling with pandemic in areas of Indo-Pacific where it could have faced US opposition in absence of pandemic. As regards Beijing’s Hard nosed diplomacy and overdrive along China-India borders, it can be speculated that it is due to many reasons. Firstly, denying India to build infrastructure near LAC, having built it on its side; secondly putting indirect pressure on India to distance itself from South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong issues; thirdly avoid being critical of China as international investigation progresses under Indian chairmanship of WHA; and fourthly reminding India not to side US as our hips are joint by unsettled borders unlike other Quad members. It is my firm opinion that Chinese actions on LAC are counter-productive because India is a strong nation and will not let anyone manipulate its sovereign strategic choices and will defend its territory.    

SCMP

What’s your take of the offer to mediate from President Trump, who visited India in February and is keen to boost ties with India and other like-minded countries to counter China? 

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

In my opinion it is a bilateral issue and does not require any mediation by any third party. 

SCMP

How does India see the US-China superpower rivalry? With the US-China tensions set to escalate in a dangerous cycle of disengagement ahead of the US presidential elections, how will India position itself in the trilateral relationship? 

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

The US-China rivalry will further escalate due to pandemic as US body bags increase, along with allegations of Chinese delay in global response. While the pandemic has exposed some major weaknesses of US in handling the pandemic and over reliance on Chinese supply chain for daily crucial necessities, it has also dented the global trust on China due to its undesirable assertiveness during pandemic, coupled with cases of profiteering by pandemic. It is fuelling global anger and trust deficit against China. India is a strong sovereign country, which will take sovereign decisions on case to case basis, in its national interest. While nobody can mould strategic choices of India, but Chinese overdrive on LAC and such actions seem to be inadvertently pushing India away from China, towards US and its allies. I think Chinese strategists should give a second thought to limit their overdrive.

SCMP

Has it become increasingly inevitable for India to side with the US in the US-China showdown? With no solutions over border disputes in sight and the leadership in both China and India taking a nationalist turn, are China and India destined for greater rivalry and more border confrontation and clashes?

Major General S B Asthana (Veteran) 

Chinese planners by undesired overdrive at multiple points, including some new ones along LAC, at the time of pandemic are doing their best to push India towards US and its allies. It is certainly not serving Chinese interest, even if it’s suiting CPC’s domestic interest in diverting attention from some local dissent, as it takes a nationalist turn in China as well. It needs to be noted after experience of Doklam incident, that any intrusion in India will ignite nationalism in India, refuel national response and will be resented by whole nation, despite the pandemic. In this context it needs to be deliberated that it’s easy to start a standoff, but its difficult to find a graceful exit. I certainly feel that its in the interest of both countries to talk, finish the standoff, and work towards delineation, delimitation and demarcation of LAC, which is inescapable  to avoid border clashes, having the potential to get into accidental confrontation in escalation dynamics despite BPTA and existing CBMs. 

 Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM (Veteran)

(The views expressed are my personal views and do not represent official views or views of any organisation). The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel sitehttps://asthanawrites.org/email shashiasthana29@gmail.comLinkedIn Profilewww.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6   My Youtube link   

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl50YRTBrOCVIxDtHfhvQDQ?view_as=subscriber

One thought on “Interview of Major General S B Asthana by South China Morning Post on Latest Border Standoff and impact on China-India -US relations

  1. A remarkably candid interview and equally forthright discussion points. I agree with General Asthana that demarcation, delimitation and delineation of the LAC is only way to settle the matter and live as good neighbors. Confrontation, escalation of land grab techninique used by China to intimidate india is never going to be helpful in making the two soverign countries improve trust and friendship.

    Like

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