India and China must be frank with each other to prevent another Doklam, ambassador warns
New Delhi’s envoy to Beijing blames China for last summer’s military stand-off, saying it ‘changed the status quo in the region’
China and India have to be “frank and candid” to reduce their ongoing tensions, Delhi’s ambassador to Beijing has said ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to China in June.
Gautam Bambawale said political communication between the two nations had resumed after the Doklam crisis last year, when troops from both nations faced off for more than two months over the dispute.
However, he said that the dispute had started because China had “altered the status quo” in the region, adding that both sides should refrain from doing so in future to maintain peace and stability.
“Political level communication has come back,” Bambawale said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
“But more importantly, I think we need to have discussions between the two militaries. That has not fully resumed”.
While the troops on the ground can talk to each other, the two nations’ military headquarters are still not communicating with each other.
“We would like it to resume as soon as possible,” he said. “We already have frank and candid discussions, but I mean we need to be more frank and candid with each other.”
Bambawale was speaking during a visit to Hong Kong on Monday and Tuesday, when the city’s government and India signed an agreement to prevent people who earn money in both jurisdictions from being taxed twice.
Border tensions between India and China have been rumbling on for years and led to a war in 1962 that ended with a Chinese victory.
Last year when China started building a road in Doklam, which is claimed by India’s ally Bhutan, the situation escalated to become the worst crisis between the two sides since 1962.
In June both India and China mobilised troops in the area, and only announced their withdrawal at the end of August – shortly before Modi came to Xiamen for an emerging market summit.
Bambawale said Modi would visit Qingdao in Shandong province on June 9 and 10 for a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, where he will have bilateral talks with President Xi Jinping.
“There is a very good communication between the leaders, but we need to have better communication down the line,” Bambawale said.
He said a key lesson from last year’s stand-off was that “if anyone changes the status quo, it will lead to a situation like what happened in Doklam”.
The ambassador continued: “The Chinese military changed the status quo in the Doklam area and therefore India reacted to it.”
The Doklam stand-off happened because “we were not frank enough and candid enough with each other,” he argued.
“If the Chinese military are going to build a road, then they must tell us that ‘we are going to build a road’,” he said.
“If we do not agree to it then we can reply that, ‘look, you’re changing the status quo. Please don’t do it. This is a very, very sensitive area’.”
In addition to border tensions, India is also concerned about Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, which will see China building a port in the Pakistani city of Gwadar as part of a strategic economic corridor.
Bambawale said India supported Chinese efforts to improve the infrastructure in the region, but said these should not undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of any country.
“Unfortunately, there is this thing called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is called a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, which violates India’s sovereignty and territory integrity. Therefore, we oppose it.”
India has previously expressed concern that the project will involve infrastructure being built in disputed parts of Kashmir.
But Bambawale also stressed that India regards China as a partner rather than a rival, downplaying concerns that China’s expanding presence through ports and infrastructure projects across South Asia posed a threat to India.
“The trade between China and India reached the highest level ever, US$84.5 billion in 2017, even after the Doklam problem,” he said. “We look upon China as a partner in progress and development.”
When asked if his country would join Australia, Japan and the United States in forming a quadrilateral alliance, he insisted India would not be party to any pact designed to provide a counterbalance to China.
“I do not see that India is going to be a part of any alliance. India will work with all countries in the world to improve and increase its interests,” he said.
“I don’t think China’s rise creates any concerns in India. In fact, none of the things that India does with any country is aimed at a third country, including China.”
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang
This is the full transcript of the ambassador’s interview:
What’s your agenda in coming to Hong Kong?
Once I took over as Ambassador of India to China in Beijing in middle of November 2017, I presented my credentials to President Xi Jinping in early December. After that, I have not been able to visit anywhere outside China. As an Ambassador, my first visit outside Beijing is to Hong Kong and the reason is because yesterday we signed the Double-Taxation Avoidance Agreement between India and Hong Kong, which means that if there are people who earn money in Hong Kong and also earn some money in India, then they will be taxed in one of the two places. You don’t need to be double taxed.
I think a lot of companies and individuals were looking forward to this. I and the Finance Secretary signed it yesterday. It will come into effect in little time, because both sides have to ratify the Agreement, maybe in three to four months.
On Monday, I spoke at the Asia Society and also Hong Kong University’s Asia Global Institute. On Tuesday, I spoke at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
But I think the most important thing is that I think Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a press conference at the sidelines of NPC that Chinese dragon and Indian elephants must not fight, we have to dance together.
So, I think we’re looking at different ways to bring India and China together and I have been telling people in Hong Kong, including the Chief Executive, that Hong Kong must play a very important role in bringing India and China together, and the reason is because Hong Kong is a very special place. A lot of people in Hong Kong know China very well, it’s a part of China of course, but they also know India.
So Hong Kong must play a role as a catalyst in bringing India and China together. This is a very important role. If Hong Kong plays that role then Indian elephant and Chinese dragon will actually dance together.
What role must Hong Kong play?
One is business. Now we have the basis to increase business between Hong Kong and India and, through Hong Kong, between India and China. We have signed Double-Taxation Avoidance Agreement.
Second, we have also started negotiations on the Bilateral Investment Protection & Promotion Agreement between India and Hong Kong.
Thirdly, very importantly, is the move by the Hong Kong Government to open an Economic and Trade Office in Mumbai. We are still having a look at the proposal. I have invited the Chief Executive: when you open the office, please visit India.
We are hoping that all these three things will lead to an upsurge in trade, not only between India and Hong Kong, but also between India and China. This is the message that I have brought to Hong Kong.
What’s your evaluation on the existing communication mechanism between India and China?
We have a lot of dialogue between India and China, especially at the political level, and also at the economic level. I just give you one example, we have something called the Joint Economic Group between India and China, which is led on the Chinese side by the commerce minister, and the commerce and industry minister from the Indian side.
Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan will be in India later this week for the Joint Economic Group, and where they will discuss how to improve the trade relations and investments between India and China.
So these are the dialogues that already exist. But especially on the political level, we must be very frank and open and candid with each other. There are some issues and problems between India and China, if we have to solve those problems, we need to talk about the problems candidly.
That’s what I mean about the candid discussion. Also both governments of China and India have been saying that we must maintain strategic communication, and what I think when they talk about strategic communication, it means frank and candid discussion.
Only through talking frankly and candidly, we will be able to solve the issues and problems say boundary problem, and understand each other’s concerns. And I have said in my public remarks yesterday that the most important problem between India and China is the boundary problem. It is a leftover from history, but today’s governments are trying to tackle it. We are giving it a high priority. But only when both sides talk to each other very frankly and candidly, will we be able to resolve this boundary issue and decide on a boundary.
Is China transparent enough, maybe in relation to Doklam construction and army deployment?
We have good dialogue with China. We talk to China at many different levels, we talk to them at the official level, military authorities, foreign ministers and our leaders – Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping – have an excellent communication.
Both national leaders meet at least two or three times a year because both nations are members of many important international organisations as G20, BRICS and SCO and they have their own bilateral discussions. So there is a very good communication between the leaders, but we need to have better communication down the line.
I agree with you to the extent that both sides must be candid with each other and frank with each other. We must say what is happening on the ground and so on.
Many people say that everything the Chinese are doing is kept in dark and that’s where the gap and misunderstanding always happens so in your communications with Chinese officials, do you think that they are transparent enough in addressing India’s concerns?
I think that both sides have to address each others’ concerns. In fact, there are two principles that India has suggested to China, and I think we have broad agreement.
One is that each side must be sensitive to the other side’s aspirations, their concerns, their priorities and so on. And the second is that we must not allow differences to become disputes.
For example, we might have differences of opinion on Belt and Road, but that we must not allow that difference of opinion to become a dispute.
And I think for this, we need to have frank and candid discussions. We already have frank and candid discussions, but I mean we need to be more frank and candid with each other.
What kind of lessons can be learned from Doklam issue and what are the reasons leading to the rise of tensions and confrontations?
The India-China boundary is un-demarcated and un-delineated, so we have to talk to each other to delineate and demarcate it, which means to draw the boundary line. Now in the meantime, while we are discussing where the boundary will lie, both China and India have agreed that we should maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas.
Now for last 30 years, not a single shot had been fired between the India-China border, which shows that we have been successful at maintaining peace and tranquillity.
Even during the Doklam incident, a very serious incident, there was no firing, we were able to maintain peace and tranquillity.
I think this is a successful example of diplomacy between our two countries. But we need to move further to actually solve the problem, which is to draw the boundary line. The boundary is quite long between India and China – roughly 3,500km.
In order to maintain the peace and tranquillity, there are certain areas, certain sectors which are very sensitive, where we must not change the status quo. If anyone changes the status quo, it will lead to a situation like what happened in Doklam.
I can tell you very frankly and you can quote me on this. The Chinese military changed the status quo in the Doklam area and therefore India reacted to it. Ours was a reaction to the change in the status quo by the Chinese military.
So it is an issue as you say that even though the two countries have high level communications, it needs to be brought down to practical levels?
I agree entirely that it has to be brought down to practical levels. It shows that when incidents like Doklam happened last year, it means that we were not frank enough and candid enough with each other. So we need to increase the level of frankness.
What do you mean by not frank enough and candid enough?
In the sense that if the Chinese military are going to build a road, then they must tell us ‘we are going to build a road’. If we do not agree to it then we can reply that, ‘look, you’re changing the status quo. Please don’t do it. This is a very very sensitive area’.
After the Doklam incident some reports suggest that road construction and military deployment in the Western Theatre Command is actually increasing or at least continuing?
No, I can tell you that you in Doklam area, which we call close proximity or sometimes the face-off site, the area where there was close confrontation or close proximity between Indian and Chinese military troops, that there is no change taking place today. Maybe behind the Chinese may be putting more military barracks to put in more soldiers, but that is well behind the sensitive area. Those are the things you’re free to do and we are also free to do, because you’re doing it inside your territory and we are doing it inside our territory.
Has communication been stepped up after the incident?
At the political level communication has come back to place. So we had Yang Jiechi visit India last year in December. And we will continue to have such discussions. But more importantly, I think we need to have discussions between the two militaries. That has not fully resumed.
It has resumed to a certain extent, the troops on the ground can talk to each other, that has resumed, but the communication between the headquarters – say the Central Military Commission in Beijing and the Military Headquarters in Delhi – that communication has not yet resumed and we would like it to resume as soon as possible.
What’s the stumbling block?
There is no stumbling block, but we have to just move them to meet quickly, sooner rather than later. I think that it will happen sometime during the next few months.
At the political level, as you said Mr Modi and Xi Jinping are meeting 2-3 times a year, are there any high-level visits planned between the two nations?
Prime Minister Modi will visit Qingdao on June 9-10 for the Summit of the SCO. During that, we will definitely have bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping. And before that happens we want to have a lot of other meetings. One example is the Commerce Minister’s visit. We will have a whole series of meetings in the next few weeks and months. Another example, on the 22 and 23 March, we will have a meeting of Director General of the Boundary Department of Chinese Foreign Ministry with his Indian counterpart. We are having these meetings to have candid and frank discussions.
Any State-level visits being planned?
At this stage, we know that Prime Minister Modi will come to Qingdao in June this year.
There are many concerns about the Belt and Road Initiative. China is purchasing and renting so many ports in South Asia especially Pakistan. How is the concern in India addressed? What are the tactics that India is thinking of using to counter rising Chinese influence in South Asia?
Let me tell you very clearly that India has its own relationships with all these countries. These are very strong relationships and India is also doing a lot of projects in all these countries, such as the Maldives, Nepal or Sri Lanka. So, our relationships with these countries are very strong, they are historical, people-to-people contacts. I give you an example. You know between Nepal and India, there is an open border. So people can come to India without any visa, and the reverse is also the case.
So, we have very strong relationships with all these countries and we are confident that this relationship will become even stronger and richer in the coming months and years. So I don’t think we are worried about what China is doing. Those countries are free to have relationships with any third country, including China.
So you don’t think there is rivalry between India and China?
No, no. Let me tell you very clearly. As far as India is concerned, India does not look upon China as a rival or a competitor. We look upon China as a partner in progress and development. And let me give you an example of this. The trade between China and India reached the highest level ever, US$84.5 billion in 2017, even after the Doklam problem. Still, investment from China into India is increasing and investments from India into China are also increasing.
In fact, last year, there have been two success stories in the economic sector that I kept telling everyone – not only in Hong Kong but in Beijing as well. One is, of course, Xiaomi becoming the single largest mobile headset provider in India. Samsung used to be the leader, but now it has become number two. This shows there’s a big market in India and we want more Chinese companies to come and invest and sell in India. Another success story is an Indian Bollywood movie called Dangal. It became such a big hit in China.
I will tell you why it is important. It shows that Chinese people are open to watching Bollywood movies. I think from watching those movies they understand India better. And by understanding each other better, we will be able to have greater trust between each other. That’s why these examples are very important.
Global Times interviewed me and asked me questions like this, ‘why do Indian people not like China and why you dislike Chinese people?’ And I asked them ‘where did you get this idea from? Actually we have great admiration for China and what China has achieved in the last forty years. If there is any such thing you were talking about, would Xiaomi become the number one handset maker in India?’ And, conversely, Chinese people have nothing against India. If it was the case, would Dangal had become a hit, one of the largest selling non-Chinese films in whole of China?
Talking about movies, there is a quota for the number of foreign movies in China.
We know that there is a quota reserved for non-Chinese movies. We are working with the Chinese Government to increase the quota for Indian movies in China, especially now when Chinese audiences are liking Indian movies.
But are there any investment restrictions or security screening that has impacted you?
No, that hasn’t really impacted us.
India is concerned about the Belt and Road initiative. On the other hand, it is a key member of AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). So what kind of project do you think AIIB should do?
We have said this very openly in international fora. When we talk about development projects or connectivity projects, they must be transparent, fair and equal. There are certain internationally accepted norms for such projects.
If a project meets those norms, we will be happy to take part in it. One of the norms is the project should not violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country. Unfortunately, there is this thing called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is called a flagship project of Belt and Road Initiative, which violates India’s sovereignty and territory integrity. Therefore, we oppose it.
There is some discussion about a quadrilateral – India, Australia, Japan and the US – these 4 countries should step up their strategic alliance for infrastructure projects. What is India’s take on that?
We are ready to do infrastructure projects anywhere in the world, including in India, which meets these criteria: of being open, being open to everyone, being fair, being transparent, protecting the environment. We are willing to do projects. As far as four countries are concerned, let me tell you very clearly that India has never been a part of any alliance. I think countries like India and China are too big to be part of any alliance. We both have very independent policies; domestic policies as well as foreign policies. I do not see that India is going to be a part of any alliance.
India will work with all countries in the world to improve and increase its interests. Wherever our interests converge we will work together like in climate change and environment protection. India and China work very closely together on many international issues like environmental protection and counter-terrorism. We will continue to work with anyone, where we find that there is a synergy. We will work with China definitely on these issues.
I do not see India becoming part of any alliance. Let me also repeat what I have already said to you before. In fact if we do follow some of these principles such as not letting differences of opinion becoming disputes, of doing projects which are not opaque but open; transparent and meet ecological and environmental standards; does not violate anyone’s territorial integrity, then we will find a situation where the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant will actually be dancing together.
Does India have any common concerns or shared interests with Japan, the US and Australia concerning China’s rise?
No, we do not have any problem with China’s rise. I will talk about India; I cannot talk for the other countries. India has no concerns about China’s rise. In fact, India looks at China’s rise as something which also gives us encouragement that India can also do at least some of the things that China has done, which is to develop economically and develop rapidly. So, I don’t think that China’s rise creates any concerns in India.
In fact none of the things that India does with any country is aimed at a third country, including China. I can repeat myself that India and China are not rivals. India does not look upon China as a competitor or a rival; in fact we look upon China as partner in progress and development. We would like to learn a little bit from China about how to progress and, as I told you earlier, Hong Kong can play a very important role. I remember and, you will also remember, when in the 1980s China was just opening and the reform policy was just starting, it was Hong Kong companies and Hong Kong firms which built expressways, which built bridges, which built power plants in China. So I think Hong Kong can play a very important role in the development and progress of India also.
There is always concern that China is becoming more assertive or even aggressive at the international stage. Structurally, the presidential term is now removed and they are putting together a strong diplomatic line-up with Wang Qishan becoming the vice-president and taking care of China’s international affairs. Therefore, China looks more determined to raise issues of territorial integrity and its sovereign interests. What’s Indian’s assessment on that?
Look, the removal of the term limits and new team for foreign affairs and all that is China’s internal matter; I don’t want to say anything on that. That is for China and the people of China to decide. As far as China’s rise is concerned, as I told you we do not have any concern about it. We only look upon it as something which encourages us to do better in India’s economic development, India’s economic progress and social progress.
What is basically happening today is that both China and India also to a certain extent are re-emerging on the international stage and becoming very important players. Many centuries ago in the 1600 and 1700s, both China and India were very important economic powers in the world. Now in the 21st century, we are seeing a re-emergence, of both China and India to some extent, on the world stage from a geo-political and geo-economic point of view. Again, I will repeat myself, we don’t see any rivalry, competition or threats from China, we only look at China as a partner in progress and development.