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“Increase of Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is not a threat to India” : C3S interv

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C3S Interview 006/2019

In the run up to the ’70th anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China’ (中华人民共和国成立七十周年纪念) which was held on October 1 2019, Ms. Asma Masood carried out a series of C3S Interviews with persons who have had firsthand experience of China. This interview, which is the fourth in the series, was conducted with Ambassador C. V. Ranganathan IFS (Retd.), Former Indian Ambassador to China; and Vice-President, C3S. Ambassador Ranganathan, in a face-to-face interview, shared his views on China and the country’s relations with India, while including focus on the upcoming ‘Indian PM Narendra Modi-Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Informal Summit at Mahabalipuram’ (印度总理纳伦得拉莫迪与中国主席习近平的马哈巴利普兰非正式会议) on October 11-12 2019.

  1. The 70th anniversary of the founding of PRC was celebrated at a time of immense external pressure on China, especially from USA. One recalls the Chinese diplomatic voices emanating in 1959-60 that underlined concerns over the country facing perceived threats from India in the west and from the US in the east. Back then, this concern made China seek closer ties with India to an extent. Do you see history repeating itself, especially in terms of economic and other strategic contexts, and in terms of the upcoming Modi-Xi Informal Summit. Please share your views.

On the topic of 1959-1960, one should also look at China’s domestic landscape. Mao Zedong was in charge. At that time, there was absolutely no doubt that the Chinese had good reason to be suspicious of USA. As far as India was concerned, from 1950 onwards, right upto 1959 and 1962, there was unfortunately quite a lot of friction between the China that became ‘People’s Republic of China’ in 1949, and India which got its independence in 1947. While the Chinese could complain about the USA, we too had every reason to be unhappy with the West. This was because in 1947- 48, Pakistani invaders had come to Kashmir. India went through very tense times dealing with the people/ militants sent by Pakistan.

At this point, a little-understood aspect must be raised, while witnessing criticism of the Nehru of that period. That is, the British had a deep strategic plan in creating Pakistan. In light of the Suez Canal problem, the British wanted a base East of Suez. Hence they built up Pakistan, a strategy that was followed soon after by the Americans. The entire Kashmir question went to the UN then. Very gracefully – because India did not believe in divisions along religious lines- Nehru offered plebiscite. But the plebiscite was never held entirely because of one aspect of the UN Security Council Resolution which was never implemented by Pakistan. That aspect was (on the condition that) Pakistan would withdraw its troops from Kashmir. That never happened; therefore the plebiscite was not conducted, as it was conditional on Pakistan withdrawing from Kashmir.

As far as China was concerned, 1950 saw a major development. Mao decided that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) should “liberate” Tibet, and so, in 1950 PLA troops entered Tibet. India sent a brief note to China, calling for the problem to be solved peacefully. The Chinese reply to this note was very brutal, saying that India should not interfere in what was considered a domestic issue. So the seed of the ‘Tibet question’ started then. This particular friendly advice by India was not taken well by China.

So the mention of India in the same breath of USA, can be related. I cannot see history repeating itself, except that I cannot see also, old issues repeating between India and China that need to be resolved soon. By which I mean the boundary question, which will be further elaborated on.

There is absolutely no question of India adopting a different policy than what has been adopted since 1959 relating to the Dalai Lama. The question of the next Dalai Lama within Tibet in China is one that the Chinese will have to address, but in a manner that will also satisfy the very Lamastic religion, so the people as well as diaspora of Tibet are happy. Whether that will happen or not- we will wait and see.

  1. Is there a pattern detected between the occurrences of those times and in the current context?

I would not say that there is a pattern. There is no doubt that there has to be mutual confidence. India’s relationship with the US which has developed well, is not aimed against China. We are, particularly in the defence fields, doing something which is not aimed against anyone. Hence for China to exaggerate India’s growing relationship with USA, is not completely justified and it is clear that this aspect- that at the leadership level, through mutual confidence and mutual trust- will have to develop. There will be challenges to India in managing the engagements with both China and USA in a manner that is understood to be not aimed at each or the other.

  1. On this issue of trust- The Chinese official view, as expressed by former Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui, in an informal visit to C3S, is that India and China should not wait to resolve strategic issues or build trust in before cooperating. This can be specifically seen as them wanting to keep the border dispute aside and enhance economic and cultural diplomacy. For instance the Mamallapuram meeting is projected to promote cultural links. How do you see this line of thinking, of blurring the border issue parallel to a sharpening focus on other aspects, being manifested in the coming decades?

The emphasis on improving cultural relations, which includes having more people to people relations, (there is now a mechanism to improve it as well), is a very good step for moving forward. Cultural relations are not just song and dance. One views that far greater mutual people to people contact is needed, at an intellectual level, for understanding of each others’ policies, growth and other key aspects. This includes think-tank interactions among other channels. There is a need in India to develop those factors that one may see as having been deficient because of psychological reservations, particularly after 1962. Similarly, in China, there needs to be much greater movement at the intellectual level to understand what India is about. If cultural ties contribute to this, then it is a very necessary ingredient for having stable relations in future.

I am not suggesting that culture be the only point at the informal summit. Trade is important. There is an attempt at a consensus in the way each country sees the international situation developing. A consensus is needed on many common features of how India and China would like to see the world. These include the issue of protectionism, not using trade as a tool, and sharing on many areas. Besides, there are problems arising from West Asia onwards. In this context, India and China should try and see what consensus can be reached and what should be done on various international problems.

This is including, importantly, how China’s relationship with Pakistan is not seen as an instrument to help Pakistan confront India. In other words, the Chinese are in a very good position to influence Pakistan, for seeing to it that there is no more terrorism, nor is there any more export of militants to the Kashmir area. Chinese behavior in actual practice with regard to their political, military and nuclear support to Pakistan, should be tempered in a way that is able to advice Pakistan in the latter’s own interests to desist from terrorism. One thinks that these may be the themes take up at the upcoming Informal Summit.

  1. You pointed out two positive trajectories- one of cultural relations being important; the other wherein China can get Pakistan to end terrorism emanating from the latter country…

The entire course of development of China-Pakistan relations, from China’s point of view, was to restrain India. In 1963, China and Pakistan signed a border agreement, and so on. While the Chinese have been very assiduous in promoting their interests vis-à-vis Pakistan, it has not helped in Pakistan behaving differently with India. So the conclusion that the Chinese are continuing this approach, is naturally (viewed as) negative (by India).

  1. Speaking of the two positive trajectories from one’s own experience: Many scholars see either phenomenon, be it China-Pakistan relations, or India-China cultural relations, as those that do not help India. How can this perception be changed among scholars and, moreover, among policy makers?

I do not agree with the views as described. The solution can be achieved only by very high level contacts, on a frequent basis, to discuss the issues, but not in antagonistic way.

  1. By mentioning high level contacts, do you advocate a top down approach, or an inclusive one?

I would certainly suggest an inclusive approach. A top-down approach cannot be helped, because it is so in China. I am not saying cultural relations alone will solve political problems. The point is that there needs to be more understanding between the intellectuals of India and China with regard to where each other stand, which would be an important contribution (to bilateral relations).

  1. Therein lies the challenge- with China having a top down approach, while Indians would like to adopt a different approach…

I do agree, it is a top down perspective in China, but, the Chinese do have an enormous number of think tanks, universities, etc. which are constantly looking at these issues. I am sure their views are also, particularly in context of what has been happening in Hong Kong among other factors, will show that China’s popularity does not come purely from its economic development or its assistance to others; but the country’s popularity also depends on how others see China.

  1. The Modi-Xi Informal Summit is to take place at a peninsular site, far from the land border. While this does not change the current status of the border dispute, do you think that this venue was chosen to bring in a breath of fresh air to the dialogue? …


…On the other hand, how would you view the juxtaposition of this site symbolizing China and India in the Indo Pacific, and China’s presence in the Indian Ocean?

An enormous fuss is being made about the Indo Pacific. India’s views are very clear on the South China Sea. Secondly, the points on Freedom of Navigation, transparency, peaceful resolution of the issue- all these are very clear and the Chinese know it. India is also active with ASEAN. I see no particular political significance of this Informal Summit being held at Mamallapuram in terms of maritime issues. Here (Mamallapuram) is to provide a congenial atmosphere to show Xi Jinping a different aspect of India, or in fact a very different historic part, given the historical contribution of the Cholas and the Pallavas (to India-China linkages).

As far as China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is concerned, my view- which not everyone may agree with- is that the fact of Chinese presence having increased in the Indian Ocean is not a threat to India. We have our means to defend ourselves, to know what sort of presence is there. But there are issues where each side needs to be sensitive to the main concerns of the other. As far as India as concerned, what we do not appreciate is that, for decades, India has monitored the traffic that moves to Malacca Straits. I cannot recall one instance where India’s role in seeing that freedom of navigation is maintained on the way to Southern Indian Ocean, where India’s record is not perfect. So there is no need for the Chinese to think that India is a threat to Malacca.

Similarly, we should not exaggerate the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean as long as it is peaceful and it is our responsibility to see to it there is Freedom of Navigation. Similarly if India wants to heighten its presence in the South China Sea or East China Sea, China has no reason to protest against it. In fact, there is a test case: India and Vietnam have joined to exploit the ocean reserves in oil and gas in SCS and India has every right to cooperate with Vietnam in that area. It cannot be that because China does not want it so, India cannot be there. It being a test case, let us see how resolute Vietnam is.

  1. A White Paper was released on ‘China and World in the New Era’ by the PRC recently. How do you think, China, with its economy under pressure, and its distinct cultural thinking (as also highlighted in Xi’s recent Asia Civilizations speech), can single-handedly usher in a new world order?

I am yet to read the White Paper. However looking at Chinese behavior over the years, I do not think that at the political level and at the level of discourse, the Chinese are not immodest. I do not think that their vision of what should be a world order is something which they feel is totally China-centric. Looking after China’s interests is one thing, but, I cannot imagine a situation where they give the sort of advice that is totally China-centered. After all, look at the way Chinese economic development has taken place: they have been very supportive of globalization, of transparency, of not being purely any one county-centered. They are very afraid of the WTO order being disturbed by President Trump. I view that terms such as ‘world order’ are catchy words. What has existed over the years needs to be strengthened, without any one party trying to disrupt it because of its economic and military strength. With regard to world order, the Chinese will follow a consensus.

  1. You spoke of China supporting transparency. However, many perceive that this is not the case. Your comments on this?

There is no doubt that we look at the structures of countries according to our own perspective, for instance in terms of democracy, free elections, etc. These structures are chosen by each country according to its own convenience. As far as China is concerned- naturally following a one-party system and not having a Parliamentary type of democracy- does not mean there are no debates within China. It is a structure that is inherited from the times of Mao. And it is clear that the Chinese would not like to be as inclusive of foreign influences as we are in India. We are very inclusive of foreign influences and we absorb them, good or bad. Chinese culture is a very resilient and great one. They are not as inclusive as us and we judge the Chinese by that, especially on matters of transparency, totalitarianism, authoritarian capitalism, and so on. These are terms that are invented by scholars who follow China very closely. As for our disappointment with China that the sort of freedoms of expression and criticism that does not exist to the extent as it does in other countries- we have to take an objective view. I would not agree with the implication that the Chinese are not a rational people.

  1. We would like to ask you about diplomacy. Presently, China is aiming to mainstream its own line of discourse on international relations and China’s position in the world. Our readers would like to hear your views on how Chinese diplomacy is conducted through the threads of these perceptions, facts, and interests, especially in light of India and the recent statements by the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, advocating Panchsheel? Do such statements by China indicate inconsistency between speech and action?

I have very high regard for the expertise of senior Chinese diplomats. They are trained very well. Many are fluent linguists. And there is no doubt that China has been very astute and very quick with its diplomacy. We love to keep saying “Middle Kingdom”. The point is that Chinese diplomacy is of a very high caliber and cannot be underestimated. I will add that Indian diplomacy vis-à-vis China from the time of our independence, has also been very astute and very sharp; if one had to say anything negative, one would say it was very idealistic.

But what is wrong with being idealistic? Nehru after all had a conception of China that it is a very great country with very deep culture in the backdrop of Asia having suffered many things, including World War. If India and China cooperate it will lead to resurgence in Asia (according to Nehru). I would like to ask the question: what is wrong with this ideal? To be aspirational and visionary about what could be the potential of this relationship which is still to be realized – what is wrong with that?

  1. Some feel this idealism is at the cost of India’s core interests such as security. Your response?

I do not criticize them. However this is the psychology of 1962. I cannot agree that idealism is at the cost of security. There is no question that we were ill-prepared. And there were certain mistakes made by those in charge of defence, essentially Krishna Menon. In saying we will have a forward policy in the borders which will keep the Chinese at bay. So we moved up very near the lines but the Indian soldiers were poorly equipped. There were disagreements between the leaders of the army and others. So it is a domestic failure.

  1. Do you feel that this idealism, when combined with the required capability, can lead to a winning combination?

No. Let us be clear. The world has changed. My reference to idealism goes back way to the period around 1947. I am not suggesting that the same idealism prevail today. Today we have to take into account the changes in situations. In 1950 when the PLA entered Tibet, Nehru called General Cariappa, Chief of Army Staff, and asked him, what can the latter do to prevent the PLA. Do you know what Cariappa answered? “I can spare one battalion.”

As mentioned in your book, India and China: The Way Ahead After Mao’s India War


Even the (Indian) Chief of Army Staff felt that it would be futile. First of all, right from the ground upwards, to position the (Indian) Army and to challenge China in Tibet, there was no capacity. Sardar Patel wrote a brilliant letter where he forecasted about China’s entry into Tibet. And then Patel didn’t live long enough to implement what he advised Nehru. It was very good advice, despite being aggressive.

I am very cautious about analyzing the past in terms of mistakes. It was what India could do at that time. As I already mentioned, the game that the British played was followed later by the Americans.

  1. On a contemporary note, the Chinese, unlike no other culture, openly links prosperity to culture. Your take on this aspect?

Prosperity is emphasized on in China. Because the single party system knows if it cannot provide prosperity to the people, the party will be under threat. Secondly, when Mao Zedong was leader from 1976-1949, he made the people poor. His schemes such as the Great Leap Forward and collectivization killed millions of people. And Mao faced dissidence from some including Deng Xiaoping who was punished. These are contemporary memories.

When Deng came to power after Mao’s death, there was a sea change. The Chinese depend on mnemonics (small statements). For instance, “It doesn’t matter if a few grow rich before the others.” In other words there was what was thought as pragmatism – removing the worst aspects as from Mao’s time, and the foundation was laid for China to grow prosperous.  So prosperity in China, like harmony, is a basic guide. If a country has a one party system, it has to deliver.

  1. How do you see Xi promoting prosperity, in a way as opposed to Mao’s methods?

There is no question of comparison. Xi’s own father was victimized. Xi himself was sent to countryside. He saw that that sort of policy would just not do in the modern age. I was commissioner in Hong Kong from 1980-1983. Deng’s reforms were initiated in 1979. In 1980, I went to Shenzhen which is a border town next to Hong Kong. Deng opened the doors wide in Shenzhen. Naturally investments poured in from places such as Hong Kong and Singapore. That was how China’s electronics industry grew. The rest is history.

  1. About Hong Kong?

I am not in the least surprised that the scale of the situation in Hong Kong has acquired the dimensions it has. Clearly, this extradition proposal was seen by the youth as something that will be very harmful. Nobody has confidence in the legal system. There is a well established British legal system inherited in Hong Kong. Equally, the youth also harbor memories of what happened in 1989, when I was Ambassador (to China). I have seen with my own eyes when the boy confronted the tanks (in Tiananmen Square). As a diplomat, we had to be the first to report the situation from the ground. I had a brilliant team, with every member fluent in Chinese, and we all went to witness the unfolding developments.

It is amazing how the West commits huge mistakes. China has always had a huge foreign correspondents core. And the foreign correspondents started describing the movement from the youth, which was joined later by workers and industrial workers, as a huge push for democracy. This was not the case. It was to register complaints about various aspects.

(Chinese) students who graduated from higher education were to be allotted jobs, and could not choose jobs. Secondly, there were complaints that education had become very expensive at the university level. Thirdly, there was enormous corruption in the Party. Fourthly, there were issues related to healthcare, hospitals, etc. So the complaints about living conditions were transformed (perception-wise) into a democracy movement by the western journalists.

The west has consistently made mistakes in judgments about China. They felt that with Deng Xiaoping’s reforms China would automatically become a liberal democratic country, where Western businesses can do extremely well. They did not realize that the Communist ethos was very firmly planted in China by Mao when he fought the KMT. (Chinese) people who had descended from that time are not going to dilute those ideas.

The Chinese, especially after Xi Jinping came to power, are extremely vigilant about any dilution of their rights. They also do not like the fact that the Hong Kong legislation plus legislative assembly are completely independent from the PRC. They made it the thin end of the wedge for many democratic principles in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong are very practiced- they have protested before.

Let us see if the Mainland has the subtlety and sophistication to make some concessions. One frankly thinks this will not happen. But China dare not use force as they did in 1989.

  1. On Taiwan?

Taiwan has enormous support from USA. China realizes that it dare not use force to recover Taiwan. Beijing is trying to approach it softly. Meanwhile China is winning with states not recognizing Taiwan any longer. China is happy. However China cannot do more.

I think it is a very good idea that Taiwan is keen on building cooperation with India and I hope our MEA is not so sensitive. On that note I will be anecdotal. I was Commissioner in Hong Kong, then in Ethiopia, then I returned to Delhi, where I persuaded the then PM Narasimha Rao to open a Consulate in Taiwan. To his query, I replied that “Yes, China will be angry. But the US and Britain have done it before.”

It is good that Taiwanese companies are coming to Bangalore and can now compete with us!

(The views expressed are the interviewee’s own.)

(Ms. Asma Masood is Research Officer & Programme Director-Internships, C3S. Email-

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