Shen Dingli, professor of International Relations at China’s Fudan University, is among the country’s best known commentators. A frequent visitor to India, Shen Dingli has been an astute observer of developments in the region. At a time when hardliners are regularly talking about a possible military confrontation between the two neighbours over the Doklam crisis, his remarks on the current state of bilateral relations have a sobering effect. Here, he speaks to Pranay Sharma on the current stand-off at Doklam. Excerpts from the interview:
How do you see the current stand-off between India and China at the Sikkim sector evolving?
This is an unfortunate development. India and China have been viewing each other negatively. I think both New Delhi and Beijing need to back off. And I expect eventually they will be able to do it.
Is there possibility of a war between the two sides?
That is very unlikely. Indian forces in this area has been holding their gun to the ground, indicating that it doesn’t want to be misunderstood. The Chinese, too, have not taken a more strong, “self-defensive” stance in its own territory. However, the two countries need to back off so as to reduce tension.
China blames the crisis on India for intruding into Chinese territory. But hasn’t China violated the 2012 understanding between them by unilateral construction of a road on an area also claimed by Bhutan?
India first charged China for intruding into Indian territory, which is untrue, as the place is only a disputed area between China and Bhutan, not between China and India. Between China and Sikkim (now India), there is no dispute over this place at all—India accepts that it belongs to China. So when India gave up its argument, that China intruded into India, and picked up another argument that this place belongs to Bhutan, China considers such a scheme as insincere. Between China and Bhutan, Bhutan has the right to disagree with China. However, before Bhutan expressed its disagreement, Indian armed forces had already entered the place that India considers belonged to China, while accusing China of invading India.
So how does China view it?
Such a wrong logic makes Chinese side to conclude that India is unhappy with China’s construction of the mentioned road and is trying to oppose it with all kind of excuses. Even if there is disagreement between China and Bhutan, it is up to Bhutan to talk to China. India cannot control Bhutan, to not allow it to set up diplomatic relations with some other countries, including China. Bhutan has to say that it invites India to mediate between China and Bhutan. Even if this happens, India should not send armed forces into a disputed place, which is not at all a disputed area between China and India.
Why is China taking such a tough line? And what is the hurry for it to construct the road in an area that is also claimed by Bhutan?
As I have said before, China may also ask the same questions: why is India taking such a tough line? I don’t know why China is building the road, though I feel that China has a right to do it since it is within Chinese territory. Though I feel China may not use each and every one of its rights when sensitivity is at stake.
Recently, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping met on the SCO Summit sidelines, they had agreed to iron out differences and further strengthen bilateral ties. What was the provocation for China after that meeting to act in such a manner in Doklam?
‘Before Bhutan expressed disagreement, Indian forces entered a part of China, while accusing China of invading India.’
I could also ask the exact same question. What was the provocation for India after that meeting to act in such a manner in Doklam?
Experts say that India’s decision to stay away from the OBOR Summit, a pet project of President Xi, plays a key role in the current Chinese hard line. They say China is trying to bully India into submission for its defiance of Chinese Belt Road Initiative.
I don’t know whether there is a connection between the two and I hope it is not. Moreover, I don’t understand how China can bully India for its ‘defiance’. The Belt Road Initiative is based on mutual consent between various countries. It is not necessary that each and every country shall join it. All countries have their sovereignty and can decide against it. There are geopolitical and financial risks in the BR projects. I think that China appreciates it and wants other countries to join the initiative. But it does not expect each and every country to join. These projects are economic ones and it is totally unnecessary to coerce any other country to join.
The Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh earlier in the year had strained Sino-Indian relations to a large extent. Did it play any role in the Sikkim crisis?
Again, I don’t know if there is a connection between the two. I don’t think China was happy with India’s move to send the Dalai Lama there. But I don’t have any idea that this is behind China’s decision to go ahead with the road construction at Doklam.
‘Even if Bhutan asks India to mediate, it shouldn’t send forces into a disputed area, which is not disputed between India and China.’
Have growing Indo-US ties, that are more pronounced under the Modi government, played a role in straining Sino-Indian relations?
China knows that the recent India-US build up of relations have something to do with China, but it is hard to imagine that Beijing will respond to that with the road in Doklam.
Does China believe that India pursues a sovereign foreign policy or does it think India has given that up since developing close ties with the Americans and is now working with others to contain China?
Perhaps, China feels that India is using more sovereignty than it is entitled to, by intruding into Chinese territory. It looks like India is building up strong relations with the US. But that is India’s right. China has strong relations with America as well, but its purpose is not to contain any country. Hopefully, India will think similarly.
The Malabar exercise, undertaken by the Indian, American and Japanese navies at this juncture, could be seen as directed against China. How does the Beijing leadership view it?
China shall be wary of it, but will also take it easy. Since there is no chance of a war between China and the United States or between China and Japan, why worry too much about a trilateral naval exercise?
Under President Trump and after PM Modi’s visit to the US, is there anything for China to worry?
There are three issues to worry about between China and the United States—One China policy, the imbalance in bilateral trade and the nuclear issue of Democratic Republic of North Korea. None of them has any direct impact either on India-US relations or on China-India relations.
One reason why the two countries went to war in 1962 was because of their mistrust of each other’s intentions. Does President Xi and PM Modi trust each other enough as partners to build a new Asian century?
I think, given recent developments, the two leaders increasingly do not trust each other. This certainly is not a very constructive development to work together to build a new Asian century.