Gautam Bambawale, former Indian envoy to China | By special arrangement
Gautam Bambawale, former Indian envoy to China | By special arrangement
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New Delhi: With there being little headway in the de-escalation process at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a year since the Galwan valley clash in which 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives, former Indian Ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale has warned that bilateral ties between New Delhi and Beijing could deteriorate further in the coming years.

In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, Bambawale said the very reason the Chinese initiated the border standoff in April-May last year was because they wanted “to move their ground positions to what their claims were in Eastern Ladakh”, adding that Beijing has been able to achieve that objective to a certain extent but the Indian armed forces were able to thwart their plans.

“The move that the Chinese made a year back or a little over a year back in Eastern Ladakh was a well-planned one. So, they obviously had certain objectives, military objectives, for doing this,” he said. “Now one of the objectives, which we can clearly see today one year down the line is that they wanted to move their ground positions to what their claims were in Eastern Ladakh and to a certain extent they have been able to do it, but not entirely because the Indian Army then was able to do a troop build-up and the Indian armed forces performed magnificently.”

Bambawale, who was also India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, said the Chinese moved almost 50,000-60,000 troops to Eastern Ladakh by the end of April and early May 2020 that led to the standoff. He added that the troops moved in with heavy armour, artillery, and tanks, which made it clear that it was a “planned move”.

“This obviously has to be planned and it takes some time to plan these things,” he said, adding that this is the reason why the disengagement process has remained unfinished and the de-escalation has not taken place. 

“It is obvious that when the Chinese have such objectives, they are not going to back down on them,” the former Ambassador said. “So far we have managed the disengagement to one sub-sector of Eastern Ladakh, which is the Pangong Lake area, in the other sub-sectors we’ve seen that the Chinese are not willing to go back.”

According to him, one year down the line when tensions between the two have peaked, bilateral ties between India and China are now headed for a “reset”.

“India is not going to compromise on its national interests and there will be a relationship between India and China that will be at a much lower level,” he said. “A recalibration, a reset of the India-China relationship is taking place.”

Also read: India looks to recalibrate ties with Sri Lanka as Colombo sways away towards China again

‘India, China ties to further deteriorate’

Ever since the standoff began, India has made it amply clear to China on several occasions that unless there is peace and tranquility at the border areas, there will be no normal relationship.

“As a result of what they did last year, India has been arguing that if there is peace on the border, then the rest of the relationship can move ahead as it has over the past 20-odd years,” Bambawale said. “But if there is no peace at the border, then the rest of the relationship cannot remain the same. China’s playbook has been to attempt to make sure the rest of the relationship remains the same.”

He said the bilateral relationship started plummeting ever since the Indian government took certain steps such as putting restrictions on Chinese investments, banning Chinese apps and barring China from participating in the 5G rollout.

Bambawale added that unless China restores status quo ante to what the respective positions were before April 2020 in Ladakh, the two-way ties cannot be normal.

“As far as India is concerned, our bottomline is that China must restore the status quo ante as it existed before April 2020 in the Eastern Ladakh region,” he said. “It is quite obvious that the Chinese don’t want to do that because when they moved their troops in April-end or early May there were certain objectives. Some of these objectives may have been met, some may not have been met.”

He added: “But whatever gains they may have made, whatever objectives they have achieved, I don’t think the Chinese are going to give them up and I don’t think India can change its position that there should be restoration of status quo ante and therefore you see the process getting elongated and lengthy as both side try to see what they can do to move ahead.”

China never wanted to define LAC

According to Bambawale, China had made it clear way back in 1993 that it doesn’t want to clearly define the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In 1993, India and China signed the first border protocol on maintaining peace and tranquility in boundary areas.

“When you don’t confirm and clarify the LAC, obviously there is a great deal of ambiguity about this and I think the Chinese are beginning to play on this,” he said. “They have never clearly told us where the LAC lies, therefore that becomes an area, especially in the western sector… The Indian position and the Chinese position are quite irreconcilable.”

With the process of disengagement and de-escalation stalled, Bambawale said the situation continues to remain tense in the border areas of eastern Ladakh, and can quickly escalate into a war-like situation.

“The situation is dangerous even now. It has been dangerous since April or early May of last year,” he said. “Even though there has been disengagement in the Pangong Tso area, troops are there in large numbers in other sub-sectors of Eastern Ladakh. So the danger is there even today (of the situation evolving into a war).”

Bambawale believes that this time China undertook an aggressive stance to this extent with India because it knows well the “discrepancy or asymmetry” that exists between the two countries at economic, military, technological and comprehensive national power level.

“There is a great asymmetry in power between China and India,” he said, adding that is the reason why India should increasingly look at being part of the coalitions such as the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

“India has to build deep partnerships with major democracies of the world and also with countries in the neighbourhood like Bangladesh,” Bambawale said. “We need to build these strong coalitions so that we can face the military coercion which the Chinese are attempting in Eastern Ladakh.”

New Delhi, he added, will need to secure greater international support.

“India will have to count on other countries for international support, for the sale of weapons like we have seen with the Rafale jets and many other things that the US is selling to us,” he said. “So I think India will need to build these partnerships, because it is only through such balancing or coalitions that we will be able to rise to the China challenge and stave off the challenge to our sovereignty and territorial integrity that we currently see at our borders.”

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: India seeks ‘essential two-way travel’ to China, raises concern over denial of visas


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