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India-China row ‘not set in stone’, economic asymmetry among Galwan triggers, says Shyam Saran

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran was speaking about his new book at a webinar hosted by Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.

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New Delhi: The hostility between India and China is not “written in stone”, said former foreign secretary Shyam Saran Wednesday on the second anniversary of the Galwan border clash. He, however, added that, going forward, it is important for New Delhi to shrink the “power asymmetry” that it has with Beijing.

Saran was speaking about his newly launched book — How China Sees India and the World: The Authoritative Account of the India-China Relationship — at a webinar hosted by the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi.

The deterioration in the nations’ bilateral ties, he added, began after the 2008 financial meltdown.

“I don’t think that India-China hostility is written in stone and, therefore, cannot be changed,” said Saran in response to a question related to the Galwan clash that took place on 15 June 2020, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed in battle with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

“Major changes have taken place in the world. In 1972, you had a major upheaval by [former US President Richard] Nixon’s visit to China. We are maybe seeing a reversal of that today. Just look at how China-Russia relations have changed [amid the Ukraine war],” he added.

According to Saran, a Galwan kind of incident also happened because of the asymmetry in economic growth between India and China.

“If this current trend of a widening gap of power between India and China continues, will they [China] become more assertive in territorial terms? They might. So, Galwan was, in a sense, an indication of that. Earlier, they would have been more accommodating,” he said.

Also read: India’s goal can’t be to become another China – it needs to work out its economy first

India-China relations after the 2008 global financial crisis

The 2008 global financial crisis, according to Saran, could explain why Beijing has become less sensitive to New Delhi’s concerns in recent years.

“For the period that I was foreign secretary [2004-2006], India was still behind China. It was not quite even in the same league as China then. But my sense was that India’s growth trajectory was accelerating at the time when, relatively speaking, Chinese growth trajectory was slowing down. Also, you saw major powers recognising India as a substantial power,” said Saran.

Before serving as foreign secretary, Saran was India’s ambassador to Myanmar, Indonesia and Nepal, and also high commissioner to Mauritius.

During the mid-2000s, Saran said, there was a sense in China that India was going to be a major power and that it was in its interest to work together with New Delhi.

“What really changed was that, after the 2008 crisis, India’s growth rate came down to a much more modest level. China was affected but was able to recover and come back to a decent growth rate,” said the former foreign secretary.

Thereon, the “power asymmetry” between China and the West started diminishing while the gap between India and China started expanding, he added.

“That is the backdrop to a China less sensitive to India’s concerns, [and one that is] much more willing to assert what it sees as its legitimate territorial claims,” said Saran. He further warned that if India doesn’t find a way to shrink the gap with China, both in terms of military and economy, China could become more assertive about its territorial claims.

Beijing ‘defensive’ about its foreign policy

Saran said the China-Russia relationship has undergone a change amid the Ukraine war.

“The Chinese certainly made a bet with respect to their relationship with Russia and how it would help them in terms of writing the rules of the [Great] Game going forward, based on the convergent opinion with Russia that the West is in terminal decline,” he said.

“What the Ukraine war has done is that [it has made China think] the judgement made by Xi Jinping about the change in the geopolitical situation may have been premature.”

Therefore, different from its aggressive stance over the past several years, there is now a certain “defensiveness” in Beijing about its external relations, Saran added.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

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