File photo of India's former foreign secretary Shyam Saran | Photo: Special arrangement
File photo of India's former foreign secretary Shyam Saran | Photo: Special arrangement
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New Delhi: India’s response to China in the ongoing Ladakh stand-off has been “quite substantial” compared to what it was during the 2017 Doklam incident even as New Delhi faces a “challenged neighbourhood”, said former foreign secretary Shyam Saran.

In an interview to ThePrint, just days before Indian and Chinese troops began disengagement from the Pangong Tso area, the veteran diplomat said as far as the border issues with China are concerned, this is a “challenge that we have to deal with ourselves”.

Over a period of time, India should be able to deploy “sufficient capabilities on our borders that make any kind of provocative action by the other side a risky and costly affair” for it, he said.

“So to that extent, the Indian response, which has been quite a substantial response in terms of the number of troops we have put on the field, in terms of capabilities that we have deployed, perhaps, China may not have expected that kind of a reaction,” said Saran.

“They thought it to be a low-risk kind of an operation but it has proved not to be such an operation. If you compare the Chinese rhetoric when Doklam happened in 2017 with the current impasse in Ladakh, the response seems to be much more muted,” he said.

In a tense situation like the Ladakh stand-off, India can seek help from countries like the US for defence hardware, sophisticated weaponry and intelligence sharing, he added.

Saran also defended India’s stringent economic actions against Beijing in response to the border issue such as restricting foreign direct investment and ban on Chinese apps, saying “China doesn’t not always gets it right”.

“China should realise that other aspects of the relationship will be affected. Their objective would have been that while they can do this, India would not find it in its interest to undermine the very dynamic economic and trade relationship with China… I don’t think China always gets it right,” he said.

He also noted that this time India also ensured it focused on the consolidation of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific while strengthening its strategic ties with the US, Australia and Japan.

“So end of the day, what have you gained as China? If I were sitting in Beijing I would not see much gain for myself whether with respect to the border issue or with respect to the economic relationship or even with respect to the larger Asian regional situation. Over a period of time we might see a substantial change on the part of the Chinese,” he said.

On Thursday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed Rajya Sabha that India and China have agreed to disengage from the Pangong Tso area in eastern Ladakh and go back to status quo ante after nearly nine months of stand-off.

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Myanmar coup will ‘increase challenges’ for India in neighbourhood

Saran, who was India’s envoy to Myanmar from 1997 to 2001, said the military coup in Naypyidaw on 1 February happened as the Myanmar armed forces, known as Tatmadaw, were aware of a “more powerful” China, which could support them.

“The whole periphery for us is challenged today whether it is Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka… We have a challenged neighbourhood and this will increase the level of that challenge,” he said.

According to Saran, “They (Myanmar army) were conscious of the fact that they now have a much more powerful China that could perhaps shield them even if there were re-imposition of sanctions by the western countries. Even perhaps within the ASEAN, China would be able to provide them support and help them deal with the international reaction,” he said.

“Therefore, naturally, this means an increase in Chinese influence in Myanmar. To that extent, that is not good news for us,” he added.

Saran, who is also the former chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, said India is probably the only country that has “maintained a positive relationship both with the armed forces leadership as well as the Democratic leadership” in Myanmar.

“We have not let our contacts with Myanmar military suffer in any way or diminish in any way. We have given them training as well as hardware… Our equation with the armed forces is quite good. We also have good relations with civilian democratic forces,” he noted.

The main reason behind the coup was a “fear” within the forces that with the electoral victory of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD), “the momentum for further Constitutional changes, for reducing the political power of the army this would perhaps become irresistible”, he said.

“Also, the landslide victory by the NLD came as a bit of surprise to the Army this time, because over the last few years Suu Kyi was losing the popularity in the country and even within her party there were complaints that she was very autocratic and she was centralising everything in her hands… did not handle the Rohingya issue too well,” he said.

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‘Re-engage with Pakistan to avoid two-front war situation’

Saran also advocated keeping the option of engagement with Pakistan open as India is already facing a “two-front war-like situation, managing tensions in its borders in the west (Pakistan) as well as the north (China).

“Difficult as they appear to be at this point of time, we should not foreclose the possibility of engaging with Pakistan… We have always been talking about the challenge of a two-front war and that we may face a hostile adversary both at the China border as well as the Pakistan border… We have come to that situation,” he said.

He also stressed that it’s not good to allow a live and hostile border in the west as well as in the north.

“We can try and see how we can change that situation and in changing that if there is some possibility of re-engaging with Pakistan without giving up any of our interest, I think we should not foreclose that possibility,” he said.

Highlighting the fact that terrorism remains a major concern for India as far as Pakistan is concerned, Saran said New Delhi needs to manage the “adversarial relationship” with Islamabad so that it “does not erupt into an armed conflict between the two countries because it is neither in the interest of Pakistan, nor in the interest of India”.

“Like it or not Pakistan is a part of South Asia… If you have a South Asia, which is at war with itself, if there are tensions in the relations between India and other South Asian countries, there are crises which are breaking out which always keep drawing us back to the region, then it is difficult to see how we can play a larger role in Asia and the world,” Saran said.

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Bangladesh ‘more cautious’ than Sri Lanka about China

While tensions with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also become a matter of concern for the Narendra Modi government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, Saran believes Dhaka has been “far more cautious” in its dealings with Beijing compared to Colombo.

“I would say for a variety of reasons the relationship with Bangladesh is very important and this is one country which had been also somewhat cautious in dealing with China,” he said.

“If you look at Sri Lanka as a contrast, I think Bangladesh has been far more cautious, far more aware of the pitfalls that can there be in terms of a high-debt exposure to China. The (Sheikh) Hasina regime has maintained balance and that is good for us,” added Saran.

On ‘Chinese game-plan’ in Nepal

On the issue of Nepal “unilaterally” releasing a new map and laying claim “to a fairly large chunk of the Indian territory of nearly 450 sq km”, Saran said Kathmandu has “no legs to stand as far as the territorial issue is concerned”.

He said India should “watch carefully” the China factor that is at play in the Himalayan kingdom, adding that New Delhi should be concerned with the surge in pro-monarchy sentiments there.

“What I find worrying in Nepal is that there seems to be an upsurge in pro-monarchy sentiment. There were fairly large-scale demonstrations in Kathmandu in favour of bringing back monarchy and in favour of declaring Nepal as a Hindu state. That would be a step backwards,” he said.

With political turmoil within the ruling Nepal Communist Party, for which China even sent a delegation led by a senior Chinese Communist Party member, Saran called for vigilance.

“As far as the China factor is concerned, we should watch carefully… When they (Chinese) tried to intervene they sent a delegation from the (Chinese) Communist Party liaison department as if they were dealing with a country which was part of the Communist family,” he said.

Also read: US closely monitoring situation along India-China border, says State Department spokesperson


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