New Delhi: The killing of 20 Indian soldiers by the Chinese in the Galwan Valley on 15 June was “barbaric”, and there was no way this could have happened without orders from the Chinese leadership in Beijing, former national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon has said.
In an interview with ThePrint, Menon said India has “no choice but to rejig the relationship”, as the Chinese have “broken the understandings of the past” which included an “effective form of deterrence on the border”.
Menon also said India should “work with the US”, especially if America is “ready to work with us to help us strengthen ourselves so that we can deal with these issues”, and that he did not think the US was a declining power.
“I’m old enough to remember at least four times when the US was declared dead or dying…I’ve see this too often and each time…they actually change themselves and they have a capacity to reinvent themselves which is rare in great powers,” he said.
But it was the death of 20 Indian soldiers at the hands of the Chinese in Ladakh which “marks a huge shift” in India’s relationship with China, Menon said, adding, “I was amazed that an army as disciplined as the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) can do this and it could not have happened without orders…And that is why I say there’s no going back.”
Asked if orders to the PLA would have come from the military or the political leadership in Beijing, Menon said, “It has to be political…in China, political-military is the same thing, the party controls the army, it always has. So I don’t draw a distinction. I don’t accept the idea that some rogue local commander or somebody did something. I know that’s a popular explanation, whenever something happens, but I don’t accept that.”
A former foreign secretary who has served as India’s ambassador to China as well as Pakistan, Menon is fluent in Mandarin and has been familiar with Chinese politics for decades. His father, P. N. Menon, also a former diplomat, was India’s last consul-general in Lhasa before the Dalai Lama fled in 1959.
‘Ladakh crisis gives India chance to reset economic ties with China’
Menon pointed out that the Ladakh crisis gave India an opportunity to reset its economic relationship with China, which included a $53 billion trade deficit. India might account for only 3 per cent of China’s total trade, but it accounted for 19 per cent of the surplus, which “gives us a certain leverage”.
Besides, there is the $26 billion worth of Chinese investments in power, telecom and financial technologies, he said, adding that India was already absorbing a great deal of pain because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Asked if the 15 June clashes, in which both India and China took casualties (although the Chinese haven’t gone public with their numbers), was spontaneous or pre-planned, Menon made it clear that he had no idea about any operational details and these were not questions the media should be asking.
He said he understood why the Narendra Modi government was being “deliberately vague” about discussing operational details in public as this may tie it down during negotiations. But, he said, the government also “owes it to its own people to at least be clear about where they are going and what they are aiming at”.
Menon reiterated what several analysts on the India-China face-off have been saying for several weeks, that there should be a restoration of the status quo ante and the two armies have to return to their own side of the Line of Actual Control, to positions where they were before the face-off began.
“And frankly, restoration of status quo ante is something both sides have signed repeated international agreements which commit them to restoring (it),” he added.
‘China is isolated internationally today, more so than any time’
Asked why Special Representatives from the two countries, mandated to resolve the boundary dispute since 2003 when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the prime minister, had still not arrived at any conclusion, Menon said there was progress till about 2012, after which the two political leaderships had to take a call.
“Ultimately (what would change) is the way you and I were taught to draw the map of India in school. Same for the Chinese leaders, they have to be willing to take that call, which is a big ask of any political leader. And especially today, when leaders rely on nationalism for their legitimacy, the situation became that much more complex,” Menon said.
He pointed out that peace between the two countries had been held since Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1988, but a few things have since changed in Beijing.
First, the definition of interests changed, which meant that both nations had begun to run themselves against each other much more in the periphery that they shared. For example, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka as well as the ASEAN nations. Second, the Chinese had become far more assertive, for example in the South China Sea.
Perhaps “China thinks the world is in chaos because of Covid”, there’s an accompanying economic crash and this is the time to pursue its interests, Menon said.
But, he added, the more likely scenario is that “China takes more risks abroad when she actually feels threatened, when her internal stability is not one hundred per cent guaranteed…China is isolated internationally today, more so than any time since the cultural revolution,” Menon added.
Watch the full interview here: