Beijing, August 25 (Global Times): It’s been nearly two months since the India-China military standoff in Doklam. Global Times reporter Gu Di (GT) interviewed M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, by e-mail to talk from an Indian perspective about factors that influence Sino-Indian relations.
Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and to Turkey. He has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
GT: Do you think that the final solution to the standoff in Doklam will come about through diplomacy rather than military?
Bhadrakumar: I firmly hold this view. Taking all factors into consideration regarding this 2-month standoff, the probability of a border conflict is low. Having said that, miscalculations can always occur in such tense situations. Hence, there is an imperative need to keep the diplomatic track not only open, but also running ahead.
GT: You said in an article published by Asia Times that a war between India and China would expose India’s “soft power”, why?
Bhadrakumar: This morning, I read the Global Times interview with well-known historian Neville Maxwell, whom I hold in high esteem.
He pointed out rightly that in 1962 the international opinion was overwhelmingly supportive of India, attributing the West’s hostility to China. But the circumstances are very different today.
True, India can still claim a vast reservoir of goodwill in the international opinion. But then again, so can China.
China has become a driver of growth for many countries and its development assistance is poised to outstrip that of the Western world. The Belt and Road initiative has caught the attention of the world’s community, and that has no parallel in current diplomatic history.
Suffice to say, no one really thinks of China as a “communist country” anymore. The fact remains that China’s rise has been peaceful so far. This is a unique historical experience. There has even been talk of a ”Chinese model” of growth and development. All this changes the international milieu.
Finally, I must add with a note of sadness that I do not feel comfortable with many of the things happening in my own country today.
I would imagine that in an inter-connected world, the international community must be aware of the tide of intolerance and trends of social exclusion that have appeared in India in the most recent years, and of the change that is happening to the very idea of India.
India should not squander away its soft power simply because the reservoir is still providing ample supply.
GT: You mentioned that if Prime Minister Modi made concessions, Hindu nationalist voters and Indian security authorities would feel let down. Why does it seem like India is so addicted to being defensive toward China?
Bhadrakumar: There is no running away from the reality that India’s relations with China become a highly emotive subject in my country. I don’t want to go into the underlying factors – historical or otherwise – that have created such an ambience. My point is that whenever there is a surfeit of emotions, reasoning suffers – be it in our daily lives or the lives of nations.
Fundamentally, Indians have a problem in coming to terms with China’s rise. This has engendered complex feelings.
Where I differ from Prof. Maxwell’s analysis is precisely here – that the problem goes beyond what might have happened in the Himalayas in 1962. Only through closer interactions at different levels, especially at economic and people-to-people levels, would some of these phobias dissipate.
Will they ever dissipate? Well, I am an incorrigible optimist, as there is no other option for two neighbors like our two countries but to live amicably despite hic-ups.
On the other hand, India is not only a vibrant democracy, but the country is also burdened with a highly competitive environment when it comes to electoral politics. To add to it, the present government draws political sustenance from the ideology of cultural nationalism.
However, the bottom line is that I have no doubt that Prime Minister Modi gives primacy to the development agenda, and his pledge to create a peaceful, stable, predictable external environment for my country can be taken at face value. To be sure, as an elected leader with a democratic mandate, he is also walking a fine line despite the fact that he strides Indian politics like a Colossus today.
GT: You proposed to cool the tension between the two countries, but in India, will this kind of suggestion be accepted or turned down by many people? If there was considerable opposition, would you feel the pressure?
Bhadrakumar: There are hotheads, inevitably, when such situations as the current standoff arise. But I place trust in Prime Minister Modi as a strong leader who is capable of making difficult decisions.
He is a charismatic leader with a huge following in the country, which should be the envy of any democratic leader. Make no mistake, the government has been very discreet and mature in its handling of the situation.
Of course, Indians are a noisy people and a lot of irresponsible opinion-making is going on. But if a modus vivendi can be found through the diplomatic channels, all this can be put behind and life will move on. I do not think it is necessarily the case that lasting damage has been done to the relationship yet.
GT: You mentioned that American factors, and even Pakistani and other factors, were affecting Sino-Indian relations, so, do you think the Indian leadership can manage to enable India to live in peace and develop with China without outside interference?
Bhadrakumar: Of course, there is a geopolitical context. The American or Pakistani factor is a historical fact. But there are other factors too, as you have rightly noted. Compounding everything, the world order and the international system is at an inflection point. What lies beyond the curve is a matter of conjecture, even for informed opinion. There is great uncertainty.
Can India insulate itself from such factors? It is not a realistic proposition. But, to my mind, what India and China can do, is to be sensitive to each other’s core interests and vital concerns and give primacy to their bilateral track in resolving their differences and disputes.
There is no running away from the fact that an extraordinary situation is developing in our part of the world, with both China and India emerging inexorably on top of the Asian heap of countries in their sheer gravitas as economic giants in the coming decades.
This is a paradigm shift which we can easily anticipate. Now, such transitions in history elsewhere provide useful markers – at least, as to what to avoid. We need to look beyond mere strategic communication and strive to reach a matrix of mutual understanding from a long-term perspective.
Clearly, Asia is big enough for two giants to cohabitate and to cooperate for mutual benefits.
(The featured image at the top is that former Ambassador and international Affairs commentator, M.K.Bhandrakumar)