'Chinese Behaviour Has Been Very Different From Anything in the Past': Former NSA Shivshankar Menon

In an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, the former foreign secretary said recent developments amounted to a "massive escalation" by China and an attempt to change the status quo.
Jun 18, 2020 | Karan Thapar

How serious is the India-China situation and how effectively is the government handling it?

These are two key issues that India’s former ambassador to China, former foreign secretary and former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon addresses in his special interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire.

Below is the transcript of a video interview that was first published on June 12.

Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. How serious is the India-China situation and how effectively is the government handling it? Those are the two key issues I shall raise today with India’s former ambassador to China, former foreign secretary and former national security advisor – and believe me there is no one who knows China better in this country than my guest – Shivshankar Menon.

Mr Menon, let’s start with the limited disengagement between Indian and Chinese soldiers over the weekend. Is that reassuring or are you disturbed by the reports in several papers today, Friday, that, in fact, both countries have moved substantial troops closer to the line of control right across its 3,500 kilometre length from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal in the East?

Well frankly Karan, thank you for having me by the way and for that very flattering introduction. Frankly, I think we should start by admitting how much we don’t know—that the unknowns in this situation is much more because neither government has actually spoken about what the situation is – has spoken authoritatively. All we have is unattributed leaks or leaked stories attributed to anonymous sources in the government, in the army and so on—top level army sources, army sources on the ground, and these are contradictory. Three days ago we heard stories that were attributed to the army, that there had been a disengagement to pull back – thinning out of troops, which in any case is not the answer to the situation. It could be the first step.

And then yesterday, we saw other stories saying no, in fact, both sides have strengthened their presence all along the line. So I think we need to be very careful about jumping to conclusions either about the actual situation on the ground or in terms of where people are deployed and where exactly people are. Fundamental questions have not been answered—whether the Chinese have actually crossed the line of actual control in some sectors, what they’re claiming is the line of control and how this differs from what they did in the past. Having said that and therefore putting aside the tactical and the operational aspects, it seems to me that the Chinese behaviour this time has been very different from anything we’ve seen in the past.

This is not comparable to 2013 or to 1986 to Sumdorong Chu or to Depsang and so on. What we’ve seen is multiple incidents, multiple moves forwards and China actually occupying spaces which she’s never occupied before along the LAC, and we, for me at least, this is a worrying sign because this is very different from Chinese behaviour in the past. We can only speculate on why they have done so and where they want to go because we don’t know what their demands are in the talks which have been held so far at both the diplomatic levels and between the armies. So we don’t know where they want to go.

But it seems to me that we are in a situation, and at least the presumption must be, that we are seeing China trying to change the situation on the ground. For one thing clearly, the construction of the road through Shyok along the Galwan valley all the way up to the DBO which runs parallel to the LAC, changes the logistics on our side and improves our infrastructure considerably. We’ve been building this road for many years. In fact, the efforts started in 2004, but now that it’s completed, I think maybe the Chinese want to neutralise the effects of the road to try and dominate it and possibly to create a situation where they can intercept it.

Can I come in at that point? I take the caution that you began with that we are entirely dependent on unattributed newspaper reports, we don’t know their veracity, we don’t have any signs from the government that the reports are correct. However, there are two specific areas of concern where even after the weekend’s limited disengagement, there seems to be a sense of deep anxiety and I want to put those to you one by one.

The first is whatever is said to be happening in the Galwan river valley area. Apparently, according to news reports something like two or three thousand Chinese troops are said to be in occupation of Indian territory, satellite images suggest that they’ve reached about a hundred tents, there are reports that they’re backed up by heavy vehicles and possibly artillery, and this is all happening in area where India had assumed the LAC was not disputed. Now according to The Wire, apparently the Chinese on Saturday at that meeting actually said, “Galwan is entirely ours and has always been”. How do you read the situation? 

This exactly the problem, we do not know whether all these stories are true. If they are true, they certainly represent a massive escalation by the Chinese of their demands and a fundamental change in the status quo in the Galwan Valley, where for many many years, the actual situation in terms of actual control has not changed – not since the 1962 war. So if these stories are true – and they have not been denied surprisingly – so one assumes that there is at least some grain of truth in these stories.

If that is so, this is a much more worrying development than we would be led to believe by other stories which say disengagement is underway, we’re in talks and so on. Now the government cannot negotiate in the public through the media or through press statements. But what the government can do by making public statements and by signalling to its own public is actually strengthen its negotiating hand – by making clear what is negotiable and what is not. Because by not making its position clear after, and now its been quite some time, this has been going on since early April. In fact, for all, we know the Chinese probably came in even before that. Since this silence actually suggests to the other side that everything is negotiable, that everything is possible. That’s not a very good tactic—if there are fundamental changes being made by the Chinese in their depiction of the LAC and in their military posture on the line.

Let me raise the second area of concern, and once again, I’ll admit that we are entirely dependent on unverified press reports, this time it’s the Pangong lake area, where there has been no disengagement but apparently newspaper reports say that the Chinese have erected defence structures which are stopping India from patrolling in a 15 square kilometre area where previously Indian patrols were possible. Now I know that Pangong is an area we’ve had problems in the past. That is an area where both sides have a different perception of the LAC but do you get the feeling that this particular problem is perhaps more serious than any we’ve encountered earlier? 

Well, you know it’s very hard to say which problem is more serious when you don’t know what’s actually happening. But from what these reports say, if the Chinese have actually built permanent structures and occupied parts of the area which both sides think is on their side of the LAC, then certainly this is a serious problem. Whether it’s more serious or less serious than what they’ve done in the Galwan is very difficult to say because we don’t know what they’ve done in either place. But if they have occupied these areas and frankly, the presumption must be that they have, because I think most of the stories that we’ve heard of, most of the leaks—motivated as they may be, suggest this. In that case, they are preventing us from patrolling where we had been patrolling in the past.

We’ve always known there’s a difference in perceptions of the LAC in Pangong Tso, not in Galwan, but even so, we have both patrolled these areas before and the Chinese are changing the status quo and I think the right thing to do under the various agreements and the commitments that China has made in the past, under the 1993 Agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquility, is for China to first restore the status quo.

My worry with the silence that we’re hearing on both sides is that we may be seeing the same Chinese playbook that we’ve seen before when they have attempted two steps forward and one step back. We’re leaving them with a net gain of one step and leaving the other side with the ability to claim victory and say “you see we got them to step back”. And this concern and the reason I am concerned is because I think that is what they did in Doklam for instance. I think they drew a very different lesson from Doklam in 2017 from the one that perhaps our commentators have drawn.

Because if you think of the Doklam plateau, it was an area which the Chinese used to visit once or twice a year. They then came and sat there, we went in and had a faceoff with them for 72 days, negotiated their withdrawal. They did withdraw from the point where we faced off against each other and so did we, we also withdrew. But after that the Chinese, while leaving the precise faceoff point vacant, have now actually occupied the rest of the plateau—they have something like 36 structures there, they have metal tarred roads into it, they have three helipads, and they’re in permanent occupation of the rest of the plateau.

So the net outcome from that point of view, and I think the lesson that they may have drawn may be the wrong one— that we can negotiate a local small withdrawal in return for much bigger gains as long as we let the Indians claim a propaganda victory and I think that’s the real risk here. So this is why I think it’s important that we make it clear, that it is really the restoration of the status quo before all these moves started, including therefore the endpoints to which China needs to withdraw, and I think that needs to be made absolutely clear rather than fudging the issue. So, while I understand the government’s need to stay silent about the operational details, the tactical details and even to leave itself some room to negotiate, there should be no confusion about where the government is ultimately going with this.

Watch | India-China Border Tensions: Differing Perceptions Theory Is a Chinese Ploy

What you’re saying is that it is absolutely fundamentally important that the government make clear but we want a restoration of the status quo ante back to the position both armies occupied prior to this in early April. That has to be made fundamentally clear to the Chinese. You don’t want a situation where you have two steps forward one step back and as you put it leaving the Chinese with a gain of one step which you believe fundamentally is what happened in Doklam in 2017.

You know at least that’s what the satellite picture seemed to suggest, that’s what most of the all the reports that I hear suggest happened in Doklam. So it’s not enough therefore to just cover it all up saying that “Oh there are different perceptions”. We need to restore the status quo as it was before, and frankly that is a test of Chinese sincerity. If they are not willing to do so we then need to draw other conclusions about the future, about how we behave, how we expect them to behave as well.

In the context of this discussion and remembering the fact that you pointed out that the press reports, which if true are deeply worrying, have not been denied by the government in any shape or form. In that context, I want to put you one more writing in Rediff News Ajai Shukla, who usually is extremely well informed, said that all together China has occupied something like sixty, sixty-five square kilometres of Indian territory. If that is true, this is not just then a normal skirmish, it’s beginning to feel to a layman like me, like a little small invasion of Indian territory. 

Well let’s face it, China’s already in occupation of about thirty-eight thousand square kilometres of Indian territory – all of Aksai Chin is Indian territory. So I mean I’m not sure. You are now saying sixty square kilometres perhaps more of Indian territory has been occupied in the last three months that’s what he is saying. As I said at the beginning, I have no way of judging whether this is true or not and I would like the government to authoritatively tell us where exactly we are, but I can understand the limits on what they can say.

But certainly, we need to make it quite clear that we will not accept any extension, any expansion of the Chinese LAC, any redefinition of the lines, or a change in the fundamental status quo all along that LAC. I think that that needs to be made clear. There is so much speculation here – I have complete faith that the army can handle the military aspects of this, that’s not the issue. In fact, we have relatively, over the years, several governments of work to make sure that the effective balance on the border has been improved in our favour—there may still be asymmetry but effectively we have improved our position over the years. But that’s not enough because what we are dealing with here is not just a purely military problem, it’s equally a political problem.

It’s a question of our country’s territorial integrity, it’s also a diplomatic issue. It’s a question of a relationship between two very large neighbours, both of whom are changing very rapidly at a time when the situation itself is very uncertain. So this goes well beyond just a question of which points they may have occupied, and what this is about our future relationship with China and I think the Chinese need to understand also that this is going to have various repercussions.

Let me broaden the discussion at this point. Given that there is a problem occurring in so many different parts of Sikkim and Ladakh, and now newspaper reports as of Friday suggest that in fact the troops have been moved by both sides closer to the LAC, right the way across the three thousand five hundred kilometre LAC from Ladakh to Arunachal, do you get the feeling that this is not just the work of individual Chinese brigades and divisions. This is centrally coordinated and it very likely Xi Jinping is in the loop? It’s not happening without his knowledge or at least without his concurrence.

It’s never the work of individual brigades or local commanders or road troops in the PLA. Political control of the PLA has always been absolute, even in the worst of times. So when China internally was in complete chaos during the cultural revolution, there was still even at that time, the central political leadership meaning Mao Zedong – he didn’t allow other civilian leaders on the military affairs commission. And it’s the same thing now. Xi Jinping is the only civilian leader who’s on the military affairs commission and he has reorganised the PLA. So I have never accepted the theory that any of the instances whether it was Chumar happened without central approval. PLA is a political instrument of the party, it is used for that. Otherwise, you have to believe that some rogue PLA commander can fire nuclear missiles tomorrow which I don’t believe. I think they’re very careful in the controls that they impose. So yes certainly, this is part of a clear act at the high levels in the Centre. Now how much of the detail was approved I don’t know but the fact of these intrusions, the fact of sitting on territory that until then China had not sat upon, I’m sure those were cleared very high up in the PLA. But to take it one step further, I think you need to then question, why is this being done, apart from whatever local, practical-

Also read: China’s ‘Untenable’ Claim Over Galwan Contrary to Understanding: India

Can I stop you there? I want to come to why it’s happening but one more question about Xi Jinping. If it is almost certain that this has been cleared at the top and very likely this is something that Xi Jinping has full knowledge of, then where does this leave the so-called Wuhan spirit or the meeting in Mamallapuram and the belief that we in India have that there’s a rapport between the two heads of governments. Where does all of that now stand today? 

As I said this has really serious implications for the relationship as a whole. This is not the relationship between two individuals, these two individuals represent their countries – the Prime Minister of India and the president of China. They are meeting not as individuals, as Xi Jinping or Narendra Modi, they are meeting as the prime minister of India and the president of China and they will act accordingly. So for me, therefore, that’s why I think this has very serious repercussions in how we solve this problem. We’ll have indications going forward for the way we deal with each other.

I’m going to take a break at that point Mr Menon because your picture has frozen on the screen though your voice is audible. We’ll reconnect to come back and in part two I want to talk to you both about why this is happening as well is about how effectively it’s being handled – although some of that second you have already answered for us. See you in a moment after this break.

Welcome back to a special interview for The Wire. My guest is India’s former ambassador to China, former foreign secretary and former national security adviser, and as I said earlier no one in India knows China better than him, Shivshankar Menon. Mr Menon let’s now come to that critical question: why have the Chinese chosen to do this now in the middle of an international COVID crisis and an increasingly depressing economic crisis? Why now?

Well it seems to me that this is not just signalling because if it’s signalling, it’s the most inefficient way of signalling, where we’re all guessing what the signal is. Some people say it’s because of the change in the status in Ladakh and J&K, some people say it’s because of our relationship with the US, other people have other explanations, so it’s not signalling. I think it seems to me that it’s part of a general pattern and a general shift in Chinese behaviour in the way they deal with the world. What I supposed the Chinese themselves have called wolf warrior diplomacy.

All governments, I think, feel under pressure in the present situation because none of them has covered itself in glory in dealing with the pandemic. Secondly, it seems to me that all the powers are actually being diminished by the crisis and this is, as you said. it’s a health crisis, it’s an economic crash and politically their prospects, everybody’s prospects are much harder. And I think there is both internal and external stress certainly on China and China’s reaction to that has been to rely on ultra-nationalism.

In a sense you can see that in Chinese behaviour in the Yellow Sea, you can see it in their behaviour towards Taiwan, you can see it in their behaviour towards Hong Kong where they are now passing laws without consulting Hong Kong about introducing their own security laws in Hong Kong, you can see it on our border as well. You see much more assertive Chinese behaviour. They’re in the midst of a tariff war with Australia. You can see the kinds of comments that the US and China make about each other. So all told it’s a much more factual situation for China.

China’s reaction to this partly, I think, because of the domestic stress and the economic stress at home is to rely on nationalism to unite the population. Every government in the world, it’s not only the Chinese, it’s the Americans and others are busy blaming somebody else for the crisis – the Americans are blaming China, the Chinese are blaming America, a lot of countries are blaming the WHO. They are finding internal people to blame and this problem I think therefore exacerbates all these tensions and hotspots and flashpoints that we have. So in a sense, the COVID crisis has actually added to the load on governments and they are retreating. I think somebody once said that the last refuge of all scoundrels is patriotism covering themselves in the flag and demanding that their citizens rally around the flag.

So your explanation for why China is behaving in this way at this time is that this is a general almost across the board assertiveness that China is showing. You mentioned their relationship with Australia, with America, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea—this fits into that pattern of an assertive wolf warrior that China is pushing itself forward, as you said, both for external reasons but also internal. Is that a correct interpretation of your answer?

That is correct. There is an alternative explanation which I don’t hold to but where people say that China thinks that now is her moment – that the rest of the world has been so weakened by the COVID crisis that this is the time for her to assert primacy and in the world order. I am not sure that is the case. In fact, I think all powers have suffered in this crisis and I think they’re all emerging out of it much diminished – both in terms of economic power, in terms of political, military power, but also in terms of reputation and soft power.

Also read: Why It’s Necessary to Believe ‘All Is Well’ in India’s Border Clash With China

Let me put you a view expressed by Jayadeva Ranade in an article that he wrote for Strat News Global. He is writing as president of the Center for Chinese Studies and Analysis. He says that there is a certain amount of domestic pressure growing against Xi Jinping and he mentioned things like dissatisfaction with his one-man rule, dissatisfaction with intrusive party surveillance, the initial mishandling of COVID-19, and the fact that apparently in March, unemployment in China touched levels of 70-80 million. And he says that these domestic pressures might make it difficult for Xi Jinping to agree to any concessions to India without actually having some substantive gains to show. In other words, he might not be able to back off. He may want that one extra step for China to be recognised and accepted by India. Do you think that this could also be a factor?

It seems to me this is what I meant when I said there’s domestic stress there was obvious political public anger at the way that the COVID-19 pandemic was handled in China at the beginning. And certainly, external tensions have proved a useful distraction for the regime in China. Now, how much is personal to one leader or another, I don’t know. But all the signs of domestic stress are there – including the Communist Party calling on officials to report honestly, and not to just report what leaders want to hear in a general circular which they published in the People’s Daily. So I think the signs are all there of domestic stress, and therefore all external distractions are welcome for the regime. But this is equally true for other regimes today in the world, and this is why I think the crisis has made the world a much more dangerous place. Now how far this reflects on individual leaders this I find very difficult. Jayadeva knows China very well, in fact, we’ve served there together. So if anybody knows how it works in India it’s probably Jayadeva.

And what he’s suggesting is that it might be difficult for Xi Jinping to make any concessions that would be acceptable to India, because this would look bad for him in China. In our words, this is a more intractable problem then perhaps we realised.

This is why I said this is a serious problem, because you have a mirror image in India as well. It’s equally hard for the government of India to be seen as having given ground as it would be for Xi Jinping or the Chinese regime to be seen as having given ground. We’ve seen all these armchair warriors on social media in both countries.

We’ve also seen the extreme bits of the media of the especially the visual media and the sort of pitbull media like Global Times in China threatening each other. Now that kind of sentiment, if it spreads, it certainly makes it harder for the leaders to be reasonable. But that’s not a new problem, that’s a problem that we’ve had now for several years with the rise of the new authoritarians in China, in India, in Japan, in the US and so on, where because their performance legitimacy is low, they rely on ultra-nationalism and once they rely on ultra-nationalism, the give-and-take of diplomacy, the bargaining, the compromise that agreements require that becomes much more difficult.

Against this background, let’s now talk about the manner in which this is being handled by the Indian government. In April 2013, you were National Security Advisor at the time when the Chinese intruded into Depsang but as you pointed out you had one advantage – the Chinese were keen to send their premier to India and you deliberately delayed fixing the date and that made the Chinese realise that it wouldn’t happen unless they withdrew from Depsang. There was a certain leverage that you had at the time. Do you think India today lacks similar leverage which is why this is going to be much more difficult for the Modi Government?

I there is always other leverage – I mean no two situations are identical but there is always leverage in a complex relationship like the one that India and China have – either in the same issue after all tit-for-tat is always in an available option on the border and both sides know this. Or there is leverage available elsewhere in the relationship. After all, we interact across a whole range of issues. But that is not the question here. I think the problem here is that fundamentally what the Chinese have done this time is very different from what they did in 2013.

2013 was one localised problem which we managed to solve by negotiation within two and a half weeks. This has lasted much longer, it’s across many more places and if the LAC itself has been redefined in the negotiations by the Chinese, then that’s a whole different ball game completely. If the Chinese are determined to maintain a permanent presence and they’re not willing to discuss it in places where they were not before that also is a whole new ballgame. So, and as you just pointed out, the context within which this is happening is very different. India-China relations for the last three years or so have actually been increasingly adversarial and the elements of contention now increasingly outweigh the elements of cooperation and that is a real problem. So the context in which this is happening is different from 2013.

Also read: ‘Two Steps Forward, One Step Back’: The Chequered Story of India and China’s Border Tensions

In which case let me ask you, what is your assessment of the manner in which the Modi government has handled this over the last five-six weeks? 

Well, I don’t know what they’ve done frankly. If I start believing all these stories in the newspapers, most of which are motivated to show the government in a good light and to reassure us that all is well, then I’d have to say well done but I don’t think that’s the entire truth. I would rather wait a while before coming to your judgement on how they behaved.

What I would have liked is a bit more strategic communication both to us and to the world, and therefore also to the Chinese indicating at least the red lines beyond which they should not go. That I think would have been useful at any stage. But I don’t expect them to negotiate in public through the media and I think what they are doing, trying to talk, while at the same time do taking the other necessary steps, I assume that they’re doing all the right things but I can’t comment on it today.

Let me put something else to you – there have been several reports and several papers that the Indian Army dropped its guard. Either because soldiers caught COVID-19 and were unable to participate in the annual exercises held in March or because the PLA – the Chinese army – simply took the Indian Army by surprise. How do you respond as a former national security adviser to this sort of report, that we, our army dropped its guard? 

Right now we have a crisis to deal with, and I think we as India should deal with the crisis. And as I said earlier restore the status quo ante. Afterwards, I think we need to, as in every such case, sit down and do an analysis of what happened, what we did right, what we did wrong, who did what, when. And, once we have got past the crisis, is the time to do it and to do it well. To do it the way we did after Kargil, where you didn’t look only at the military and the operational aspects but you looked at the broader picture of what you needed in order to prevent any such thing happening to you again. And I think that is really the way to go. I hope that we have the capacity to learn from this experience and to improve as we go along. We have shown that capacity in the past, I see no reason why we can’t do it again.

Now these skirmishes or clashes or confrontations, call them what you want, with Chinese soldiers are happening roughly at the same time as a disputant Nepal over the border at Kalapana. Given the role that China played in supporting K.P. Sharma Oli, when he had domestic problems not so long ago, do you think that could be a link between what’s happening with China and what is happening with Nepal?

Look I can’t speculate on Mr Oli’s motives or Chinese motives. But its certainly is not our interest to tie these two together or to link them. We should actually deal with it. Nepal is a friendly neighbour with whom we have intimate ties of various kinds and we should deal with it accordingly rather than mixing it up into a much more complicated and difficult and larger geopolitical problem.

Let me end by putting this because I think it’s a thought that would have occurred to the audience right through this interview. On several occasions you said that if the reports in the press are true this is a very serious situation, it’s fundamentally different to what’s happened in the past, it could be a sign of China not only asserting itself but attempting to change the LAC, attempting to change the relationship. Given all of that, are you worried that this could lead to conflict? 

Not yet. I don’t know enough to worry about that yet but certainly, this is not a good sign for the relationship. I don’t see payoffs from the conflict for either side, which would lead me to believe that somebody has an interest in actually allowing this to become a conflict. When I look at the Chinese methodology in other cases – South China Sea, for instance, it’s a question of changing the facts on the ground incrementally, bit by bit, but staying below the level of actual conflict and that seems to be the general Chinese playbook in such cases. Let’s see, that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll follow the same playbook in this case at all. So we need to be prepared for everything but I wouldn’t be an alarmist and say ‘oh conflict is around the corner’, no not at all.

It’s a very interesting answer you’re not as yet worried that the situation could lead to conflict but if it is not adequately handled, and I presume over a reasonably short period of time by both sides, then the potential for the situation accidentally slipping out of control remains. 

Karan, you said it not me.

All right, but you didn’t disagree and you’re smiling as well, you are ever the diplomat. Mr Menon, thank you very much for a candid and thoughtful interview and I should indicate to the audience that the reason why the background in part two is so dramatically different than background in part 1 is that technology, it has massively during the commercial break and we had to change rooms to be able to reconnect that explains why at the background behind me changed. Stay safe, take care and thank you very much.

Thank you, Karan, thank you very much!