Interview with Ambassador Vishnu Prakash
(Photo: “HERMES” I.I.A.S.GE)
Ambassador (re) Vishnu Prakash: “These days China is trying to bully Taiwan which is also south of China. They have been militarizing the South China Sea. They have been threatening Japan, Australia, Canada, and USA.”
The deadly clash between the PLA and the Indian Army on 15th June 2020 at Galwan Valley has exposed the wounds of the historic Sino-Indian border conflict. The incident has caused a severe damage to the trust between the neighbors. While the standoff continues, both sides have had several rounds of diplomatic and military level talks to defuse tension at the contested border. Both Indian and Chinese officials have reiterated to restore peace and tranquility at the border. However, the impact seems to be missing on the ground with both the armies preparing for the approaching winter. The road ahead seems bumpy.
Ambassador (re) Vishnu Prakash speaks to Harshita Kanodia, Intern of the “HERMES” Institute of International Affairs, Security & Geoeconomy
India and China are natural competitors. But India has failed to develop a coherent security strategy vis-à-vis China. What are the lessons, in your view, Indian policy makers need to take account of while dealing with such an aggressive and expansionist Chinese behavior?
VP: First of all, I beg to disagree that we do not have a coherent security strategy vis-à-vis China. It is just our approaches are different. India believes in the rule of law, China believes in the rule of power. So, that is a big difference. We believe in dialogue whereas China believes that force is a part of the dialogue.
What has happened is that over three decades of very painstakingly developed Confidence Building Measures and trust, has been destroyed in one stroke. And this is after two informal summits and 18 meetings between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many assurances were given throughout these meets.
The long and short of it is that the ball is in China’s court now. There is a Chinese saying that “He, who ties the knot, unties it.” So, it is for them to do that. For the relationship to acquire a semblance of normalcy, semblance because I do not see this relationship getting normal or cordial in a hurry, it would take a long time for the simple reason that we are on a different page in terms of our approach to the regional affairs and world affairs. And so, China has to rethink, they have to abandon their expansionist policies, which I agree is easier said than done. And the first step towards this is to restore status quo ante, which we have been asking and they are not doing. It will take time.
What Confidence Building Measure are required to deal with the contemporary developments?
VP: Confidence Building Measures will happen only when there is some kind of an understanding. You cannot say, “I am grabbing a territory. Now, let’s start talking of Confidence Building Measures”. I mean where is the confidence? The first step is for China to take. They have to take the initiative. It is not we who have breached the agreements. So first step is to restore the status quo ante, to go back on the positions as of 1st of April, and vacate the aggression they have engaged in. Because if they do not do that, then where is the question of Confidence Building Measures. I mean I enter somebody’s house. I occupy a room and I say let’s talk of Confidence Building Measures that I will not occupy the second room. It does not work like that.
Since such a situation cannot go on perpetually. Do you think we will eventually have to reach a middle ground with China in long term, even if it is by next summer? How is this going to pan out at the border?
VP: China wants it. In fact when they say let’s meet each other halfway, what does it mean in simple English? It means that I have taken over your territory. Now, let’s meet each other halfway. I will vacate half and retain half. So, that is a middle ground. Now, suppose if you say that we will agree to it today. Next summer again it will happen. That is what is called creeping expansionism. So, do you want that kind of a middle ground? You can have a middle ground when otherwise the situation is normal. For example, we have an undelineated border. So, if we have to delineate the border and demarcate it, there is a 2005 agreement that we will go by political parameters and guiding principles and not disturb settled populations. It means that if there is a pocket or kind of a finger which is jutting into the Indian Territory or there is a finger jutting into the Chinese territory, you can make adjustments. You can kind of cede some area here so that you don’t disturb the population. That is the kind of middle ground we understand. But I was serving in one country where they would say, “Let’s have a joint venture”. But the definition of joint venture was “You give me your watch, I will tell you the time.” Do you want a venture like that? Do you want a middle ground like that? So that is where the problem is because they have been doing this – Two steps forward, one step backward; what somebody has called salami slicing or creeping expansionism. They have done it everywhere and gotten away with it. But no, you cannot allow that.
Currently, China is facing fallings domestically also, with Taiwan and Hong Kong. Do you think this move by the PLA at the Ladakh border is, in any way, serving President Xi's domestic political propaganda?
VP: There is a very old Chinese saying, “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” Or there is half joke, half anecdote that a mother goes to the school of her child, and says “my child is very sensitive so when he is naughty please slap the child next to him to make mine understand.” President Xi Jinping has opened too many fronts. And that is what happens when you are not a democratic power. You are an aggressive power. You are an expansionist power. You are an authoritarian leader, and he has concentrated all power in his hand. And I do not think there are too many people left in China who can have a frank conversation because in authoritarian states, you shoot the messenger and then everybody falls in line and everybody sings your praises and China genuinely believes that they have the mandate from heaven. And the President or the Emperor is a representative of heaven. So, how can he go wrong? They have been blinded by this rapid development, military expansion. And today, there is almost every neighborhood with which they have difficulties. So now, President Xi Jinping has this compulsion to look strong. So he says, now, how do you look strong? One of the countries that potentially, not today, but potentially can emerge as another pillar, another pole is India. So, keep India in check. The whole purpose of this exercise is to embarrass India and to tell the neighbors that look, we can do this to India, that India is talking about being the third largest economy etc., wants UN Security Council seat, but India cannot even protect its own territory. And this is our capability. So, there are mixed messages to warn India to not act too big for their boots, not develop infrastructure, not engage too much with the west or the US, to cut India to size, to put India in the South Asian framework, to send a message to other countries that “look, we are the reigning hegemon.” So it is a bit of all except that it has not worked out the way they hoped for because they have actually taken on smaller states in the South China Sea and other states. And they have denied that publicly. They speak with both sides of their mouth. So you claim something, you do something, you deny something, and then one day you say, look, this is where we are. But here they have been checkmated so to say up till now.
Were they not expecting such a retaliation?
VP: We have not retaliated; I will not call it that. We have not. But we have dug in. And we have managed to thwart their ambition. They thought they will just walk in both on the 15th - 16th June night, when they took our small petrol party by surprise, ambush them, kill the CO. What did our soldiers do? I have worked as a diplomat for 36 years. I have travelled the world. I do not think that I can recall in history, any army, which has shown so much restraint. Because there is a 1993 agreement of peace and tranquility, not to use weapons, our troops took a beating, lost lives but did not open fire. Look at the discipline. And yet in hand-to-hand combat, they gave it back by killing 45 of Chinese soldiers, including the CO and who have died for the country were not even acknowledged. And then they were planning to surreptitiously occupy heights to the south of the Pangong Tso Lake. But we preempted them. So, even they have realized that it is not going to be a cake walk. And so I think they have hit the pause button to recalibrate and re-strategize.
We have had several rounds of Corps-Commanders level talks and both the sides are emphasizing on disengagement and de-escalation process. But the terms of disengagement are different for both the sides. So do you think there is a need for a political level discussion for this disengagement issue to lessen the strain at the LAC?
VP: There is a time for everything. We are having not just military to military talks, but we are having senior official level talks, ministerial talks. The Foreign Ministers have spoken, the Defense Ministers have spoken; it cannot get any better. So, which is the last resort? It is the political level or the summit level talks between the Prime Minister and the President. Now, you cannot use up your last option till all other options have been tried. It is not good diplomacy. And if you use up your last option, then what? Then you cannot have talks at any other level. So, they are the optics. And also, let's not forget that Prime Minister Modi engaged Xi Jinping in the informal dialogue process, which Chinese leaders have never done in the past. For Xi Jinping, it was a new process. And both times they met, they have had a lot of discussion. According to a Xinhua report of the 13th of October, President Xi Jinping is quoted as telling Prime Minister at “Mahabalipuram Summit” that “India and China are great civilizations and we should work towards the rejuvenation of the great civilizations.” Now there is a context because actually the Chinese look down upon India, because we were colonized and for them, non-violence or civil disobedience movements do not mean anything; that is just an instrument of the weak. For them, it is the barrel of the gun. So they believe that we succumbed without any fight. And they look down upon us to equate Indian civilization with Chinese and talk of the great rejuvenation on one hand, while planning the Ladakh misadventure, because they had already set the process in motion. This is the character. Now, when you have this kind of a character of the adversary, you have to be very careful in how you proceed further. And that's what we're doing.
Do you think there is a possibility of a temporary consensus, given winter is coming and there will be a severe mobility issue? And is there adequate military preparedness to deal with such conditions?
VP: No, the reason is that these things are based on trust. You see, today, you leave the strategic heights that you have got, you come back after the snow melts, and you may find some people sitting there. And it is a huge logistical nightmare. So how did the Kargil happen? It happened the same way. How did Siachen happen? It happened the same way because you trust but the trust is breached. And also let’s not forget our Armed Forces are battle hardened. They have been trained in high altitude survival.
And so I believe that it is not easy, I cannot go there and stand even for half a second. Our forces have shown bravado which is exceptional. So, let them (Chinese) get a taste of their own medicine. I mean, why should we give them an advantage of vacating the positions? No, we will not do that.
The Indian Government has also taken steps on the economic front by banning Chinese apps and curbing Chinese investment. But that did not really have an effect on the Chinese behavior at the border. So are these steps sustainable given the economic interdependence between the two countries? Or will it end up affecting India, given the bad shape of the economy?
VP: Are there any free lunches? When you take hard decisions, you say I want to take a hard decision, but it should not cost me anything. I want to inflict some pain, send out a message. But no, it is certainly going to affect you. It is certainly going to pinch. There is nothing which is cost free. Now the choice is very simple. We say that if we stop imports from China, we will lose $5 billion a year. Let's say, hypothetically, what are we doing? We are pumping in $60 billion worth of money into the Chinese economy by buying. I know $60 billion is just about 2% of the Chinese trade, I agree. But we are infusing $60 billion worth of liquidity that is generating jobs, that is giving employment, that is enabling them to produce at mass scales, that is helping their war machinery. And we are saving $5 billion, except that every year the graph will keep on increasing, the deficit will keep on increasing because our industry base is narrow. And every year they will come to a border and say “Knock knock. Mr. India, we have just come to take some of your land.” I am dramatizing it a little because I am pained when I find some of the Indian corporate houses talking of the loss. You have to be able to leverage your market. You have to send out if today the trade is at $90 billion. I mean, the way we are growing it will be 300 billion by 2030. Will you continue depending on China? Will you allow the trade deficit to balloon to 200 billion? Will you allow Chinese phones in your hand, we have 90 million Chinese phones, and which are basically instruments spying on us. Each Chinese phone can be activated to cause a lot to steal data, to violate your privacy and the embedded software; we are getting hardware from them. What is the guarantee? We are basically complicating our security environment by allowing millions of pro Chinese Trojans into our lives. Energy, aviation, governance, finance, defense. So we have to draw a line, we have to understand that this is not a benign power. They are out to damage your interest, and there has to be a cost to pay. So short term costs or medium term costs, we industrialize, we expand our economy. And that is what Prime Minister talks of “Atma Nirbhar Bharat.” But he also clarifies that “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” does not mean that we are going to be in looking inwards. We will be a part of the regional global value chain. But there are going to be no shortcuts. There is going to be pain. And the choice is very simple. We either have some self-respect, we believe in our unity and integrity. We believe in not succumbing, or we allow Mr. China to come and you know, say that do whatever Mr. China and we are rolling over and playing dead.
Chinese officials have openly want India to not support Taiwan ahead of its foundation date. So how important is the Taiwan angle for the Sino-Indian relation? And do you think it's time that India should openly support Taiwan?
VP: For certain things, you cannot give a black and white answer, a yes or no answer. There was a world leader who was asked by media to say “Sir, please answer in yes.” He said yes and no. Now, it also takes two to tango. India’s One China policy is premised on China’s One India policy. So, right now, China is not following the one Indian policy. So again, can it be one-sided relationship? Of course it cannot be. Now, what are we going to do? There have to be shades of gray. We will see how it happens. But now, Taiwan, you are asking? Taiwan is a very strong economy. It is a democracy. They have been quite advanced and very competitive in many, many areas. For example, the handling of the Covid-19 virus. Their performance has been one of the best. Taiwan is a member of certain institutions, which China is also a member, for example, APEC. They are also a member. Hong Kong is also a member. So there is nothing which is cut and dry. We are engaging Taiwan. We have stopped reiterating One China policy. We used to be doing that but we have stopped it. But we should expand our economic ties, people to people relations with Taiwan, cultural ties, business ties that we should and we'll see how it shapes up. So I cannot give you a yes and no answer. Sorry.
What kind of international support can India expect if the situation escalates further or for war like situation becomes apparent? Are there any reliable partners? Especially, the US and the QUAD, what can we expect from that?
VP: Yes, a great question. First of all, we have the capability of thwarting Chinese aggressions; that we have. But there are certain gaps. And it is unfortunate that despite having such a difficult security situation and living in a complex geography, we are dependent on defense imports. It is, I think, one of the biggest chinks in the Indian armor that you have to depend on other countries even for ammunition. So, one is that we need a sufficient supply and an expeditious supply of material that we need them for the security of the country. And that is happening. So, our friends and partners are making it sure. And Defense Minister has gone twice to Moscow. And once when he went in June, he had emphasized this point about getting spares and supplies on a timely basis. So that is one part. Second, is a lot can be done through intelligence sharing, satellite imagery, interception, electronic warfare. So there we need help. We need assistance, and I do not have any inside information, but from my understanding is that that is happening. And then we need key countries to basically signal that this is not acceptable to the committee of nations, what China is doing. And already countries, the QUAD countries have come out openly. The US Secretary of State has in fact said that Chinese Communist Party is a rogue entity and that PLA is does not serve a state but serves a party. And Japan has come out openly. France, which is not a quad member, but can and should become a QUAD member has come out open. Australia has. Look at how Australia has reacted. Hats off. Their dependence on the Chinese economy is huge. But their dignity was challenged, and they have hit back. So the point that I am trying to make is that dollars and cents are important, but there reaches a stage where it is not important. So again, wrapping up the question that you posed. There are various ways. We do not need boots on the ground. But, a joint message emanating from key capitals that they are against this aggression and expansionism by China and the other elements which are happening. We are having a good cooperation. And that is the reason why a foundation has been laid of QUAD. Because we do need an Asian security architecture. This power (China) will continue bullying and continue its activities till they are pushed back and back. If the key nations in the world and Indo Pacific Region come together and draw a line and say “Mr. China, this is enough.”
And what would be the stance of South Asian countries? Will they take sides?
VP: Well, we know South Asian countries. We have a friendly country called Pakistan. We have another great country called Nepal. So, the fact is that an overwhelming majority of the countries in the world including South Asian countries, ASEAN countries, other countries, do not want to take sides. They do not want to pick or choose between China and others. They are hedging their bets. And, frankly, if I were in their shoes of, let's say an ASEAN nation, I will also as a Prime Minister do the same thing. Because I am comparatively, geographically, in terms of size, power economy, a smaller nation. Why should I get involved? When I do npt know how things are going to shape up. So, the world is falling, and we will continue to follow a hedging strategy and there will be very few countries, I have named them, and perhaps more Germany may soon come out more openly, which will have the courage of conviction and the gravitas to take a stand, which is a just and right stand.
There has been contradicting statements. You know, from the Chinese side, there has been reports that President Xi has directed the troops to go on a war during his visit to the military base in Guangdong. And this came a day after the seventh corps commander level meeting. So what is the larger message here? How do we assess that behavior, this contradiction?
VP: Well, again, in the world of diplomacy, nothing is linear or straightforward. And if it was linear and straightforward, then people like me would not have earned their bread. And you have to read between the lines. Again, there are multiple messages. A- Please let’s remember that he Xi Jinping did not name any country. Right. But he gave a message from Guangdong. And basically, that is the southern part of China. That's the most prosperous part of China. So I think A it was internal, because some reports have it that Chinese foot soldiers, most of them are not professional army, but they are conscripts and our industry for short term, they are not very enthusiastic and so A is to warn them, cajole them, encourage them to put steel in their spine. B - China is these days trying to bully Taiwan which is also south of China. They have been militarizing the South China Sea. They have been threatening Japan, Australia, Canada, and USA. That is way they have been very democratic, that they have been picking a fight with everybody and certainly to India. And then there is a psychological warfare, because psy-war is a part of conflict today. In fact, the new era wars, conflicts will be won not in the battlefields, but outside the battlefields, through cyber warfare, through psy-warfare. So that you are able to sap the morale of your rivals. So, the canvas of conflict has also undergone a lot of change.
* Vishnu Prakash, a law graduate (gold medalist) and career diplomat, retired as India’s High Commissioner to Canada in 2016, after 35 years in the saddle. Hitherto, he was Ambassador to South Korea, Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs and Consul General to Shanghai. He held various positions at Indian Missions in Tokyo, New York, Moscow, Islamabad, Vladivostok and Cairo. Mr. Prakash did a sabbatical with the “Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies” in Hawaii (USA) in 1996. In 2013, he was conferred an Honorary Doctoral degree in Business Administration by Tongmyong University, Busan and recognized as “Ambassador of the Year, 2014” by the Asia Society, Korea Center. Presently he is a foreign affairs specialist, speaker, columnist and adviser. His focus is on the Indo-Pacific region, including North-East Asia (China, Japan and Koreas), ASEAN & South Asia, the US, Canada and Israel. Ambassador Prakash is a sought-after speaker by educational / training institutions and sits on the governing / advisory boards of some of them. He was recognized as “Outstanding Diplomat” by Prestige Institute of Management and Research, Indore in January 2020. He writes for a number of Indian and overseas publications and is associated with and/or contributing papers/articles for prominent think-tanks. He regularly appears as an expert panelist on Indian and international TV channels.
 PLA: People’s Liberation Army
 LAC: Line of Actual Control
 APEC: Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation
 QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue): Australia, India, Japan, United States
 ASEAN countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam