China and India have to be “frank and candid” to reduce their ongoing tensions, Delhi’s ambassador to Beijing has said ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to China in June. Gautam Bambawale said political communication between the two nations had resumed after the Doklam crisis last year, when troops from both nations faced off for more than two months over the dispute.
However, he said that the dispute had started because China had “altered the status quo” in the region, adding that both sides should refrain from doing so in future to maintain peace and stability.
“Political level communication has come back,” Bambawale said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
“But more importantly, I think we need to have discussions between the two militaries. That has not fully resumed”.
While the troops on the ground can talk to each other, the two nations’ military headquarters are still not communicating with each other.
“We would like it to resume as soon as possible,” he said. “We already have frank and candid discussions, but I mean we need to be more frank and candid with each other.”
Bambawale was speaking during a visit to Hong Kong on Monday and Tuesday, when the city’s government and India signed an agreement to prevent people who earn money in both jurisdictions from being taxed twice.
Border tensions between India and China have been rumbling on for years and led to a war in 1962 that ended with a Chinese victory.
Last year when China started building a road in Doklam, which is claimed by India’s ally Bhutan, the situation escalated to become the worst crisis between the two sides since 1962.
In June both India and China mobilised troops in the area, and only announced their withdrawal at the end of August – shortly before Modi came to Xiamen for an emerging market summit.
Bambawale said Modi would visit Qingdao in Shandong province on June 9 and 10 for a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, where he will have bilateral talks with President Xi Jinping.
“There is a very good communication between the leaders, but we need to have better communication down the line,” Bambawale said.He said a key lesson from last year’s stand-off was that “if anyone changes the status quo, it will lead to a situation like what happened in Doklam”.
The ambassador continued: “The Chinese military changed the status quo in the Doklam area and therefore India reacted to it.”
The Doklam stand-off happened because “we were not frank enough and candid enough with each other,” he argued.
“If the Chinese military are going to build a road, then they must tell us that ‘we are going to build a road’,” he said.
“If we do not agree to it then we can reply that, ‘look, you’re changing the status quo. Please don’t do it. This is a very, very sensitive area’.”
In addition to border tensions, India is also concerned about Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, which will see China building a port in the Pakistani city of Gwadar as part of a strategic economic corridor.
Bambawale said India supported Chinese efforts to improve the infrastructure in the region, but said these should not undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of any country.
“Unfortunately, there is this thing called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is called a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, which violates India’s sovereignty and territory integrity. Therefore, we oppose it.”
India has previously expressed concern that the project will involve infrastructure being built in disputed parts of Kashmir.
But Bambawale also stressed that India regards China as a partner rather than a rival, downplaying concerns that China’s expanding presence through ports and infrastructure projects across South Asia posed a threat to India.
“The trade between China and India reached the highest level ever, US$84.5 billion in 2017, even after the Doklam problem,” he said. “We look upon China as a partner in progress and development.”
When asked if his country would join Australia, Japan and the United States in forming a quadrilateral alliance, he insisted India would not be party to any pact designed to provide a counterbalance to China.
“I do not see that India is going to be a part of any alliance. India will work with all countries in the world to improve and increase its interests,” he said.
“I don’t think China’s rise creates any concerns in India. In fact, none of the things that India does with any country is aimed at a third country, including China.”
What role must Hong Kong play?
One is business. Now we have the basis to increase business between Hong Kong and India and, through Hong Kong, between India and China. We have signed Double-Taxation Avoidance Agreement.
Second, we have also started negotiations on the Bilateral Investment Protection & Promotion Agreement between India and Hong Kong.
Thirdly, very importantly, is the move by the Hong Kong Government to open an Economic and Trade Office in Mumbai. We are still having a look at the proposal. I have invited the Chief Executive: when you open the office, please visit India.
We are hoping that all these three things will lead to an upsurge in trade, not only between India and Hong Kong, but also between India and China. This is the message that I have brought to Hong Kong.
What’s your evaluation on the existing communication mechanism between India and China?
We have a lot of dialogue between India and China, especially at the political level, and also at the economic level. I just give you one example, we have something called the Joint Economic Group between India and China, which is led on the Chinese side by the commerce minister, and the commerce and industry minister from the Indian side.
Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan will be in India later this week for the Joint Economic Group, and where they will discuss how to improve the trade relations and investments between India and China.
So these are the dialogues that already exist. But especially on the political level, we must be very frank and open and candid with each other. There are some issues and problems between India and China, if we have to solve those problems, we need to talk about the problems candidly.
That’s what I mean about the candid discussion. Also both governments of China and India have been saying that we must maintain strategic communication, and what I think when they talk about strategic communication, it means frank and candid discussion.
Only through talking frankly and candidly, we will be able to solve the issues and problems say boundary problem, and understand each other’s concerns. And I have said in my public remarks yesterday that the most important problem between India and China is the boundary problem. It is a leftover from history, but today’s governments are trying to tackle it. We are giving it a high priority. But only when both sides talk to each other very frankly and candidly, will we be able to resolve this boundary issue and decide on a boundary.
Is China transparent enough, maybe in relation to Doklam construction and army deployment?
We have good dialogue with China. We talk to China at many different levels, we talk to them at the official level, military authorities, foreign ministers and our leaders – Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping – have an excellent communication.
Both national leaders meet at least two or three times a year because both nations are members of many important international organisations as G20, BRICS and SCO and they have their own bilateral discussions. So there is a very good communication between the leaders, but we need to have better communication down the line.
I agree with you to the extent that both sides must be candid with each other and frank with each other. We must say what is happening on the ground and so on.
Many people say that everything the Chinese are doing is kept in dark and that’s where the gap and misunderstanding always happens so in your communications with Chinese officials, do you think that they are transparent enough in addressing India’s concerns?
I think that both sides have to address each others’ concerns. In fact, there are two principles that India has suggested to China, and I think we have broad agreement.
One is that each side must be sensitive to the other side’s aspirations, their concerns, their priorities and so on. And the second is that we must not allow differences to become disputes.
For example, we might have differences of opinion on Belt and Road, but that we must not allow that difference of opinion to become a dispute.
And I think for this, we need to have frank and candid discussions. We already have frank and candid discussions, but I mean we need to be more frank and candid with each other.