Former Foreign Secretary of India: How We See a Rising China?

Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary of India, who has worked closely with top Chinese officials in spheres of security and climate change, discusses India’s shifting perception towards a rising China, and how it has inevitably changed the course of India-China relations.
April 24, 2024
The China Academy Interview
In-depth conversations on China’s future, without limits

The China Academy: How does India view China? And also, how would you assess the cooperation between China and India in recent years, especially in the economic field?

Shyam Saran: So India views China as a fellow Asian country, a very important neighbor, and also as a kind of a civilizational state with a very long, continuous and very rich history, which is quite similar to India as well. India also has a very long civilization and history. The two countries had very close cultural links through history with the spread of Buddhism to not only to China, but to other countries in Asia. They were very longstanding trade links between the two countries, whether it was through (Ancient Tea and Horse) Caravan Trails, across central Asia or the maritime links through the Indian Ocean.

So there has been a long history of quite tense contact between the two countries. But still, I would say that despite this history of exchanges, maybe India does not have much familiarity with China today, and neither does China have much familiarity with India. And this is one of the reasons why I wrote this book “How China Sees India and the World” a couple of years ago. I know China’s culture, China’s history, which, in a sense, determines how it looks at the world and how it looks at India as well. Precisely in order to try and bridge that gap of understanding between the two countries.

Now, if you take, for example, the Chinese revolutionary period in the 19th century, and early 20th century, if you take the history of India’s struggle against colonial rule during the same period, it would also be fair to say that the two countries and the peoples of the two countries, more importantly, did have a lot of sympathy and support for each other. Our intellectuals, our public-spirited people work together in order to deal with the Western domination. This is why India was perhaps the first country to recognize the People’s Republic of China after its establishment in 1949. And since then, during that early period, there was a fairly strong, friendly relationship between India and China. If you recall, India and China work together, for example, during the Bandung Conference (Asian-African Conference) in 1955. The two countries also were the founders of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the Panchsheel. The Panchsheel, which, in a sense, tried to put forward a new quote for relations among states, based on mutual respect, mutual understanding, that irrespective of different social systems, countries of the world should coexist together peacefully and should cooperate with each other. In a sense, those principles are still very relevant in our today’s world. That was an initial period of a very positive relationship between the two countries, a lot of cooperation between the two countries. But as a result of the unfortunate conflict, which broke out in 1967, over differences over the India-China border are the relations, in a sense, went into a kind of a deep freeze.  The two countries, once again, diverged from one another.

But, again, in the 1980s, both countries tried to make an effort to bring their relationship back on a more normal and on a more even keel. In this respect, the role played by Deng Xiaoping was very important, because he put forward the idea that even though India and China must continue to try and resolve the issue relating to the border, they should try and develop their relations in other fields, whether it is trade and economic relations, whether it is cultural relations, to see whether there are opportunities for the two countries to cooperate together on the international scale in international organizations.

So this particular idea was formalized when our then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the China in 1988. It became the template for the relationship to be taken forward in these subsequent years. And it was at that time that Deng Xiaoping also put forward the view that there could not be an Asian century without the simultaneous rise of both India and China, that the emergence of both countries was very important in order to bring about the resurgence of Asia. So since then, but the relationships are developed on the principle which in China you call “Da Tong Xiao Yi”(大同小异). That is try to work together on important issues and reserve differences on small issues. So that is the spirit in which the relationship was taken forward with regard to the border issue. We came to conclude a few very important agreements like the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993. Then we had another one in 1996. When I myself was the foreign secretary of India in 2005, when China’s Premier Wen Jiabao visited India, we also had another border peace and tranquility agreement in 2005.

So this ensured that while we work together on issues which are of convergent interest, we do not allow the border issue to try and overshadow the relationship. That was the spirit in which we were doing it. And very importantly, during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit, we reached an important consensus. The consensus was firstly, that China does not pose a threat to India, and that India does not pose a threat to China. Secondly, that in Asia and the world, there is enough space, both for a strong and developed India, as well as a strong and developed China. There was no contradiction in the simultaneous emergence of those two countries. Thirdly, very important, that a developing India was an economic opportunity for China. And similarly, expanding Chinese economy was a very important economic and commercial opportunity for India. So this was also a part of the consensus. Finally, they came to the conclusion that to do today, India-China relations have gone beyond the bilateral relationship. They have now acquired a global dimension because of the fact that these are two of the largest emerging economies. If they work together, they can make a difference in terms of the shaping of the emerging world order. This was a very important consensus which was arrived at. It was based on the understanding that India and China have a certain kind of identity as the two largest, most populous emerging economies.

Now, if we could now look at the relationship today, how does India look at China? Now, the problem is that, in Indian perspective, the consensus that I spoke about, we believe that China no longer adheres to that consensus. Why? Because today China is bench-marking itself with the United States of America. It thinks of itself as one of the two most important major powers in the world. Therefore, in a sense that other countries, particularly like India and other emerging economies, are not in the same level, in the same scale as China is. And this has led to a certain tension in the relations between the two countries, because both India and China until recently, were adhering to the objective of a multipolar world order, that there should be more equal kind of relationship amongst the countries of the world, that there should not be hegemony of one, or a duopoly of two powers, in a sense, dominating the world.

So one very important point of consensus between India and China was that we are were both working towards a multipolar world order. The sense in India today is maybe we are wrong, but China no longer thinks of itself as promoting multipolar order. It is looking at itself as a country, which is in the same category, same league as the United States of America. Therefore, countries like India and other countries, in a sense, must defer to China’s new more pristine position, which India is unable to. Except so the geopolitical context, in a sense, has undergone a certain change. And that change has had an impact on India-China relations as well.

Now, I think it is important to also understand that that earlier consensus had enabled us to deal with whatever issues once in a while arose on the border. We had mechanisms in place. I mentioned to you the peace and tranquility agreements, which provided a framework for us to deal with whatever incidence or contradiction arose at the border.

This particular kind of a context or framework did not actually work in 2022 when we had the latest rather serious incident at the border in the eastern part of Ladakh.

And although it is encouraging that we have managed to continue our bilateral consultations, our bilateral negotiations, several rounds have been held in to try and resolve this issue, some of the issues have been resolved, but there are other issues which is still remain to be resolved. So this is where we are at the moment. While China believes that we should return to the principle, that we should set aside the border issue and deal with other aspects of India-China relations as before, India believes that because of the seriousness of this issue, we need to resolve this before we can resume normal full relations between India and China. So this is where we are at the moment. We have not yet been able to achieve a common understanding as to how we take India-China relations forward in today’ international arena, which is very new and difficult.

The China Academy: What’s your take on the media rhetoric that often pits India against China, suggesting that India sets its eyes on replacing China?

Shyam Saran: Why should we allow Western media or any other media to influence the course of India-China relations? It is not as if we are not able to talk to each other. It is not as if our diplomats or our military people are not in touch with one another. You have means of ascertaining what Indian’s position is and what Indian’s conduct is in direct relationship with India, you don’t need to look at what the Western media is saying. Naturally Western media or any other media will have its own agenda. Right? So why should we allow our relationship to be determined or to be influenced by the agenda of the West or any other in our country? So I believe that it is certainly possible for India and China are to try and reach a new consensus, a new equilibrium in their relationship if they seriously engage in a dialogue with one another and try to understand what has changed from before.

If the consensus that I mentioned is no longer valid, why is it not valid? What has changed in the meantime? If there are changed circumstances, how do India and China adjust their policies in order to take into account that changed context? That is what is required. So I would certainly want to emphasize that there should not be too much attention paid in China to what the western media or any other media is saying.

The China Academy: The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), launched last year, has prompted speculation about it being a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. What are your thoughts on this issue and the possibility of future economic decoupling between China and India?

Shyam Saran: There is no reason why two countries shouldn’t collaborate whenever there are opportunities to work together on projects in third countries, when it is in their interest to do so. So not that India needs to sign up to BRI but certainly there may be opportunities offered by China’s BRI for that kind of specific cooperation in various projects. So that is something that I want to clarify. Secondly, what is the nature of this IMEC, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor?  Number one, unlike the BRI which is mostly conducted through bilateral partnerships, the IMEC is a multilateral initiative. It is not an Indian initiative. It is not a U.S. initiative. It is not even a bilateral initiative between India and the U.S.. It is a truly multilateral initiative, unlike the BRI as I mentioned. So there are several countries which are partners. India is partnering together not only with the U.S. and European Union, but we are also partnering, for example, the United Arab Emirates, with Saudi Arabia, and also with Israel.

So this particular corridor is looking at a sea link between India and the UAE. Then there is a train link which goes right to the edge of Asia. And then there is another sea link from Haifa port in Israel, which goes all the way to Piraeus port in Greece.

Now, even here, you will notice that as far as Piraeus is concerned, which is a very important component of this corridor , Piraeus is mostly owned and operated by Chinese company. Right? Majority holding of the Piraeus port, which is one of the most important ports in Europe, which is a component of the IMEC that is, in fact, under China’s control. So if we wanted to exclude China, then why would we even think of Piraeus port being the one of the termini for this project? So it is not a question of excluding or including China. We see a certain value in this partnership of India with these various countries. There may be various points at which there could be also, as I mentioned, possibilities of cooperation with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. That is not excluded.

So I think there should not be a kind of perception in China that somehow this India, Middle East economic corridor is directed against China, or is a kind of a substitute for the Belt and Road Initiative. The infrastructure requirements of the world are so large that there is enough space for both BRI as well as IMEC. That is the manner in which I look at it.

The China Academy: Could you specify the types of infrastructure projects that China and India could cooperate on?
Shyam Saran: Before the relations became strained, already India and China were looking at very, very large scope for cooperation. You would perhaps recall that when President Xi Jinping had visited India a few years back, he even spoke about how something like $20 billion could be invested by China in India on infrastructure, but also some important industrial projects.

So India was quite open to establishing closer economic and commercial links with China. Before the relations became strained, India was looked upon by China as perhaps a major market for 5g, for Huawei, for example, or ZTE, they were are already exploring whether or not India could adopt the Chinese 5G technology. Or for example, when we are talking today about things like mobile telephones, some of the most important players in the Indian market, even after relations became strained, are, in fact, Chinese companies.

So to my mind, the opportunities for the two countries to actually work together, in not only providing opportunities for Chinese companies, but meeting India’s own infrastructure needs, Chinese companies can play a very important role. But I think we need to understand that in order for us to be able to engage, particularly in long term projects, which have a long gestation period, it is extremely important that relations should be positive and they should be stable over a period of time. That is, companies in both countries should have the sort of assurance that the political relationship between the two countries will not suddenly deteriorate and their economic relations may be affected.

This needs to be considered carefully by both sides. Even though China today says that put aside the a border issue and let’s get on with economic cooperation in other areas, it is not so simple. The political context, the political environment is very important. So my sense is that there is no doubt, as we had determined earlier, that there are vast vistas, I would say, for economic and commercial cooperation between India and China. China, in a sense, is able to supply to India, many of the things which India needs. Similarly, on the Indian side, I think we have to first try and find a way in which we can order our political relationship in a manner, not necessarily the most friendly relationship, but at least a stable relationship, a relationship of greater understanding between the two countries. Then I think the way will open for the two countries to really have a strong economic and commercial relationship.

The China Academy: India’s 50 billion rupees fine on Xiaomi, a smartphone company from China, has caught significant attention on Chinese media. Would you say it is result of a strained India-China relationship?

Shyam Saran: As far as the Xiaomi case is concerned, I think our friends in China should be very careful not to look upon what may be a commercial issue as reflecting a hostile attitude on the part of the Indian government or the Indian state. Because there are certain commercial laws and regulations which all companies, whether they are Indian or they are foreign, they need to follow. I think China has exactly the same stance that it is not a matter of whether this is an American company or a Japanese company, companies need to follow certain regulations, certain laws that are established in that country.

So my understanding is that with regard to Xiaomi and perhaps a few other Chinese companies, if there have been issues, they are either related to some commercial dispute, or they may be related to some security issue. This is also something which has come up a as a new element, in a sense, because of the fact that the international situation itself has become so difficult and tense.

China itself has passed various laws in order to emphasize the importance of security in terms of the operation of foreign companies in China. There may be some disputes with regard to certain Chinese companies, but I would urge that they should not be taken as reflective of the state to state relationship.

The China Academy: Whenever China-India relationship is in discussion, the United States always looms in the background.  What role do you think the U.S. is playing in the China-India relationship? And what role should China and India play in the currently divided world?

Shyam Saran: So let me make it clear that even though India and the U.S. enjoy very close and friendly relations, India has not changed its position with regard to the objective of a multipolar world. That still remains a guiding star of India’s foreign policy.

Now, there are issues on which India and the U.S. have similar positions, but there are also issues on which India and the U.S. do not see eye to eye with each other. So this is something quite normal that countries have some convergent interest, and they do not have agreement on other issues. Why is the U.S. relationship with India so important today? If you want to understand why India and the U.S. have a very strong relationship today, there are some very important reasons for it. One is India is currently in the phase of rapid economic development. It wants to bring about a transformation of its economy, making it into a high standard economy, enjoying high technological standards. Which other countries can partner India and provide India with that support?

Even if the U.S. is seen as a relatively declining power, as some people say, the U.S. continues to be the intellectual capital of the world. It is technologically the most advanced countries in the world. It is not an accident that the most at technologically advanced fields, like semiconductors, or artificial intelligence, or the digital economy, which are the most important companies in the world, you have Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple. These are the companies which dominate the world. So if India is looking for high technology to support its own development, it stands to reason that we need to have a strong partnership with the U.S.. Not only with the U.S., but also Japan, for the same reason with Western Europe, because these are the most important sources of high technology. Also, they continue to be the merger major markets, even if they are, in a sense, relatively declining. There is a very strong logic, bilateral logic to Indians relationship with the U.S. or with Japan or Western Europe. After all, during the time that China itself was in the similar phase of trying to develop its economy, the relationship with the united states of America was very important to China. Similarly, the relationship with Japan and Western Europe. China was able to benefit from both technological flows as well as capital flows from these countries, and also gained from easy access to the markets provided by these countries.

So China should understand that when India is going through that same process, these relationships are very important. They are not directed against this country or that country. The United States is an important partner, but China should not see the relationships that India has or other countries have with the United States as hostile to China. You should not have a kind of us prism through which you look at all the relationships. This is what the U.S. was doing during the cold war. Every country it looked at was from the prism of its cold war confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This is why India was seen as being on the wrong side of the fence during that period. Even though India was a democracy, the a democracy. We have shared political values. And yet, the U.S. looked upon India as somehow being an adversary because of its relationship with the Soviet Union, because of that particular prism. So I would very much urge that China should not use its own relationship with U.S. to look at every other relationship. A there is a independent kind of logic to India’s relationship with the U.S..

Now, are there issues on which India and the U.S. have similar positions? Say, for example, with what we call the Indo-Pacific, we do. But does India, for example, have the same kind of interest as the United States on the western side of India? Not necessarily. So this is a more nuanced relationship. It’s not an unifocal kind of foreign policy that India follows.

The China Academy: If China and the U.S. enter into future confrontation, do you think India will get involved?

Shyam Saran:It is very important not to get into hypothetical situations of the future. It is more important to look at what the situation currently is, how it may evolve. The first important principle is that India looks upon its relationship with various countries, from the standpoint of its own interest, like China does. There are issues on which we have common interests with the United States of America. We are not an ally of the United States. Even if you are talking about, for example, the so called QUAD, which brings together the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India are together. While the other three countries are military allies, India is not a military ally. So whatever the U.S.’ s military strategy maybe with respect to the Indo-Pacific area, India is not a part of that military strategy. There will be issues on which we will work together with the us and the other partners. That is why we have come together. It is a forum where we are able to, for example, exchange our security perspective, but it is not only security. We are looking at how we can work together, for example, for dealing with maritime disasters. We are looking at how the QUAD can help deal with the issues of supply chain disruptions. What can we do to work together in order to deal with, for example, new technologies like, say, artificial intelligence? From the Indian perspective, it is not just a kind of a security grouping. It is a much broader kind of partnership. Our prime minister in Singapore at the Shangri-La la dialogue had said, as far as India is concerned, Indo-Pacific is an open area, which stretches from both the South China Sea or Yellow Sea right up to the shores of. That is how we see the Indo-Pacific, really a confluence of the two kind of oceans. It is not looked upon as a kind of exclusive grouping. It is certainly has the potential to be a much more inclusive group. But that is something which evolve may evolve over time.

So any sense in China that somehow India is becoming part and parcel of some kind of a containment ring around China or that if there is a clash tomorrow between China and the U.S., India will be fighting on the side of the U.S., I do not think that is a correct way of looking at the relationship.

The China Academy: What’s your outlook on the China-India relationship in the future? In addition to government exchanges, how could people from both countries better communication with each other?

Shyam Saran: Governments come and go, the situation with regard to foreign policy may change this way or that way, but I think for stable relationship, people to people relationships are very important. And for that, a degree of familiarity with each other, a degree of intimacy with each other is very important.

In that respect, as I said, there is a certain gap of understanding amongst the people of China about India, and amongst the people of India about China. We know more about the United States, we know more about Western Europe than we do about China. I suspect that’s the same is true of China. So I think it is rather discouraging that the two most important countries of Asia, having a very long history and also history of close contact with each other, have somehow drifted apart.

So it is very important that there should be engagement at peoples-to-peoples level. There should be like, for example, I congratulate you on doing this kind of an interview, because this is what is required that people should be exposed to what Indians think. Similarly, Indian should be exports to do what Chinese ordinary Chinese people think.

I have served in China for 6 years and I have visited China a number of times. I have not felt hostility on the part of Chinese people towards India. I suspect that the same is true of Chinese people in India. So we have to try and build on that relationship. For that, we need greater engagement. More Chinese people coming to India, visiting different places in India. More Indians going to China visiting different places in China, having contact amongst students, intellectuals, artists, scientists, and engineers. When you have that kind of a relationship which is established and expanded, then even the political relations become much more stable. That is number one. Number two is with regard to the relationship between the two states, we need to have greater engagement and greater dialogue. Because only through that kind of a dialogue can we come to some kind of a consensus as to how we want to take this relationship forward.

Now, I can say, as a diplomat, as a person who has dealt with China and have experience of that, I believe that there are many areas in which India and China can work together. I was also the chief negotiator for climate change in India. Now, during the time that we were doing multilateral negotiations on climate change, up to the Copenhagen summit, I used to work very closely together with the special envoy on climate change from China, Mr Xie Zhenhua (解振华)who only recently retired, I think, from that position. We used to work very, very closely together. Why? Because we had similar interests. Similarly, in the WTO, our interests with regard to the multilateral rules on trade, on investment were very similar. That is not strange because both of us are emerging economies. So our interests of us is similar. Now, if India and China work together, they have a much greater chance of being able to adjust these regimes in their own interests. If you are working separately, not really consulting each other or working together with each other, then naturally, those who have different interests will divide us.

So there are a number of global issues on which India and China still have common interests. They should find a way to work on them. There are also new regimes which are emerging. How do we deal with space-based assets? We have so many satellites. China has so many satellites in orbit. India has so many satellites in orbit. We have a major space program where there are many issues relating to climate change, the melting of the glaciers, for example, the Himalayas. Can we deal with that without India and China working together? We cannot. Similarly, what happens to the oceans around us? There are many global issues or what are called the kind of commons, the global commons, whose preservation, maintenance and health is so important, both to India and China.

So even if we may have differences on other issues, we should find ways in which we can actually work together. So when you are asking, what is the kind of role India and China can actually play in the world today? There are many of these kind of global issues which go beyond our bilateral relations. And finally, with regard to the polarization, which we see in the world today, we certainly do not see in India’s interest that there should be a new kind of confrontation between the East and the West. We certainly want to see a more peaceful world, because our development requires a peaceful world. So are India and China able to prevent that kind of polarization of the world?

Now, it also depends on India looking upon itself as a country of the Global South. We are talking about developing countries today as the constituency of the Global South. Now, if India is trying to promote the interests of the Global South, does China regard itself as a member of the Global South or not, and ready to work together with India to advance the interests of the Global South? Or does it look at its own interest, mainly in relationship with, say, of the United States of America? How to try it and bring about some kind of a balancing of interest with the most important part in the world. So there are choices to be made, choices that India has to make, but choices also China has to make.

Now, what choices we make depends upon how we are able to sit down together and when you talk about what has gone wrong with the earlier consensus, and what is a new consensus that now needs to be established between the two countries. Because that is what is required in order to put our relations on a more stable footing.


The China Academy Interview
In-depth conversations on China’s future, without limits
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