Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (retired) is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University, Beijing, and a China Forum expert. He is graduate of the Air Force Engineering College and has an MPhil in International Relations from St Edmund College, Cambridge University. He started his military service in 1979 and has served in different posts in Guangzhou Air Force Regional Command. From 1993, he has held senior-level posts in the West Asia and Africa Bureau, and in the Chinese Defence Ministry.
He has published more than 100 essays in English in journals such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Financial Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.
Excerpts from an interview with Frontline:
Why do you believe there has been an alarming rise in tensions along the LAC after 2017? Do you believe that muscular nationalism in both countries plays a role?
The fundamental reason for the tension, I believe, is not because of nationalism on the Chinese side. China has good reasons to make sure that the border between China and India is peaceful. This kind of thing didn’t happen just now; it happened quite often in the past. And if we look at the bigger picture, there is no reason whatsoever from the Chinese side to add pressure on India on the Line of Actual Control when China is forced into competition with the United States. And when the Taiwan issue is becoming difficult for China to handle, particularly because of the ruling DPP party in Taiwan and the interference from the United States.
I have been in quite a few bilateral seminars on this issue and I always told my friends in India, if you believe China is purposefully ambushing India on the border issue, that is totally wrong. There’s no need for us to do that. So I don’t agree with what you have described; that nationalism plays a role in Chinese decision-making. And on the part of India, in my conversations with Indian friends, they talked about China building roads leading to the border areas, as if China is doing it purposefully to increase its defence along the border. The fact is both sides are building roads leading to the border.
And there is another reason, that is, China has been making great efforts to alleviate poverty. We find through experience that good roads lead to a better life. This is one of the conclusions we have drawn from our reforms in the last 40 years. This is also one of the reasons why China is promoting the Belt and Road Initiative because China is really good at infrastructure building. So, when we are building these road connections across China, especially when it comes to the border, would it be taken by the other side as a kind of military measure? Well, you can say that a highway or expressway could be used for an aircraft taking off, but it’s not the primary purpose for building a road. I think if you look from the other side, there could be a kind of misunderstanding.
But does China have any problems with India’s accelerated infrastructure building along the LAC?
I think this is like the typical dilemma in the arms race. You know, whatever one side is doing might be viewed by the other side as a kind of a build-up. If there is acrimony or hostility between the two sides, this could just cause the other side to do something. When I was working on South Asian affairs a long time ago, I always heard things like how Indians are building roads on their side, therefore we are in the inferior position…. My conclusion is, probably because China is better in infrastructure building, so our roads are probably better or we are building roads faster.
Tensions have noticeably risen since 2017, since the Doklam incident. If my view is correct, the Doklam incident was a turning point in relations between the two countries...
It is most unfortunate to see what happened in Doklam, especially because, first of all, we have maintained peace for quite some time, for decades after 1993. And the Doklam incident is really a big surprise to China in that we know India believes that this is Bhutanese territory while we in China believe this is Chinese territory. But at least neither side believes this is Indian territory.
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No, but the border was between Bhutan and China, not between India and China in Doklam, am I correct?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Even if India believes this is Bhutanese territory, and we believe this is Chinese territory, none of us would believe this is Indian territory, right? So, why would India jump in to have this kind of interference? I did some research on your bilateral relationship with Bhutan, the India-Bhutan friendship treaty in 2007 only obliges you to cooperate closely with each other on issues related to the national interest. This actually came a long way from what you had in the past, for example, the treaty in 1949 that made clear that Bhutanese foreign policy and foreign affairs have to be guided by India.
So, if I compare this, I find that your relationship with Bhutan is not a very normal, country-to-country relationship. I assume in 2007 you found finally that it was really not appropriate for you to guide another country’s foreign policy. Why would you guide a country’s foreign policy? Because that means you have actually succeeded the British government in “guiding” Bhutanese foreign policy. And then in 2007, you changed it to say you would cooperate closely on issues relating to the national interest. But even if this is all right, for you to send armed forces to stand between China and Bhutan went too far. I know in India it was widely taken as a victory on your side. I don’t believe it is a victory because it shows, in a very alarming way, how something that has nothing to do with India could become an issue between China and India. This is alarming for us, but I won’t say that this is the direct reason for the deadly brawl in the Galwan Valley. The fact is we also had casualties, as you did.
After former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping met, there was a long period of comparative calm along the LAC. Do you think another summit will help? I know President Xi was in India three years ago, and it didn’t really help. Do you think another meeting would be timely?
I think it would help tremendously because it is during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China that the leaders of the two countries actually put forward some general guidelines. Then in 1993, we had the first agreement of maintaining peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control. I saw Prime Minister Modi shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at G-20 in Bali for a very short time. Next year we’re going to have the G-20 in India. I believe Prime Minister Modi’s reaching out to President Xi is an olive branch. Because the border issue can be very difficult to resolve, I think some general guidelines and a reconfirmation for us to maintain peace and tranquillity along the border without any conflict best serve the interest of the two countries.
When people read about the conflict in the Galwan Valley, almost all the lessons they drew were negative, but I would still see something positive in this. The first point is that all the confidence-building measures in the past have worked. Why? Because neither side has attempted to shoot at the other side. This is the most important agreement between the two sides so far. That means subconsciously, no matter how the soldiers fought, they knew they should not shoot at each other, although to my knowledge, Indian soldiers did shoot into the sky as a kind of warning.
So, we cannot argue that these confidence-building measures, at least five of them, didn’t work at all. True, they are not fully implemented, but they have worked to the extent that the soldiers did not try to shoot at each other. This is so important that in the 21st century, two giants in Asia didn’t attempt to shoot each other in this kind of difficult situation. I believe this is a good lesson for both of us. If we bear this in mind, and if our leaders give us clear instructions that this kind of thing should never happen again, I believe we probably could have at least another 40 years of peace along the border. This is possible, although I’m not so confident about resolving the border issue any time soon.
“I believe the United States, along with Japan and Australia, would want to make Quad a kind of club that is against China.”Zhou Bo
Do you think India’s membership of the Quad has been a factor in the downslide in relations?
First of all, the formation of Quad is because of China… definitely. The real question is, is Quad against China? I believe the United States, along with Japan and Australia, would want to make it a kind of club that is against China. India, of course, is a lynchpin in that the other three are already allies. Therefore, India’s attitude is critical. But I’m somewhat convinced that India so far has refused to make it the “Anti-China Club”. If you look at Quad, currently the only military element is a military exercise called the Malabar.
It is evolving in many other directions like the distribution of vaccines, infrastructure, climate change. Actually, I have some doubts about how effective it would be if it is addressing an issue like climate change, because climate change is a universal problem. It cannot be resolved by four countries alone. So, I don’t think Quad will become a kind of NATO or mini-NATO organisation. Actually, I have some confidence in your foreign policy being independent or not being siphoned away so easily.
You mean you believe India will retain its strategic autonomy in foreign policy?
Yes, I think so.
But, despite everything, China continues to be India’s biggest trading partner. And India is still active in the BRICS, the RIC, and the SCO. So I think there is still a lot of scope for cooperation.
Of course, I totally agree. Some Indians think too much about how India’s rejection of joining the BRI would be a blow to China. I don’t think so, because BRI is so big, and you are already a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The AIIB is actually having a lot of things to do with the BRI. I know you reject it because it passes through Jammu and Kashmir. But sometimes I consider BRI to be a dotted line, not a whole line that is seamless. This is a Chinese proposal, if some other countries join it, of course we’re happy. But if some other countries have some reservations for certain reasons, we understand. In spite of this issue, we’re having good cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and in BRICS.
I want to tell you something bigger than this. I truly believe the Asian century has already arrived. Very few people disagree that international geopolitics is shifting towards East Asia. And the war in Ukraine, in my opinion, will just accelerate this process. Of course, the war in the heart of Europe is raging on without a deadline. So things will move faster towards East Asia and people’s attention will be drawn to this part of the world. But the point I want to make is that it’s not only China standing tall in East Asia, it’s also because of the rise of other countries and organisations—such as India, Indonesia and organisations like ASEAN. So this rise is a collective rise of Asia. The Asian century has already arrived.
In 10 years, China might become the largest economy in the world. I say “might” because there are some doubts about it now given that the Chinese economy has slowed down and the Chinese population is ageing. But it’s hard to say because according to the IMF, the Chinese economy this year could be more than 5 per cent. Could we maintain this 5 percent in 10 years to come? I don’t know, but if we can, then we will become the largest economy in the world and you would become the third largest economy in the world. So how we deal with each other becomes critical since the relationship is totally different.
“The fundamental reason for the tension is not because of nationalism on the Chinese side. China has good reasons to make sure that the border between China and India is peaceful.”Zhou Bo
China has solved its land border issues with all countries except India. Why? What is the real reason? Is it because it’s too complicated, the legacy of British imperialism, the way the map was drawn?
I think the border issue is too complicated. There’s no reason why China doesn’t want to resolve the border issue with India. You see, the border is complicated to the extent that even the most simple things cannot be agreed upon. For example, we believe the border is 2,000 kilometres and you believe it’s 3,488 km. If we cannot even agree on the length of the border, how can we possibly resolve it? And yes, historically, the Chinese idea is to have a kind of swap of land… the western sector with the eastern sector, but India disagrees. The Chinese approach is a top-down approach; let’s have the swap, and then we start to do something in detail. And you say, well, the fundamental reason for this problem is because we do not know where the Line of Actual Control runs. So let’s verify it first. Your approach is bottom-up.
I have been a Chinese military expert in border negotiations back in the 1990s, so I know how difficult this issue is. For example, we changed our maps to see where the dispute areas are in the eyes of the other side, but we could not agree that these are the disputed areas. But what I want to say is, at least, we have five agreements on confidence-building regarding maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC. These five agreements are very important.
I found China actually has more confidence-building measures with India than with any other country—from 1993 to 2003. With the United States, for example, we only have a couple of agreements. And those are very general too. But between China and India, our agreements even mentioned how we should not conduct exercises above the division level along the LAC; how we should notify each other if we have a brigade-level exercise; how we should not fly aircraft within 10 kilometres of the LAC; how we should not follow the other side in patrol. These are very detailed.
Because of the clash in Galwan Valley, some people argue that the confidence-building measures have failed. I disagree. I would say they are still very useful. If you have even talked about such details of how patrolling troops should behave during encounters, what new measures are needed? But I shall be happy if people can point out that I am really wrong.
We need political commitment to not let this happen again. I believe we should comb through these measures to see how we can really, seriously implement all of them. Some things are difficult, for example, like the 1993 agreement to verify the LAC, that is difficult. But there are so many things that can actually be done. For example, I have suggested even in my writing that the two militaries should deconflict from the most dangerous standoff points. And this happened exactly as I said. For example, we have deconflicted from the Pangong Tso lake, from Hot Spring, etc. This is how I believe things could be managed.
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The new Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, said in one of his first statements that one of his priorities is to improve relations with India and ease tensions along the LAC. I think that’s a good move. But, I think a reciprocal move is still being awaited from the Indian side.
I think your observation is correct. I actually believe the Indian government’s attitude is becoming slightly like India’s attitude before Rajiv Gandhi visited China. That is, let’s deal with the border issue and until it is dealt with properly, the other fields of the relationship cannot improve substantively…. I think this is wrong, and market forces can prove it is wrong.
In 2021, in spite of the Indian government’s bashing of Chinese companies, bilateral trade still reached a historical record. That means the ties between the two countries are stronger now, supported by more positive elements. If the China-India relationship is not only about the border issue, this is a healthy thing. I really hope the Indian government can think about this from a more diversified perspective. As I mentioned, we do not want this border issue to become a flashpoint between us again.
- The fundamental reason for the (border) tension is not because of nationalism on the Chinese side. China has good reasons to make sure that the border between China and India is peaceful.
- China is not building up its infrastructure in border areas to increase its defence.
- China has been making great efforts to alleviate poverty. We find through experience that good roads lead to a better life.
- Whatever one side is doing might be viewed by the other side as a kind of a build-up. If there is acrimony or hostility between the two sides, this could just cause the other side to do something.
- Prime Minister Modi’s reaching out to President Xi is an olive branch.
- Because the border issue can be very difficult to resolve, I think some general guidelines and a reconfirmation for us to maintain peace and tranquillity along the border without any conflict best serve the interest of the two countries.