Ladakh resolution makes reset possible: Ex-envoy

India’s former top diplomat Vijay Gokhale thinks a mutually acceptable resolution in eastern Ladakh — and lessons learnt from it by both sides– may make it ‘possible and feasible’ for the highest leaderships on both sides to reset the somewhat derailed bilateral relationship between the two Asian giants.

“Modi and Xi have a good measure of each other and share mutual respect. They should be able to talk about the identity misperceptions and possible ways of reconciling their respective visions,” writes Gokhale in a detailed paper entitled “The Road From Galwan : The Future of India-China Relations” published by Carnegie India, where he is now a non-resident Senior Fellow.

Gokhale, like Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, is an old China hand, both having served as India’s ambassador to Beijing before they rose to become foreign secretaries.

“A key consideration could be whether China can afford to have an antagonistic India on its border as it is moving to the center of the world stage and whether India can afford to close a door (or two, as Russia is also involved) to multi-alignment that has served it well.

A frank exchange followed by broad understandings might lead to a road map that could trigger a top-down review of the relationship.

“If the two leaders are able to achieve this, there are political-level personalities on both sides with adequate experience, including the respective national security advisers (or equivalent) and foreign ministers, who can translate the broad understandings into policy. This might be the only way of building understanding and, over time, trust,” Gokhale says in his 15,000-words paper.

The former Indian foreign secretary thinks it might also help to “deal with specific questions at the functional levels, where both sides have different systems of decision making and styles of negotiation, so that the two sides do more than simply speak past each other”.

Vijay Gokhale outlines some factors he feels hold the key to improving Sino-Indian relations.

*Both sides should treat the military escalation in eastern Ladakh with equal seriousness.

*Even after the resolution of the present standoff in eastern Ladakh, both sides may be in a prolonged period of armed coexistence as a new normal. As the forces on both sides are likely to be relatively balanced, it would be advantageous for both to return to the agreements and understandings from 1993 onward and improve upon them. Clarifying the LAC is a crucial step in this effort.

*India has flagged the unsustainable trade imbalance at the front and center of the relationship, and this has gone unaddressed. China will need to work on resolving the trade deficit with India. At any rate, decoupling will happen selectively, in the same way and for the same reasons that China is choosing to decouple from the United States. A balanced trade and economic relationship might lay a solid foundation for future relations, given the size of both economies.

*Better understanding of each other’s regional initiatives through open dialogue is important to build trust. The Indo-Pacific vision is as much a developmental necessity for India as the BRI may be to China. Part of building trust must be an open discussion on each other’s intentions in key regions-South Asia and the northern Indian Ocean and East Asia and the western Pacific-as well as respect for each other’s special positions in the western Pacific and northern Indian Oceans.

*The two sides would need to accommodate the legitimate interests of the other side on key partnerships: China’s with Pakistan and India’s with the United States. These may not be desirable, but in the current circumstances neither will give up its partners, and both India and China could talk through a modus vivendi on the red lines of concern.

*Acknowledgment of India’s multilateral aspirations by China is overdue. If China can accommodate India’s role, there may be ample scope for both to collaborate on a range of issues from global health and climate change to standard setting in new technologies. It is as much in India’s interest to ensure that the rules for the digital revolution are not merely written by those who dominated the world in the previous two centuries.

*Public trust in China has been deeply damaged and is unlikely to recover for some time. Indians believe that China took advantage of the pandemic to bully India. Ways to rebuild public trust need to be identified.

“The prospects of forward movement will depend on the lessons that China and India draw from the Ladakh crisis. If Chinese strategic experts believe that India-China relations hold no great prospects in the current international scenario and that India is already a quasi-ally of the United States, then it may be difficult to manage the bilateral differences and a period of more violent confrontation may arrive,” Gokhale warns in his paper.

“If Indian strategic experts believe that Beijing is intent on bullying or humiliating India because China’s superiority in comprehensive national power allows it to permanently reset the frontier or to permanently damage India’s global or regional profile or standing, then too, the situation might become confrontational,” he qualifies immediately.

Gokhale says that if the Chinese strategic community reevaluates its approach to India, and if China accepts that its India policy has not fully factored in the new realities about India and its importance in the region for facilitating or hindering China’s rise, then a new basis could form for a relationship.

“The two countries are standing at a crossroads, and this might be the final chance to take the path to co-existence of cooperation and competition. If not, a new phase of antagonistic rivalry may be starting, with the countries sliding into possible confrontation as the strategic periphery of China collides with the strategic backyard of India in the Indian Ocean region,” Gokhale says rather prophetically.

This writer forwarded Gokhale’s paper to three Chinese academics who closely study South Asia for comments.

All three, on condition of anonymity because they need to secure official permission to comment publicly, praised the paper.

“It is very detailed and objective. There is much food for thought,” said one academic based in Yunnan.

Another based in Beijing said “the paper would be an essential read for all Chinese policy-makers dealing with India and South Asia”.

A third, based in Shanghai, lauded “the depth of understanding and objectivity” in the paper.