‘India has an Act East policy and China’s Belt and Road goes West, so we did meet somewhere midway.’
Colonel Zhou Bo works for China’s Office for International Military Cooperation which comes under Ministry of National Defence. The Beijing-based senior Colonel Bo is director of the Centre for Security Cooperation. Bo gave an exclusive interview to The Sunday Guardian at the Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore. He spoke eloquently on China’s stand on South China Sea and other issues.
Q: How and where is the convergence of interests between India and China taking place in South Asia?
A: India has an “Act East” policy and our “Belt and Road” goes West, so we did meet somewhere midway. A kind of complementarity is there. 55% of your trade goes through South China Sea and we have a huge and enormous investment in the Indian Ocean. Be it the security of our nationals or the investment in property, there is no competition between China and India in the Indian Ocean or in the South China Sea.
Q: How do you interpret Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at IISS, where he elaborated on this issue, the maritime issue and on the entire Indo-Pacific region?
A: I think his remarks are well reflected in the Chinese media and I would say that his speech is a well balanced speech. He talked about India’s ambition. He laid great emphasis on India’s interaction with ASEAN countries. He gave lengthy remarks in that regard and he also talked about India-China relationship and also how he had conversation with President Xi Jinping about how to build a more healthy relationship that is crucial for the two countries. So I think he tried to make his speech balanced on India-China relationship. On the Indo-Pacific issue, he didn’t talk of an alliance but described Indo-Pacific as a free and open zone, which is a fact.
So I would like to stress upon one point that is how China and India actually have similar views on “freedom of navigation”. Yes, this might be surprising for you. Let me explain. A lot of your senior leaders talk about “freedom of navigation”, but in 1995, India has informed in writing to the UN that you have reservation for Article 298 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea if it comes to territorial dispute. China has the same reservation for the same article. India has made it clear in writing to the UN that if foreign countries want to conduct military exercises in the Exclusive Economic Zone, it has to have the consent of the Indian government, especially if it involves weapons and explosives.
Q: Is this about the Indian Ocean?
A: Yes, the Exclusive Economic Zones of India. That would be in the Indian Ocean. But China issued its PRC law on Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf in 1998, which says in line with international law and China’s domestic laws, foreign vessels and aircraft could enjoy freedom of navigation. In China’s law, we did not mention the foreign military activities in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone. So if you compare, I would say India’s restrictions on foreign military activities are even stronger. Your reservations can be found in the website of the UN. The question is that if your people talk about freedom of navigation, are they sure what they are talking about, given what you have notified UN? My argument is, if we just talk about this in very general term, it won’t be very much productive.
Q: Why did America change the name of its command from US-Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command? US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that this was US’ theatre of priority.
A: I certainly cannot give any authoritative opinion on the question since it is a decision made by them. I could only guess because they have coined this concept of Indo-Pacific. They have to do something to convince people about their intention. So this kind of changing name is just a reflection of what they have done, but it is not much of significance because it is just a change of name.
Q: It will remain so for generations now.
A: Let me quote Shakespeare. He said in Romeo and Juliet, that if you call a rose by any other name, it is still sweet, right? But my argument is that if something is not a rose, even if you call it rose, it is still not sweet.
Q: Is China concerned?
A: Certainly not. But still we have to see how it might evolve. We have confidence in the independence of Indian foreign policy. Because both China and India have independent foreign policy. Because of the fact that you are one of the founders of the non-alliance movement.
I think, you would be very much cautious in not to be seen by any parties to come into hostile alliance against others. So we have confidence in the wisdom of India.
Q: In the IISS conference the issue of South China Sea has been of prominence. So from the Chinese point of view, don’t you sometimes feel isolated on this issue? The phrase freedom of navigation has become a rallying point for many countries and you saw in the last session how France and Britain came out strongly…
A: I don’t think China is isolated because we understand that the position of Western countries is more or less the same. But when it comes to South East Asia, people’s opinions are more diversified because we have discussed this with members of the ASEAN. And don’t forget that almost all ASEAN countries have territorial disputes with other ASEAN countries. The good thing is that ASEAN knows and we know that we are talking about a code of conduct. And this is something we have engaged ourselves with and let’s hope some kind of positive results will come out. And some of the ASEAN countries are worried with America’s military operations. If they sail into this region too often, then that becomes another issue that they have to face.
Q: What will happen, eventually, on the issue of South China Sea?
A: I hope nothing will happen. The wish of China and US is that no accident should happen. In this regard, actually US and China have established many confidence building measures. Quite a few of them. Just to prevent anything from happening like that military aircraft accident that happened a long time ago. It is a sincere wish to keep calm since these are connecting such large economies. We sincerely wish that something negative will not happen.
Q: If India does not join BRI how deeply will it reflect on India-China relations?
A: in the seminar before PM Modi’s speech, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav talked about Indian sovereignty. But I would say that of course we cannot force India to take this kind of initiative, it is China’s initiative. But could we think of another way that despite the territorial disputes of countries around the world—we have so many disputes, we will always live with disputes, sometimes, somewhere… Could we think about some form of cooperation despite the disputes? Because a good example is just inside us, in spite of our differences on the border, China and India have plenty of cooperation elsewhere.