During a heated debate in parliament before the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Prime Minister Nehru declared that he favored peace over war with China, making it clear that he was willing to negotiate with the Communist nation till the bitter end to resolve border disputes.
Shortly thereafter, India’s pacifist founding leader got the shock of his life when his “brotherly” neighbor invaded his country, shattering Nehru’s view that by befriending China he could reduce the likelihood of its expansionism.
What is the prudent strategy for India in a new world that is certain to see China’s rise and U.S. attempts to contain it?
Despite having that memory still fresh in their minds, Indian leaders even today would reiterate Nehru’s pledge. However, the vexing question is: What is the prudent strategy for India in a new world that is certain to see China’s rise and U.S. attempts to contain it?
India’s decision will greatly depend on how China plays its cards. China’s behavior, on the other hand, will be dictated by India’s economic and military conditions. A strong India would make China more willing to be flexible; a feeble democracy could tempt it to be bellicose.
To be sure, few expect India and China to plunge into a war, at least in the short-run.
When I asked Henry Kissinger last November if China could attack India in the next 25 years, he dismissed the possibility outright. “Stakes are too high,” the former U.S. secretary of state said, adding there is nothing to be gained by either side.
Nehru made an even more dire observation 50 years ago: A military conflict involving two great countries like India and China would mean “indefinite” war because neither would give in and neither could conquer the other.
Still, given the new world reality India today finds itself between a rock and a hard place: China versus United States. To some, the choice is easy, but there are others who face a harsh agony.
Can India trust the United States?
India’s world views since independence had been shaped by its traumatic experience with imperialism. Nearly two centuries-long foreign subjugation has left the Indians deeply distrustful of the West. New Delhi has seen the United States at the West’s torchbearer. This explains, for example, why India differs with the United States on armed intervention in Libya, Syria and Iran.
…the confidence with which India turned to the United States in 1962 after the Chinese invasion suggests an underlying trust in Washington.
But the confidence with which India turned to the United States in 1962 after the Chinese invasion suggests an underlying trust in Washington. This could manifest again under new circumstances. Recent movements in Washington-Delhi diplomacy bear this forecast out.
Frosty Indo-U.S. relations started gathering momentum in 1982 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Washington. The technology-transfer protocol signed by her successor, Rajiv Gandhi, was a definite landmark. With economic reforms and arms deals, Prime Minister Singh has placed India squarely in the Western camp, replacing non-alignment. Main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party signed on long ago.
Many Indians, however, oppose supporting the United States against China. They fear that U.S. policy could change, and the United States could withdraw from Asia, leaving its allies exposed to China’s rising power. The United States, however, has its own interest to forge closer ties with Asian nations this time around.
With the Cold War now history and China’s rise almost inevitable, America needs strong allies in Asia. Long seen as “strategic backwater” from Washington’s perspective, India has emerged as vital to core U.S. foreign policy interests. Japan’s feeble military makes it an insufficient deterrent against China. Hence, India is a “natural partner,” one that has the potential to be a counterweight to China. By inviting the Indian prime minister as his first state guest, President Obama reaffirmed the importance the United States places on its strategic partnership with India.
Despite some reservations, Congressional approval of warm Indo-U.S. relations is widespread. President George W. Bush’s national security strategy underscored that “U.S. interests require a strong relationship with India.” Pentagon officials estimate India will buy up to $5 billion worth of conventional weapons from the United States, including platforms that can be used for monitoring the Chinese military.
With the Cold War now history and China’s rise almost inevitable, America needs strong allies in Asia.
If the Chinese military pursues an ultra-nationalist agenda, the United States could strike back with military actions. U.S. military analysts see China flexible on trade, but rigid on security matters, such as nuclear and missile exports to Pakistan and the Middle East. China’s behavior is attributed to profit motives, although its military strategy, which includes encircling India, plays a big part. With Pakistan in line, China holds one more stick to use against India.
Some Indians still consider an India-China pact on the border issue more important than warming up to the United States, although one former Indian defense minister called China “potential threat number one.” In New Delhi, there are influential leftists who oppose India playing second fiddle to America. Nevertheless, the U.S.-India defense caravan is moving forward no matter how many dogs bark in Delhi, as one Indian put it.
Can India trust China?
No doubt, China would prefer to have good relations with India. These two nations have some common agenda items. Both seek to gain more influence in international affairs and curtail what they see as the excesses of American power.
China realizes that the coming together of the world’s two largest countries could tilt balances against the United States. It simultaneously wants to push India into a cage to curb New Delhi’s power to challenge Beijing.
China’s strength and dynamism and its ambitions for political hegemony are elements of concern. Beijing’s track record makes it hard to trust the Chinese. China duped India at least three times on Tibet and the border disputes.
China realizes that the coming together of the world’s two largest countries could tilt balances against the United States.
China assured India’s UN delegation in 1950 that its military would not march on Lhasa. Based on this pledge, the Indians blocked the Communist regime’s censure in the United Nations. Nehru himself publicly supported China’s position, arguing that Tibet should be handled only by the parties concerned — Beijing and Lhasa. China later went back on its promise and used force in Tibet.
Chou En-lai told Nehru in 1954 that Beijing had no claims on territories controlled by India, although Kuomintang-era maps put Arunachal Pradesh inside China. He dismissed them as just old maps that had not yet been corrected. Chou concealed China’s real intention to avoid an immediate conflict with India.
In 1956, Chou told Nehru that China would accept the McMahon line as the Sino-Indian border. He reconfirmed his pledge when Nehru wrote to him two years later. Nehru accepted at face value Chou’s implied assurances. China displayed its true nature in 1962 by invading India.
India had been suspicions of China, especially since the Chinese occupied Tibet. In 1960, Nehru told U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker that the Chinese had an “aggressive nature.” This nature usually manifested when they felt themselves powerful. As the “Middle Kingdom” people, they considered themselves above everyone else, and they included India in a second-class category.
Nehru’s answer lay in his focus on developing India’s economy to create a national power base capable of resisting any Chinese military provocation. However, even in 1960 China’s growth rates far outstripped India’s. Superior economic performance gave Beijing an edge to build a more powerful army. India never managed to catch up.
Nehru shunned foreign aid in an attempt to preserve India’s freedom and its place in the world. He wanted India to walk ”with its head held high, not bowing to anyone.” This posture yielded less than desired results. In the context of the disputes with China, Nehru’s action was not an answer at all, but an implicit admission that India lacked the military power to evict the Chinese.
History must not repeat itself.