India-China Relations: Some Reflections
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Issue Vol 23.1 Jan-Mar2008 | Date : 21 Feb , 2011

India’s China policy has been marked by friendship, sentimentalism, fear, diffidence, brinksmanship, wishful thinking and engagement. This mixture of attitudes reflects the complexity of the relationship, our difficulties in managing China’s challenge, the nature of the Chinese regime, China’s strategic advantage over India, and the fulgurating rise of China in recent years.

If we are entitled to be wiser with hindsight, then it could be affirmed that we committed many mistakes in dealing with China soon after independence and since. Not having governed ourselves for a long time, and therefore bereft of practical experience in dealing with foreign powers, and having developed a disposition towards negotiations, dialogue, compromise and moral positioning during our independence struggle, we were perhaps not fully equipped to deal with external threats with robust realism. Our China hands must have crafted, in their thinking, the best possible approach towards that country then, but those making history have to contend with history’s implacable judgment. It can’t be argued  that with available information, and the perceived circumstances of the moment, the best possible was done. This would suggest, unacceptably, that mistakes are never made, but are only discovered later with the benefit of hindsight!

Some very far-reaching strategic mistakes were made in not comprehending the Maoist take-over of China and its implications for India. Mao seized China through revolutionary violence, India through a non-violent struggle. Chinas leaders were communist, Indias were nurtured in democratic thinking.

Some very far-reaching strategic mistakes were made in not comprehending the Maoist take-over of China and its implications for India. Mao seized China through revolutionary violence, India through a non-violent struggle. China’s leaders were communist, India’s were nurtured in democratic thinking. Mao’s China wanted to settle historical wrongs against the country, Gandhi and Nehru wanted to forget and forgive historical wrongs. In one country the militants had wrested power, in the other pacifists assumed power through a constitutional process. The political trajectories of the two countries and the nature of their leadership were so different, that a clash of thinking and ambitions should have been seen as likely.

The hand-holding of China by India at Bandung and elsewhere, in the romantic belief that these two Asian giants could together redress the balance of power in Asia, long dominated by the West, was an error of judgement. It is not clear why the rise of communism in China on the back of a peasant revolution, and the threat this ideology inherently presented to poor Asian societies riven by social injustice and deprivation and needing land reforms, should not have been factored into policy by a rural, socially fractured country like India. Why India chose to alleviate South-East Asian concerns about the communist leaders of China might have made sense in the context of notions of Asian solidarity, of breaking free of foreign policy bondage to the West, of de-colonising Asia, of rejection of imperialism, of carving a leadership role in Asia and beyond by newly independent India, it nonetheless denoted a degree of naivete on our part.

While India’s recognition of communist China was unquestionably right, India’s undeterred support for Communist China to take Taiwan’s place in the UN, and later in the Security Council, not to mention Nehru’s rejection of overtures to occupy China’s seat as a permanent member of the Security Council, today look piquantly ironical in the face of China’s opposition to India becoming its equal in a Security Council restructured to reflect the realities of 2007 and not those of 1945.

Also read: Obama’s gesture to China on Eve of Indian visit

India could not physically prevent China from militarily occupying Tibet in 1950, but the dangerous strategic consequences of this for India’s security should have been flagrantly obvious. A political and geographical buffer was being removed for the first time in history. Given the absence of a formally demarcated border in the western sector and China’s position on the MacMahon line, China’s occupation of Tibet should have rung alarm bells in India, as it could have been foreseen that the Chinese would sooner or later assert their physical control over the entire Tibetan border as they saw it. India took Chinese protestations at face value that their maps showing large chunks of Indian territory as theirs were old KMT maps, which would be rectified in time. India also harboured the illusion that it could unilaterally demarcate the boundary on maps on the basis of historical data and earlier cartographic lines. This strategy, as events would show, failed disastrously.

India could not physically prevent China from militarily occupying Tibet in 1950, but the dangerous strategic consequences of this for Indias security should have been flagrantly obvious.

In a case of remarkably poor investment in political futures, one of trading present concessions for future show of goodwill by the recipient, we gave up all our extra-territorial rights and gave legal recognition to Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, satisfying ourselves with a so-called autonomy for it which we would have no means to enforce, and failed to link these major  concessions to a settlement of the boundary issue, or at least a clear framework for its resolution. In 1959, when the Dalai Lama flew to India , we rightly  granted him asylum, but erred in laying a condition that he would not engage in any political activity on Indian soil. We gave up thus the Tibetan card voluntarily and despite the 1962 conflict with China and its grating claims on our territory based on Tibetan history, we have not retaliated by using the Dalai Lama’s presence in India, and his affinity with us, to pointedly pressurise China in Tibet.

Unforeseen at that time, as the communists had not yet taken over in China and the thrust into Aksai Chin had yet to occur, India made another grievous strategic error, with long term consequences for our security, by not securing for itself the Northern territories in J&K state. The result is Pakistan’s geographical contiguity with China, permitting the Karakoram highway, a strategic artery, to be built, which today gives China access to the Indian Ocean, along with the possibility of linking a network of roads in Central Asia to this highway, and on to Gwadar. Ironically, the British empire, and later the West, fought for the control of Afghanistan to deny Russia access to these very warm waters that China has obtained without a fight, through the bounty of a country that allied itself with the West to fight against communism!

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kanwal Sibal

is the former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.

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