How China is killing India’s dream of leading Asia?


In India, there is a robust debate among academics, politicians and journalists that China, conscious of its centrality as the Middle Kingdom and the largest continuous empire in Asia and the world from the early 1950s had a grand design to reassert itself as the pre-eminent power in Asia. India had a history of transient Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim empires, based more on ephemeral, mercenary conquests of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious periphery like the Ottoman Empire than on an ancient, homogeneous, cultural core, like China. By the eighteenth century, the last Indian ‘Mughal Empire’ was so weakened by tension between a declining central authority and strong local rulers that it could no longer resist British interference and submission. After Indian independence in 1947, India re-emerged as the new leading power of Asia with the brilliant, cosmopolitan Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the authentic voice of the whole resurgent Orient. As a globetrotting intellectual, Nehru had visited the Soviet Union in 1927 and China in 1939. He then told Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek: ‘More and more, I think of India and China pulling together in the future’. Nehru had the worldview of a sentimental leftist British aristocrat and ticked off the US as ‘uncouth and uncultured, unrivalled in technology but predatory in its capitalism’. He visited the United States for the first time in 1949 when he was prime minister. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson found him ‘prickly and arrogant one of the most difficult people I ever had to deal with’. Chester Bowles, US ambassador in New Delhi from 1951-1953, later criticized Acheson’s attitude towards Nehru as ‘immature and ridiculous to jump to the conclusion that because he [Nehru] is not 100 per cent for us, he must be against us’. Under Acheson’s successor, John Foster Dulles, things would become worse. Dulles decisively wrecked Indo-US relations when he signed a military pact with Pakistan in February 1954: ‘Dulles wanted pacts, Pakistan wanted money and arms’. Nehru had further angered Dulles by his tireless campaigning for the recognition of the People’s Republic of China and his insistence that it be given the permanent seat in the UN Security Council that was then occupied by Taiwan. Americans felt that Nehru had ‘entered the arena of world politics as a champion challenging American wisdom’. 

Thus was the intellectual and global strategic setting for India’s relations with South Asia and the world in the 1950s, which was in staggering fast-forward mode. The first world-shattering change had been the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and it took most countries years, and the United States decades, to come to terms with that. How did India adjust ? Nehru’s first ambassador to Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was K.M. Pannikar, like Nehru himself a high-powered intellectual. After the promulgation of the PRC in 1949, Nehru kept Pannikar as ambassador to the new communist state and as such he soon met Chairman Mao Zedong. Pannikar wrote that Mao reminded him of his own boss, Nehru, ‘for both are men of action with dreamy, idealistic temperaments’ and both ‘may be considered humanists in the broadest sense of the term’. A few months after his meeting with Pannikar, who was representing a power that had historical interests in Tibet, Mao ordered the invasion of the mediaeval theocracy across the Himalayas. The Indian ambassador had to learn about it from All India Radio. Sardar Valabhbhai Patel, the great administrative unifier of India and its princely states and Nehru’s deputy, was shocked at Pannikar’s naivety. As a hyper-realist, he had warned earlier that he saw in Chinese communism nothing but an ‘extreme form of nationalism’. Now he urged his boss to be ‘alive to the new danger from China’, make India militarily strong and no longer to pursue pro-China policies, such as advocating China’s entry into the UN Security Council. Patel also hinted that India should give up its policy of neutrality and non-alignment in favour of an alliance with the West. Nehru was not going to listen. He thought it a pity that Tibet could not be saved, yet he considered it exceedingly unlikely that India would now face an attack from China; it was inconceivable that they would ‘undertake a wild adventure across the Himalayas’. He thought that ‘communism means inevitably an expansion towards India as rather naive’. Regardless of the events in Tibet, India should still seek ‘some kind of understanding’ with Beijing, for ‘India and China at peace with each other would make a vast difference to the whole set-up and balance of the world’. One month later, Sardar Patel died. Now there was no longer opposition at the top-level against Nehru’s policy of ‘understanding’ with China. In 1952, Nehru’s younger sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, met Mao and Zhou Enlai in Beijing. She was deeply impressed by both, and in a letter to her brother she wrote about Mao: ‘As with the Mahatma, the public doesn’t just applaud him, they worship him’. Mrs Pandit had been ambassador to Moscow previously and could not resist comparisons; in the end she was not sure whether Mao reminded her more of Gandhi than of Stalin.
The monumental question is whether revolutionary, totalitarian China already in the 1950s had a premeditated policy of lulling neutralist, pacifist, soft social-democratic India into a false sense of security, deceiving it at every twist and turn, challenging Nehru’s status as a leading world statesman and India’s as the leader of the Afro-Asian world. The answer, or my answer at least, is no, not yet. Subsequent events in the post-Mao era and beyond, and then arguing backwards, make it quite persuasive that China has always pursued a policy of containing India and obstructing Indian primacy in South Asia. However, the chronology and chain of causation of events does not support such an assumption.
After US Secretary of State Dulles had lured Pakistan into two anti-communist military pacts in 1954 and India in response became a military client state of the Soviet Union, China was of course acutely worried. Its east coast was already under blockade by the US. China’s first step to counter total isolation was to strengthen its border with India, by building a road link between Xinjiang and Tibet in 1956-1957. India accused China of land grabbing and perfidy, whereas the Aksai Chin Plateau through which the road ran was evidently disputed land. Had India been willing during the 1950s to recognize that Aksai Chin and also the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA, from 1985 known as Arunachal Pradesh) were disputed rather than unmistakable Indian territories that should have been the focus of negotiations and compromise, and had the Dalai Lama not fled to India and received political asylum there in 1959, could rapid deterioration of relations and war in 1962 have been avoided? After the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, China’s geostrategic position was further weakened and India’s was strengthened because it was now a quasi-ally, and from 1971 onwards a full ally, of Soviet-Russia. Mao probably chose the Cuban Crisis in October 1962, when Washington and Moscow were fully preoccupied with each other, as the timing for his border war with India, delivering a body blow to India and Nehru, which was an early prelude to China’s resurgence as a great power and India’s downgrading to secondary status.  
The US rushed to the aid of India, the latest victim of ‘communist aggression’. This was overwhelming evidence for Pakistan that America could not be trusted, opening the way for China and the Sino-Pakistani axis. Whether this was Mao’s calculus or an unintended result of the war is as yet unclear, but it was a long-term strategic gain for China, which was blockaded and surrounded by a string of American-led military alliances in the east and by the Soviet Union in the north and west. Pakistan became China’s back door to West Asia, the Middle East and the world at large. Pakistan even became the conduit and logistical base for the United States to initiate its détente with China when Pakistan’s military ruler, General Yahya Khan, personally arranged Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in 1971, which was the harbinger of President Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972, one of the truly epoch-making events of the twentieth century. India ended up on the wrong side of history, an economically stagnant partner of a decaying Soviet Union, an unenviable position that only changed after the end of the Cold War. The US alliance with Pakistan was defunct during the 1990s because of the Pressler Sanctions, and it was again China that softened the blow by generous offers of economic and technical aid. In addition to giving handouts, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called on Pakistan’s Sharif government to end disputes with India over Kashmir and instead to pursue economic development. Pakistan needed to reign in defence spending, which is consuming more than 6 per cent of its GDP.
Since ‘9-11’, the US has again poured billions of dollars into Pakistan as the frontline state with Afghanistan for the ‘war on terror’. Instead of a safe base for this war, Pakistan was in reality a dangerously unstable country, misruled for decades by US-supported military autocrats, corrupt civilians and more recently increasingly undermined by Islamists and terrorists. The United States has made a major effort to normalize Pakistan by means of an ideology-driven plan to restore democracy with the late Benazir Bhutto as the saviour of the nation to be. With her violent assassination on December 27, 2007, it turned out differently. China, as the other longstanding ally of Pakistan and aspiring superpower, bears a good share of the responsibility to help clean up the Pakistani mess. A Chinese specialist in South Asian politics at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), Hu Shisheng described how vital a stable Pakistan is for China: 
We will contribute to its stabilization. A stable Pakistan is very important for us to build a stable Xinjiang. A disintegrated or dismantled Pakistan will be a disaster for us. We already know that during the American campaign in Afghanistan and operations in Pakistan, Uygurs were caught there. There are huge tribal areas there which have run themselves for centuries. Without close cooperation with Pakistan, how can China ensure stability there?
Asked what role China would play in restoring some degree of normalcy in Pakistan, another senior specialist in China-India relations at CICIR, Ma Jiali, admitted that China has no strategy and not even a clue about how to put Pakistan’s house in order.
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