M.L. Sondhi

Tribune, May 19, 1975

 Three interrelated conceptions of Indian national interest are reflected in the political horizon of Indo-China.  First, the most serious manifestations of international violence have occurred in Asia as a direct result of US and Soviet massive military aid.  While India has condemned the USA’s direct military intervention in Indo-China, the country’s decision making circles are not oblivious of the intensification of arms supplies by the Soviet Union and China in their mutual competition to spread their influence in the aftermath of the 1954 Geneva Conference.  The great human tragedy enacted in Indo-China conveys a most decisive lesson to Indians: the Vietnamese who died – no matter to which side they belonged – were killed by an American, or a Soviet or a Chinese bullet, but never by a Vietnamese one.  Although the Americans must take the maximum blame, yet in Indian eyes the Soviets and the Chinese must also share responsibility for systematically refusing to participate in peace-making and for dragging on hostilities for three decades.  As an Asian country, India is opposed to the policy of intervention by great powers on either side and in particular perceives the deleterious consequences of any build-up of weapons in Third World countries.  Indian national interest therefore lies in codifying constraints on the flow of weapons from the super powers to Asian countries.

 Tibetan Fallout

Second, while India has made blistering attacks on the USA establishing hegemonial relationships with Asian countries this country is interested in intimate contact and cooperation with countries like Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and Australia.  India is also interested in exploring a wide range of policy options with these countries while eschewing “cold war type” ideological polarisations.  Recalling its own experience, India has expressed anxiety over Chinese intentions which seem to be largely directed towards a disregard of national sentiment in small Asian countries.

The Tibetan crisis was the most dramatic and well-publicised event in the late fifties which crated political tension between India and China and no matter what may be said about Indian over-reaction to the Sino-Indian confrontation, the memory of the “disappearance” of Tibet explains the scepticism with which Indian policy-makers continue to react to the Chinese side of the argument.  China’s zeal over Vietnam suggests to Indian minds a case of equivocation when their cynical policy in Tibet and the bitter experience of the Tibetans is recalled.  Indian national interest did not require subscription to the American-sponsored “Domino Theory”, but having refused to identify Indian interests with the interests of one super power the USA, India cannot but adopt an increasingly critical attitude to any client-patron relationship which the other super power, the Soviet Union, or its ideological rival, the Peking regime, may try to create in Indo-China behind one façade or the other.  In developing Sino-Indian relations, while on the one hand India should give up the traumatic fears of 1962, it should not regard the chiliastic dreams of the rulers of Communist China as an inevitable historical development.  New Delhi must not hesitate to emphasise the harmful consequences of Chinese manifestos whose chief motivation is to encourage disintegrative influences on other Asian societies. It is essential to

 evaluate the motivations of Chou En-lai in his statement made not many years ago.  “India originally was not a single entity.  But the colonial rule of the British Empire fostered the Brahmin upper stratum’s idea of building up an Indian empire.”  It is worth remarking in this connection that the weight of evidence favours the interpretation that the Chinese always make probing operations to find out whether there is any scope for them to exploit the “uncertainties” in the minds of their opponents.  In the post-Vietnam period, Indian vigilance against any use of blackmail by China against smaller Asian countries will help India in identifying herself with popular aspirations.

In the immediate aftermath of the American debacle in Vietnam, there has been a tendency in Indian democratic circles to support the Communist arguments in the debate on the political and strategic issues.  India’s national interest is not to tip the scales against the US; it is rather to achieve a political order in Asia outside the strait-jackets provided by the Americans, the Chinese or the Soviets.  Indian society is committed to maintaining domestic freedom, and it also actively supports the protection of national independences.  Those who are now speaking of an inexorable tide of Chinese-style Communism in South-East Asia are confusing the radicalism of the peasant political movements in Vietnam with the Maoist prognosis for a Chinese sphere of influence in South-East Asia.

Moderating Role

Third, India sees for itself a long-term “moderating role” in the oceanic Asian region stretching from India to Indonesia and on to Japan.  It would be going too far at present to say that India is engaged in a competition with the super powers’ naval presence.  But there can be no disputing the fact that any government in India which is going to be successful in giving impetus to the growth of the Indian economy and the maintenance of Indian scientific and technological advance will have to free itself from the narrow range of manoeuvre sought to be imposed by the Russian-sponsored Collective Security Plan.

In retrospect it would now appear that the anxiety of Mr. Brezhnev to get the Indian signature to his proposals of Asian security was quite “realistic” from the Soviet point of view in order to cope with the serious problems which would arise between the Soviet Union and China after the American fiasco in Vietnam.  Indian national interest requires that India should function actively as an independent power in Asia and assume regional responsibilities without fear or favour.  It would be a basic mistake to accept the underlying assumptions of the Brezhnev plan and thereby increase the gap between New Delhi and the other Asian capitals at a time when Peking is hiding its political and military ambitions under the cover of an Asian revolutionary vision.  Those who claim that Vietnam is a watershed for Indian foreign policy do not know what they mean, unless they make it clear that they are in favour of removing the incubus of the Brezhnev Security Plan.

New Delhi has so far allowed itself to be intimidated into accepting the Chinese occupation of Tibet as a non-event.  Politically speaking, the Vietnam “victory” is in perfect conformity with the viewpoint and interests of the Tibetans led by the Dalai Lama.  If India and China are to normalise their relations, the complexities of the issue will not be comprehended unless Tibet is included as a test case of China’s intention to co-exist peacefully in Asia.

 Clear Answer

To those critics who say that Tibet is no longer a realistic issue, Vietnam provides a clear answer: If the Americans had a misplaced confidence in their theory of counter-insurgency, the Chinese may also find themselves undergoing stresses and strains in Tibet which may act as a damper on their hopes in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle.

China will discover a healthy respect for India if in place of legal warfare about the MacMahon line a new Indian outlook reflects the notion of long-term accommodation with China on the basis of the latter’s extrication from its own “Vietnam” of Tibet.

If Indian policy-makers are serious about the pursuit of an Asian détente, they must squarely face the political and strategic issues of every important Asian country.  Indian decision-makers should start taking India’s nuclear status seriously and draw the proper conclusions in the light of the failure of US reliability towards her allies in South-east Asia.  India which has challenged the Non-proliferation Treaty for its iniquity should not hesitate to respond more energetically to the search for a realistic way of creating a balance of power in Asia. It is not in Indian national interest that the Japanese should remain impaled on the horns of a dilemma about their nuclear future.

Mr. Kissinger has launched a frontal attack on India by saying that the Indian Pokharan Test “raises anew the spectre of an era of plentiful nuclear weapons”.  Thus Mr. Kissinger makes no bones about what he considers the illegitimacy of India’s distinction of being a peaceful nuclear power.  In fact Mr. Kissinger’s outburst provides a valuable lesson.  The time has come for India to make a fundamental innovation to mesh together its own nuclear diplomacy with that of other potential nuclear powers.  India should give up its ambivalence about the development of an indigenous nuclear weapons programme.  New Delhi should also generate counter-pressures in an Asian setting so that Tokyo is not pressurised to sign the NPT on the dotted line.  Japan’s emergence as a nuclear power will not be hated or despised by Indian public opinion.  India’s nuclear status has in fact widened New Delhi’s options for developing a peace order in Asia, but unfortunately there is little evidence that the South Block has made a sober assessment of India’s role as an emerging military and naval power in Asia.

It is not sufficient to lay down the basis upon which Indian foreign policy should be reconstructed after the US failure in Vietnam.  It will be a fatal mistake to ignore the lesson Vietnam holds for domestic policy-making if India is to retain internal peace and security.  It is cynical of the Indian elite to talk of the quagmire in which the USA was caught in Vietnam because it ignored the aspirations of Vietnamese agrarian society.  The Indian elite continue to callously ignore the welfare of the bulk of India’s rural population and does not realise that the domestic situation is also pregnant with the same dangers which created the conflagration in Indo-China.  Eight years ago, long before the regime in Saigon collapsed, a brilliant Vietnamese scholar Prof. Ton That Thien rejected the dubious concepts which the Americans were circulating and saw the future course of events as clearly discernible in terms of social change and rural protest in Vietnam.

In a nutshell, Prof. Ton That Thien pointed to the social differentiation between the rulers and the ruled, and especially the alienation of the peasantry for which the Americans provided no solution and instead aggravated the problems. “This solution calls for an end to the alienation between town and country for the elimination of the social differentiation between rulers and ruled for the restoration of vertical social mobility for the reopening of the channels of communication between people and government.  It means the leaders of Vietnam must identify themselves with the aspirations of the majority, of the population that is the peasantry rather than with those of the minority, the urban population and beyond them, those of foreign countries”.

These considerations apply in India as in Vietnam.  Do the Indian rulers really understand this meaning of Vietnam?  -  (INFA)

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