The inscrutable Chinese

M.L.Sondhi and Ashok Kapur

The Telegraph, November 4, 2002

Rumours about a proposed summit between the Indian prime minister and the Chinese premier sometime early next year have been gaining ground in the corridors of power.  But is an India-China summit at this juncture a good idea?

A successful bilateral summit is like the icing that adds to the cake, while a badly prepared one is like an iceberg: everything might seem fine on the surface, but there is danger lurking underneath.  A successful summit requires a proper understanding of the character of the leader on the opposite side and the nature of the problem.  It must be preceded by a serious internal debate in the context of the international and domestic situation.

Previous Sino-Indian summits have often been embarrassing affairs for Indian leaders.  During one high-level Indian visit China invaded Vietnam.  During another, the Chinese decided to conduct a nuclear test.  Perhaps, because of its disdain for the Jawaharlal Nehru era and of India’s military performance in 1962, Beijing continues to have an attitude of superiority vis--vis India.

India, for its part, feels China is a strategic and economic threat which must be dealt with before Indian leaders set foot on Chinese soil.  In this connection, it is important for Indian decision-makers to know that Shen Dingli, a leading expert on strategic affairs and a professor of Shanghai’s Fudon University, has predicted that although Beijing’s strategic ambitions were limited today, they would expand as Chinese military and economic strength increased over time.  India cannot ignore reports by the director of the Indo-Tibet Border Police, S.C. Chaube, about border violations at Pengong Lake and other places.  An incursion along the Indian border, coinciding with the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to Beijing would more seriously harm India’s prestige than did “teaching Vietnam a lesson”, at the time of Vajpayee’s earlier Beijing odyssey.

China is dumping goods into the Indian market.  It supports the insurgency in India’s northeast and promotes disaffection against India among the Himalayan people.  It supplies nuclear missiles to Pakistan, and builds naval power bases in the Bay of Bengal and off Pakistan’s coastline.  It is always trying to undermine India in international and regional bodies. Thus, there is no point of convergence between the two countries. Also, no one can say what the new political leadership in China next year will be like.

India needs to look at China’s internal politics and at the harm it does in India’s neighbourhood (for example, in 1971, China sided with Pakistan).  It should also examine China’s relations with its immediate neighbours, other Southeast Asian nations and the United States of America and Russia.  There is no point in a summit unless there is clarity on these issues.  A summit requires, instead, a sustained military, economic, cultural and diplomatic engagement that calls for patience and discipline.  India’s policies could be designed to highlight Chinese aggressive behaviour.  Only then will China’s attitude change towards India.

International opinion may see China and India as competitors.  But the two countries have divergent interests and perceptions.  In a sense they have normal relations only in that they have exchanged ambassadors.  The distrust between the two nations cannot be covered by diplomacy.  It is the product of the diplomatic and military history of the two countries, post-Forties.

At 1955 Bandung conference, when Nehru showed off India’s leadership of the non-aligned movement, he appeared arrogant to the Chinese leaders and especially to Zhou en Lai, who saw himself as proud heir to a great civilization.  With its position as party to the Yalta accord, mainland China could claim to be a great power.  Although it was Nationalist China (Taiwan) which found a permanent seat in the Security Council after 1949, Communist China – backed inexplicably by India (which had turned down the offer of the seat) – lobbied to replace Taiwan as the legitimate China, and succeeded.  Nehru may have thought India was a great power, but the international forum did not recognize this aspiration.  Thus, there was a clear difference in power and status between the two countries, which the hierarchy-conscious Chinese have never lost sight of.

The 1962 war confirmed China’s sense of superiority and its belief that Indians lacked staying power in military and diplomatic affairs.  For India to change this perception, it must demonstrate its effectiveness in military, economic and scientific affairs.  A visit to China by the Indian prime minister will not achieve this.  One must not underestimate the persuasive power of Agnis and Sukhois which can reach important Chinese targets.  Such military capability helps to focus the attention of Chinese generals and politicians on the new realities of India.  And there is nothing like the rising costs of war to check provocative behaviour – this is as true of China and India, as it was of the US and the Soviet Union and the US and China.

Ironically, despite their disdain for Nehruvian diplomacy, the Chinese cling even now to the legacy of Nehru through a closeness with the present generation of Congress leaders.  This is not because of Chinese like the Nehruvians, but because they are concerned about the policies and effectiveness of later Indian diplomacy, which has made the Chinese leaders uncomfortable.

It is the Vajpayee government which accused China of proliferating nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan, and the Americans of being complicit by overlooking it. For the US and China, Pakistan’s importance as an ally takes precedence over Pakistan as a nuclear proliferator.  Pakistan has been an active nuclear trader, offering China access to Canadian “Candu” reactor technology, F-16 aircraft and sharing nuclear information with the North Koreans.  The Vajpayee government was thus right to call American and Chinese bluff about the importance of non-proliferation.  

China’s approach to India is in tune with the British imperial policy towards India since 1947.  London left behind three legacies for India and their effects have lasted long after the British withdrew from the subcontinent.  The first was the two-nation theory that laid the foundation for parity between India and Pakistan.  This policy of India-Pakistan parity was later adopted by the US.

The second British legacy was to leave behind an administrative cader that still constitutes the backbone of Indian administrative and legal arrangements.  Elected politicians come and go but the bureaucrats, with fixed tenures remain to exercise an internal veto on the making and implementation of decisions.  This legacy sustained the Nehru era, which was tied to it.  This import of Fabian socialism into mainstream Indian social and political thought in the Nehru era was the third legacy.  The last two have resulted in retarding the pace of Indian development.

But isn’t it ironic that a section of Indians remain wedded to socialism, which has been rejected in Russia and even in China?  This is the reason the Indian economic reforms are at least 10 years behind the Chinese.  Indian leftists and bureaucrats are thus, in a sense, Beijing’s allies because collectively, they impede India’s economic reforms, facilitate corruption and reduce India’s competitiveness in the economic sphere, which in turn reduces its bargaining power in the military sphere.

Beijing does not like the Vajpayee regime because it is a coalition between different parties, not all of which believe in socialism.  A key element of the present Indian administration’s strategy is to mobilize the middle classes in India to further enterprise and development.  Should the prime minister then be thinking about a visit to China until the internal economic and the military debates are settled?

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