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-à-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?