Getting 1962 Sino-Indian war conclusions right isn’t too difficult

Photographer unknown

MK Bhadrakumar

By MK Bhadrakumar

ON THE WEB, 12 October 2012

A major challenge in the conduct of foreign policy comes in the form of overcoming the tyranny of the Indian bureaucracy. The Indo-Soviet relationship is a telling example. If matters had been left to the bureaucrats in Delhi at many a critical juncture in the Cold War era, there would have been nothing like the “time-tested relationship” we today speak about. Again, the few creative initiatives of India’s regional policy (which one can count on finger tips), can be almost entirely attributed to the political leadership — be it toward Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.

But the Indian bureaucratic vision remains important, since we are a country with a “permanent bureaucracy”. In the period ahead, with Indian politics sliding into newer and stranger uncertainties and extreme volatilities of a kind for which we have no tested solutions, there is the great danger that the “permanent bureaucracy” may even surge as the charioteer of foreign policy. That is why the article titled “Lesson from 1962: India must never lower its guard“, by former foreign-secretary-cum-think-tanker Shyam Saran catches the eye.

Obviously, the article is about the India-China relationship. It begins dramatically with an apocalyptic vision about the “inevitability” of an India-China rivalry, with the two countries “bumping” against each other “particularly in Asia”, and sliding even into “possible conflict”. Unfortunately, Saran doesn’t explain how he arrived at this momentous vision.

In a talk before an elite Delhi audience some months ago, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia said, in a stunning recap of a recent tour of his to China, that India is at least 30 years behind China in development. Indeed, one has to be realistic while picking one’s “rival”. There has to be a sense of proportion to anything in life.

Rivalry presupposes two competing models, where India and China are so strikingly similar. True, China has its Bo Xilai. But we also have tons of coal dust in the air. The only difference is that we can learn to live with coal dust.

Our parliamentarians cannot even agree how to deal with 2G scam or the CWG scam, whereas China dispatches the criminals to the gallows — never to return to public life. True, China’s growth rate has fallen below double digits, but it is still somewhere close to 8%, whereas, India’s is likely to be less than 5%, if the latest IMF estimation is anything to go by. Actually, take any conceivable index, and China is vastly outperforming India.

[China is outperforming India e]ven in scientific research — and, very soon, it seems in Nobel [prize] as well. The problem with our strategic pundits is that they operate out of ivory towers. If Saran were to visit Thiruvanathapuram, he would realise that the mountain heaps of garbage on the streets of this once-idyllic town, pitilessly spreading cholera and dengue, are the grim realities of life — along with the power cuts in the morning and evening — and not any “rivalry” with China.

I can’t see how on the basis of empirical evidence, one can come to a conclusion that an India-China rivalry bordering on armed conflict is “inevitable”. We again come back to the fundamental question: How do we create a foreign policy for our beloved country, which is an extension of our national policies and priorities of development?

However, Saran also makes some excellent points — namely, that Indian armed forces should relentlessly modernise and be prepared to defend the country’s borders under any eventuality — be it another tricky war across the HImalayas or another shocking fedayeen attack from the Arabian sea.

Saran also admits that instead of cribbing incessantly about China’s galloping influence in the South Asian region, India too should have a “better management of its periphery”; that India too should “leverage” China’s neighbors; that India should expand the convergences with China as emerging power in terms of the search for a democratised world order, BRICS, WTO, G20, etc.

The most fascinating part is Saran’s advocacy of Chinese investments as the panacea for realizing “india’s own dream of building world-class infrastructure.” This is refreshingly new thinking, compared to the paranoid mind of Indian bureaucracy as recently as 6 or 8 years ago.

However, there is a contradiction. Should we get involved so deeply with a country which is “inevitably” a rival, with whom a “possible conflict” at some point may become unavoidable? We need to make a shrewd choice here — right at this point before getting too involved with China by borrowing their money in such huge quantities and shamelessly getting indebted to them without being sure about their real intentions towards us. What if we end up with third-rate infrastructure built by these diabolical Chinese — instead of the “word-class” stuff Saran dreams about?

True, the ties with our South Asian neighbors are appalling. Equally, China’s interests in South, Central and West Asia are expanding and that country is bound to have a very active presence in these regions. But India’s challenge doesn’t lie exactly there. Put differently, India can’t do anything about China’s footfalls in modern history.

Rather, India’s challenge is that it needs to expand its own influence in its neighborhood and extended neighborhood in tune with its aspirations as an emerging power. That is a “stand alone” objective, and has nothing to do with what China does or doesn’t do. Here, the only “China factor” is that India also needs to do creative thinking, which China seems to be doing all the time.

Saran’s prescription of “better management” of India’s neighborhood is the crux of the matter. It is a patently bureaucratic approach. Saran overlooks that these small countries like Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka — or small time politicians like Mahinda Rajapaksa or “Parchanda” — also have their own dreams and their own agendas. Who says they are willing to be “managed”?

What if they don’t want to be “managed”? It seems even tiny Maldives resents being “managed”. India needs to think why these tweeny-weeny countries or these small-time politicians like Rajapaksa and Maldives’ Waheed are increasingly turning toward faraway China when India is present right there at their doorstep and is offering itself as an irresistibly attractive partner, a guide, a guardian and a benefactor and a veritable role model for the region — all rolled into one.

Life is complicated, isn’t it? The weakest link in Saran’s article is the roadmap he gives on resolving India’s border dispute with China. I am in agreement with Saran that the Tibet issue was probably at the core of the India-China discord that erupted in the 1962 conflict. But that is history and it will be incredibly foolish to repeat that history.

Also, on a point of purely historical interest though, where I differ in that retrospective view is that Saran’s memory begins rather late, with the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, whereas India’s meddling in Tibet by far pre-dated the Dalai Lama’s exit from Lhasa in 1959. Apparently, many scholars have pointed out, India’s meddling goes back to the early 1950s when India unilaterally decided that Aksai Chin is an integral part of our country.

Not only that, the meddling wasn’t a solo act by India. Apparently, there was a third party involved in its as well, who was keen on destabilizing “communist China”. The rest is history.

Therefore, India’s mediator role is not going to be acceptable to China — just as we will never accept a role for Pakistan in the internal affairs of the Indian state of J&K, however bad the ground situation in the Valley becomes again.

Again, the issue is not that Chinese repression in Tibet hasn’t had the desired effect of defusing the alienation of Tibetans. We know from our own experience in J&K and in the north-eastern states that repression alone can never quite address the alienation of the people. The question is how to bring the alienated people into the national mainstream.

India hasn’t been able to come up with anything by way of an enduring solution. The phenomenon of Naxalism, which repeats itself with a predictable regularity, testifies to the utter failure of the Indian model. How, then, can we prescribe anything to China — or any country — about the best means of addressing political alienation?

The sensible thing will be to watch and see how China copes with the problem of Tibet and to learn appropriate lessons from China’s hard-won experience so that we can innovate our own methods in J&K or the northeastern states. China is famously innovative and who knows, it may come up with a solution with Chinese characteristics to its Tibet problem.

At any rate, there is no certainty whatsoever that giving Dalai Lama a pivotal role is the best solution that China can think of. In a similar situation in 1974, Indira Gandhi also brought out Sheikh Abdullah from the woodwork with the hope of putting him in charge in Srinagar to heal the wounds, but of no avail. These are complex issues where solutions do not lie in the hands of individuals.

Predicating a solution to the Sino-Indian border dispute with an India-China co-management of the Tibet problem is neither here nor there — except perhaps as the stuff of a fine paper delicately woven with sophistries at a think tank in the Habitat Centre in Delhi on a languid afternoon. It is divorced from reality.

Even the bureaucrats who have dealt with China would know that the border problem with China doesn’t lend itself to a solution in the foreseeable future. The Indian (and increasingly Chinese) public opinion comes into play; India also has a binding parliament resolution to reckon with; in a coalition era with the Indian political spectrum so hopelessly fragmented, a national consensus is virtually impossible to forge.

In fact, the Indian capacity to be flexible is going to be virtually nil in the coming years — as the existential dilemma over the Siachen problem amply shows.

So, how do things add up? Certainly, an engagement of China to mutual benefit; military preparedness that dampens China’s aggressive instincts, if any; sustained (and imaginative) efforts aimed at keeping the peace and tranquility on the border — these are the main directions of India’s policy toward China.

It is needless to burden the policy with notions of “rivalry” with China or “inevitable” conflict or illusion that the Dalai Lama is going to be around till eternity. The point is, India shouldn’t try to punch above their weight. If it does, the consequence will be ugly.

India’s neighbors do not look up to it in a kindly light — be it Maldives with 3 lakhs people or China with 1300 million people. Besides, Jairam Ramesh has been tirelessly pointing out lately where our beloved country’s national priorities ought to lie. Read the Globe and Mail story here — but then, maybe, Saran doesn’t travel by train anymore.

About the author

MK Bhadrakumar writes in India Punchline: Reflections on foreign affairs and Bhadrakhumar Views.

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