Over centuries, China had remained a distant, slightly mystifying neighbour. But this changed dramatically in 1950, as put succinctly by India’s consul general in Lhasa, Sumal Sinha, in his message to New Delhi, ‘The Chinese have entered Tibet; the Himalayas have ceased to exist.’
Ever since, China has worried the Indian security establishment deeply. There are valid reasons for it, and the memories of the humiliating Indian defeat in 1962 continue to haunt the country. A top-secret CIA report of 2 March 1963 concluded that the Chinese diplomatic effort was a five-year masterpiece of guile executed by Chou En-lai:
“Chou played on Nehru’s Asian, anti-imperialistic mental attitude, his proclivity to temporize, and his sincere desire for an amicable Sino-Indian relationship. Chou’s strategy was to avoid making explicit, in conversation and in communication with Nehru, any Chinese border claims… Chou sought to create and impression with Nehru the Beijing would accept the McMahon line but again his language was equivocal, and what was conceded with his left hand, he retrieved with his right.”
This CIA report also quotes a letter by the then PM of Burma, U Ba Swe, written to Jawaharlal Nehru. He had warned Nehru to be cautious with Chou in dealing with the border issue. But Nehru replied that Chou was ‘an honourable man who could be trusted’.
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The Chinese doublespeak has continued over the years. Take, for instance, a much-quoted quip by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. In 1988, he told the then PM Rajiv Gandhi that the next century will be Asia’s century. But he left undefined as to who would be the dominant force in that Asian Century.
If India and China were friends, the shape of the region around them would have been vastly different-at peace with itself and vastly more developed, with flourishing regional trade. Together, they could have been a calming influence on the world. But they are not friends, and unlikely to be in the near future.
Far from being the dominant force in Asia that Deng had ambiguously spoken of, India may have to live with the emerging geopolitical reality that it will no longer dominate even its neighbourhood. This area that was so far its ‘sphere of influence’ in South Asia will now have to contend with the shadow of China’s influence.
India and China have the largest territorial dispute in the world, covering an area the size of North Korea. And they have two of the largest armies in the world, armed dangerously to the full. If the two lurch into conflict, the consequences will be terrifying. But India’s military objective against China isn’t offense. It is deterrence and defence. Sadly, it does not remove the threat; rather, it lures India into taking false steps, like agreeing in 2021 to a disengagement of troops in Ladakh that placed it at a disadvantage.
Most assessments, including those by Indian strategic experts, assert that the disparity between the two is so large that India cannot counter China’s military power by itself. On the whole, there is serious and growing asymmetry between India and China. To begin with, let’s compare their geographical size. China’s landmass stretches over 9.6 million sq. km, dwarfing India’s 3.29 million sq. km by a factor of three. It leads India in all other respects-from military and technological to economic; from efficacy of governance to social discipline; from assertive self-confidence to amoral pursuit of goals. India faces negative asymmetries on all these issues. If effective diplomacy is the art of optimizing resources to one’s benefit, then India has miles to go before it can come anywhere close to what China has achieved already. Despite this negative asymmetry, India can make up for this handicap through nimble diplomacy and by biding its time.
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Strategic thinkers like Kautilya and Sun Tzu have recommended that the weaker side in any such relationship should never engage in unequal engagements but pick those it believes it can either win or derive benefit from. It should husband resources to choose the time and place for the engagement that enhances one’s strength while nibbling away at the adversary’s.
However, the road ahead might test India at multiple levels and in many ways. The situation looks bleak already. There is criticism that India has not learnt from its blunders at the negotiating table. Its soldiers won the strategically vital Haji Pir Pass in the 1965 war with Pakistan. Yet, Shastri agreed to return this territory at the talks with Ayub Khan in Tashkent. Mrs Gandhi was far more hard-nosed than Shastri. Yet, she, too, conceded to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at Shimla what should have been kept as negotiating reserve.
Recently, history repeated itself to India’s disadvantage, yet again. Indian soldiers succeeded in neutralizing the territorial gains made by China in Ladakh in 2020, by moving into the heights overlooking those areas. But for reasons shrouded in mystery, India agreed to pull back forces from its territory in Kailash heights, leaving the area open for a quick grab by China at a later date. To make matters worse, after negating India’s advantage, China refuses to withdraw from about 1,000 sq. km of territory it has captured in the region.
It is against this background that critics assert India’s conception of policy may sound apt but it falters in implementation. This has, for long, been the world’s complaint against India that it talks too loftily. Moreover, smaller South Asian states are increasingly playing smart games to hedge between China and India. They obtain high levels of economic and military assistance from China, forcing India to offer them increased aid as well. But the amount of Indian economic and infrastructure aid, and the speed of its execution, is nowhere near China’s.
Worse still is the fact that the earlier adulation for a democratic India in comparison with autocratic China has now been replaced by practical considerations. The cheers for being a vibrant, even if somewhat chaotic, democracy have been replaced by the many disappointments with India’s performance.
At a time when China’s plans span decades, India is struggling to look beyond its next election. To the external observer, the Indian government seems to be constantly struggling with domestic crises, leaving it little energy for long-term strategic planning. India also appears more polarized than ever before, and the trust in its governance model is at an all-time low.
On the wider global front, India has sometimes been told that in articulation of its policies, it veers between being preachy and moralistic. More damagingly, and especially in recent years, the perception has gained ground that India is conducting foreign policy without many instruments at its disposal. And India’s neighbours think it will somehow reconcile these contradictions in its mind without actually doing anything.
The world around India is impatient with stasis because it is changing at a rapid pace. Even the smallest of countries around it are no longer obligingly compliant as they once were. They see in China a convenient trump card to flaunt in India’s face.
This excerpt from ‘Wartime: The World in Danger’ by Rajiv Dogra has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.