On Sino-Indian relations

Print edition : January 05, 2002

Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century by John W. Garver; Oxford University Press; pages 447, Rs.595.

Interpreting China's Grand Strategy: Past, Present and Future by Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis; RAND; pages 283.

THE subtitle of his book expresses the core of John W. Garver's thesis, on which he has expended much labour. The book covers the entire gamut of Sino-Indian relations - the Tibetan factor; the territorial dispute; "rivalry" in Nepal; Sikkim and Bhutan; the Sino-Pakistan entente; Sino-Indian rapprochement since the 1980s; Myanmar; the Indian Ocean and the nuclear factor. These are capped by his prognosis of future relations.

The work is particularly useful for his citation of some Chinese source material which is hard to come by in India. But research based on Indian as well as other materials is hopelessly inadequate. There is a total neglect of the wealth of material in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru and of significant scholarly writings on the border dispute, Indian and foreign. The author's references to Indian sources verges on the absurd. He presses into service writings of little significance when they buttress his thesis. Secondary sources are relied on even where primary sources are available.

We are told that, on his return from China, Nehru "announced that China recognised Nepal as an exclusive sphere of influence". No source is cited in support of this assertion. In fact, no such announcement was made. Nehru insisted that India and Nepal "coordinate" their foreign policies. Indian influence in Nepal was predominant and China showed considerable restraint. It accorded no recognition to an Indian "sphere of influence". In a scholarly work such mistatement is impermissible (Volume 27 of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru has the details).

Between any two neighbours as big as India and China, there is bound to be some tension even at the best of times. As relations between them deteriorated in the early 1960s, their cold war spilled over into Nepal and to a far lesser extent into Bhutan. Myanmar and Sri Lanka went their own ways. In the wake of the recent Maoist uprising in Nepal, India rushed to offer and provide aid. The Indian Express reported from Kathmandu: "China's posture doesn't suggest it is as interested in Nepali affairs as India is. It is aloof, physically, psychologically and politically" (December 4, 2001). Nepal turned to China in the past whenever India pressed it too hard. In the last two decades, if not earlier, China has shown no inclination to meddle in Indo-Nepal relations. The entire picture of "rivalry" is overdrawn. The author has not only missed the wood for the trees but has failed to see the trees clearly enough.

One passage suffices to show his lack of understanding of the situation. "Tibet is virtually the only effective mechanism of leverage India has against Beijing. China's vulnerability in Tibet is to India what India's vulnerability vis-a-vis Pakistan is to China. The extremely deep ethnic cleavage between Han and Tibetan is similar to the Indian-Pakistani gulf. Repeated efforts to bridge both gulfs have had limited success, and hard-minded strategists recognise the leverage offered by these deep and durable cleavages. The closeness of Pakistan to Indian industrial and political centres, combined with the proven martial competence of Pakistan, increases the Pakistani threat to India. Similarly, the immense logistical difficulties associated with Tibet's terrain and remoteness increase the threat to Beijing created by a possible Indian-Tibetan link. Just as China has never played its Pakistan card to the extent of actually entering an India-Pakistan war, so India has never played its Tibet card by using its military forces to support a Tibetan rebellion against China. But both sides are well aware of these options, which figure in their calculations. Just as New Delhi has pondered the possibility of Chinese entry into an India-Pakistan war, Beijing has considered the possibility of Indian support for a Tibetan rebellion."

India has simply no "leverage" in Tibet, in fact or in intent. It has neither the means nor the desire nor domestic public backing for "Indian support for a Tibetan rebellion".

The chapter on the territorial dispute misses the fons et origo of the matter and the reasons why it took the course it did. There is a useful summary of the moderate viewpoint by Wang Hongwei, long-time director of the South Asian Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and "a more hard-line view" expressed by "a retired PLA (People's Liberation Army) general" whom the author interviewed. With his access to Chinese sources it would have been more helpful were the author to record and analyse how the Chinese would like the negotiations to be initiated and conducted.

The author says: "If the Sino-Indian territorial issue is to be solved peacefully through negotiations, the solutions must come from the very highest level. The top leaders of China and India will have to decide that, simply in order to reduce the possibility of war between the two countries, they must reach an agreement and then impose it on their respective countries. When they agree to do this and proceed to draw a line on a map, they will probably need to keep their specialists on the border issue out of the room - their soldiers and strategists too." The first part of this observation is absolutely sound. A settlement will reflect a political decision by a leadership, at once sensible and stable. But it need not keep the specialists "out of the room"; only those bureaucrats who revel in their hard line. It is only fair to add that the Ministry of External Affairs has produced experts of marked ability and sound judgment. A sprinkling of stragglers delight in sticking to the old course. They are the ones to be moved out.

The author records: "A key problem in solving the territorial conflict along the moderate lines proposed by Wang Hongwei is that the Dawang area he specifies as the region having the strongest historic evidence of actual administration by Tibetan authorities happens to be the most sensitive geopolitically. Other authoritative Chinese writers, such as former ambassador Yang Gongsu, also found the evidentiary basis of Chinese claims regarding customary administration to be strongest, and evidence of British administration to be weakest, in the Dawang area. While the triangle of territory, with its lower point south of Dawang, would be quite small, Chinese possession of such a tract would create second salient of Chinese territory bracketing Bhutan."

One wishes he had reflected on this issue critically. Tawang is China's bargaining chip. No Indian government can concede it. Its MLA became Finance Minister in the Arunachal Pradesh government. Its schoolchildren speak Hindi. But there is some room for concession in the eastern sector besides redress in the west. The main obstacle is the dread of negotiations proper by New Delhi. Not one Prime Minister has cared or dared to grasp the nettle by educating public opinion, forging a domestic consensus, and approaching Beijing for serious negotiations as China has been urging in the last four decades and more.

INDIA complains of China's help to Pakistan which, doubtless, is detrimental to Indian interests. But India does not pause to consider why China acts thus. It responded belatedly to Pakistan's overtures. In the Sino-Indian cold war, Pakistan's survival emerged as a "vital interest" for China. However, as relations with India improved, China began to show greater sensitivity for India's feelings and concerns. The author has drawn up a useful chart showing the "evolution of the PRC (People's Republic of China) position on Kashmir" from November 16, 1989 to December 15, 1991 in favour of India. China no longer speaks of "the U.N. resolutions" or of plebiscite. Beijing has succeeded adroitly in "managing the contradiction between maintaining the Sino-Pakistani entente and furthering Sino-Indian rapprochement." Both proceed apace, the entente as well as the rapprochement.

The author's reportage on this triangle deserves note: "Pakistani officials and specialists whom I talked with in Islamabad during the summer of 1990 were not unhappy with the level of Chinese support during the 1990 crisis. They saw China as a reliable friend that, unlike the United States, could be counted on in emergencies. Subtleties of language were less important to them than underlying perceptions and purposes, and these, they were confident, would lead China to continue to support Pakistan against India. They understood Beijing's need to mince words for the sake of placating India but remained confident that, when push came to shove, China would be there. Pakistani journalists sometimes expected Chinese leaders to speak bluntly, and, when they declined to do so, the journalists misinterpreted China's intentions, according to Chinese diplomatic sources. On these occasions Chinese diplomats sought these reporters out and explained to them that, in view of the long friendship between China and Pakistan, a friendship tested by adversity, China would not abandon Pakistan in the event of a crisis. Most journalists understood and appreciated these comments."

The Sino-Pakistan relationship is an extremely important dimension to Sino-Indian relations; a dimension whose significance is not well understood and its nuances are missed. Two passages in the book illustrate that and merit quotation in extenso:

"One factor that would probably remain constant is Chinese perceptions of India. There seems to be a consensus among Chinese analysts of Indian affairs that only a firm policy based on a position of strength will compel India to act soberly toward China. One classified and authoritative study that took a relatively optimistic view about Sino-Indian relations concluded that a pre-condition for the development of Sino-Indian friendship was the maintenance of adequate deterrent force on China's border with India. Even though pro-peace people were currently dominant in India's elite, the article said, many others wanted a test of strength with China to revenge India's defeat in 1962. India was also plagued by many internal contradictions, which could lead to foreign adventures. Moreover, China should recognise the Janus-faced nature of India's leaders - their tendency to speak of peace and rely on force. Therefore, China had to remain vigilant.

"For Beijing sustaining a strong Pakistan independent of Indian domination and linked militarily to China is a fundamental element of maintaining a position of strength vis-a-vis India. If India were able to uncouple China and Pakistan, subordinate Pakistan, or destroy its military potential, India would be able to concentrate its forces against China. Another classified Chinese study made this explicit. While there were no indications of a major war between China and India in the immediate future, the study said, under certain circumstances India's leaders might decide on war with China. The main precondition for such a war would be to improve India's relations with Pakistan so that India could avoid a two-front war. In other words, a prudent Chinese policy would sustain Pakistan against India."

The two studies on which the author relies in support of his analyses were both written in 1989. The first was by Wang Hongwei on March 3, 1989 shortly after Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China. It was entitled "Adjustments in India's policy towards China and proposals regarding China's response". The other, written the same year by Fan Mingxing, is entitled "India's strategy toward China". There have been significant, if not radical, changes in the international as well as regional scenes since.

It did not take long for the tensions wantonly created by George Fernandes in 1998, by his virulent and solo attacks on China, to subside. In any other government a Minister who launched his own private war against a neighbour would have been shown the door. China's reaction since has been a blend of wariness and assurance. Its expression has been restrained. One has only to consult the writings of Ming Zhang, China's Changing Nuclear Posture: Reactions to the South Asian Nuclear Tests (1999) and his articles - all of which Garver ignores - to realise that beyond a point nuclearisation of weaponry by India will set the alarm bells ringing in Beijing. The Sino-Pakistan entente will grow and we shall be set on a course of fearful risks.

To some people in the Bharatiya Janata Party, even at its higher levels, talk of an Indo-U.S. alliance is music to the ears. (Connoisseurs of music and of the Parivar's tastes alone can tell which raag begins then to ring in their ears. One suspects it is darbari.) The fact that the U.S. is not interested in such an alliance is lost on the darbaris. The U.S. policy is a carefully calibrated one. It sees China, as India does, as a growing power. But for all the Sino-American tiffs, the policy both sides pursue is one of engagement.

THE study by Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis, now Senior Adviser to the U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert D. Blackwill, is a very substantial work. It is on U.S.-China relations. But no Indian policy-maker can afford to ignore its conclusions:

"If both pre-emptive containment and pre-emptive appeasement of China are then judged to be premature as basic strategies, the only broad surviving policy option for the United States remains some form of realistic engagement. It may seem ironic that an analytic assessment that prognosticates the rise of Chinese power and argues that such power would eventually become assertive finally concludes that there may be no alternative to engaging China, at least in the policy-relevant future. Yet, the presumed irony rapidly disappears when it is understood that the analysis emphatically affirms the inherently high level of uncertainty afflicting all projections relating to China's future growth in power-political capacity, and the possibility that an assertive, strong China might become more moderate toward the use of force under some circumstances if its political system were to become democratic...

"Thus, so long as there is some chance that Chinese assertiveness may not occur for various reasons, U.S. strategy ought neither create the pre-conditions for its occurrence nor retreat in the expectation that its occurrence is inevitable. Further, if there is some hope that the worst ravages of future security competition between the United States and a strong China can be avoided, U.S. grand strategists are bound by both the dictates of prudence and moral sensibility to explore every possibility that reduces the prospects of future international turmoil."

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