At a crossroads

Published : Apr 15, 2000 00:00 IST

As India and China complete 50 years of diplomatic exchange and advance the process of 'normalisation', both share the view that this process must lead to the establishment of constructive, cooperative and friendly relationship.


AS India and China prepare to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations, it is more often forgotten than remembered that this has been a historically unique half century. Old civilisations though they are, India and China have in truth interacted as sta tes for the very first time in history only in these 50 years. The two rich and ancient civilisations neighboured, borrowed and intersected with each other over centuries. But there were no state-to-state relations as may be expected between neighbours, not because of geography or difficult communications but because history had not known an Indian state until 1947.

India as it is today is indeed a brand new state, the 19th-20th century creation of British colonialism. When British India shed its colonial identity to become the Republic of India, the existential reality was even more novel. The new India was not cot erminous either with the Indian culture area, or with the spread of British India. The Indian state had, in that sense, no political ancestry, and no state memories to draw upon, except those of British India. The partition of territory and the carving o ut of the equally new state of Pakistan transformed the Indian peninsula, which British power had fused into a single political unit, into a multi-state region, now known as South Asia, of which India was only the largest country. A broadly similar devel opment took place in the east. Colonialism, nationalism and the Communist Party of China's (CPC) own ideology effected a sharp break between the People's Republic of China (PRC), established in 1949, and both its brief republican past and its much longer imperial past. The new China was also not coterminous with the vast Chinese culture area or with the territorial spread of the Qing Empire. The consequence, as in South Asia, was the emergence of a multi-state region of fully independent states in the a rea once occupied by the Chinese empire-state. If India had to learn the craft and ways of statehood after 1947, the PRC, after 1949, had to adjust to being a territorial, not an empire, state. Both states also needed to redefine themselves in keeping wi th the values of their independence/liberation struggles, and the goals that had inspired these movements. And both, historically new to each other, were called upon, as it were, to begin from the beginning, to create or craft a bilateral relationship.

Through the past two centuries and more, British colonialism had mediated the relations between the neighbours. Opium grown in India and sold in China had filled the coffers of the East India Company and forced open the doors of China to British goods an d missionaries. Imperial Britain was the most predatory of the European powers that nibbled away at the peripheral areas of the far-flung Chinese empire in search of market opportunities. After 1857, British power in India moved northwards in its relentl ess drive to occupy the natural geographical space of the Indian peninsula, to touch the periphery of the Qing empire in the Himalayan region and seek land routes for trade with the western interior of China through Tibet. British Indian policy, not alwa ys supported by London, ensured a sole British influence in Tibet by the early 20th century. Imperial China, on the verge of collapse, was too weak to resist.

It was about this time that rising Indian nationalism began to protest against the use of Indian jawans for imperial adventures in China and elsewhere in the British empire. Over time, nationalism forged direct bonds between the peoples of India and Chin a, reinforced by the rediscovery of ancient cultural ties and later by Jawaharlal Nehru's discovery of socialism. These direct ties led to nationalist opposition to British imperial policies, warm contact with the Kuomintang (KMT) and sympathy for China' s anti-Japanese struggle. Nehru's visit to China in 1939 and the dispatch of the Kotnis Mission to the Red Areas were symbolic of the great respect in which the Indian national movement was regarded by the KMT and the CPC alike. While Chiang Kai-shek and his wife invited Nehru to Chungking, Mao Zedong had Nehru's autobiography translated into Chinese and circulated in the Communist areas. Nehru reciprocated this sentiment and was even reluctant to support Gandhi's Quit India call until he was assured th at it would not be allowed to obstruct the Chinese struggle against Japan. This prompted Mahatma Gandhi to observe that Nehru's love of China was only exceeded by his love for India. Chiang Kai-shek also used his good offices to press the cause of Indian independence in Washington, and few in India are aware, for instance, that the Indian national flag which substituted the charkha with the wheel of dharma, was inspired by the KMT's ambassador to Delhi.

The victory of the CPC brought to power leaders and a party with whom Nehru and the Indian National Congress had had no interaction after 1939. The military nature of that victory, its ideology and its harsh anti-Nehru propaganda were, in the context of the Cold War, matters of some concern to him. But Nehru was realistic about the CPC's victory; he encouraged Burma (Myanmar), which was uneasy about the new regime, to be the first to extend recognition to it, and followed suit at the end of December 194 9. Exchange of diplomatic recognition which, at China's instance, was not automatic but had to be negotiated was, however, delayed by three months, until April 1, 1950, to initiate this first half century of state-to-state relations.

LOOKING back over these 50 years, it now seems remarkable that amity should have come about between the two countries despite their ignorance of each other and their many divergences. It is even more remarkable that amity survived the grave security prov ocation of China's entry into Tibet in 1950. The act was decisive. It ended the de facto autonomy Tibet had enjoyed, made India and China contiguous neighbours for the first time in history, raising security concerns for India that British India h ad never known. The greater credit for averting the possibility of national enmity should be given to Nehru. For two decades he had given China centrality in his world-view. After 1947, he made close relations with China the cornerstone of his foreign po licy. The political constraints of the bipolar world and the dangers to peace of the hot war in Korea made it imperative for Nehru to avoid conflict with China. So he chose to "understand" the harshness of China's propaganda, withstood domestic and inter national opinion on Tibet, and opted for cooperation and friendship. It is not often remembered that Mao Zedong, who was the architect of China's foreign policy, also envisaged a similar, equally critical role for India. His view of the world differed fr om that of the Soviet Union despite their shared ideology. Unlike Stalin, he regarded the nationalism of the newly independent countries and the non-alignment of India as positive forces. He also regarded them the natural allies of the anti-imperialist s ocialist bloc, of which India was the most important. He therefore moderated the early harsh socialist criticism of Nehru and India, and sought friendship between the two states.

Both Nehru and Mao held global perspectives, were deeply concerned with the larger human issues of war, peace and development, and envisaged a major role for India and China in shaping the world's future. Each, from the compulsions of his world-view, ove rlooked the provocative words and actions of the other, and did not colour them with suspicions inherited from the colonial past. The catalytic factor that eventually brought about the 'bhai-bhai' relationship of 1954 was the steady intrusion of United S tates' power into Asia that gave rise to common strategic concerns. The India-China friendship announced then can best be seen as a deliberate political act constructed with an eye to immediate strategic needs and to the global role that each envisaged f or itself. As events of the next few years revealed, however, this relationship was inherently fragile. It was strained by their divergent responses to the beginnings of a detente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and to the territo rial question. It was destroyed by the border war of 1962. While it lasted, the special 'bhai-bhai' quality of the India-China friendship of the mid-1950s helped open up international opportunities for each by overarching fundamental differences in the w orld-views of the two leaders and the interests of the two states. That era ended even before 1962 and the territorial factor became a national issue that neither could ignore. In India, the post-1962 approach and framework of policy posited a China-Paki stan alliance against India, that grew into a China-Pakistan-U.S. axis against India after 1971, while China regarded India as being allied to the Soviet Union in its hostility towards China. The decades in which this framework of policy was in place clo sed the door to normalising contacts with China. It saw India being reduced to the status of a sub-regional South Asian dependent power, unable to play an influential role in the two grave Asian crises of the decade of the 1970s: Afghanistan and Cambodia . In those years, the geo-political map of South Asia underwent a change. The emergence of Bangladesh and Bhutan as independent states enhanced the already multi-state nature of the region, and India began to shore up the Indian state. The border state o f Sikkim was merged with India, India's first nuclear test took place at Pokhran in 1974 and defence expenditure was enhanced. Meanwhile, China, now a nuclear weapons power, began to emerge from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, having effected a sea change in its international relations. The U.S. was now its friend and almost an ally, as was Pakistan, while the Soviet Union, whose reach within China's domestic polity was deep, was its principal security concern. In the midst of this manthan, China reached out to India. As the bipolar structure of the international system began to lose its rationale, and a process of structural transition set in, India and China felt the need to mend bilateral fences once again in response to global trends. Measure s to restore relations between the two countries saw the return of ambassadors of the two countries to posts that had been vacated 15 years earlier. The long overdue process of normalisation was thus initiated.

THE present is an age in which that period of transition seems to have reached its logical end, to usher in a distinctly unipolar division of world power and make the ideological bipolarity of the 1950s a thing of the past. To cope with the new and compl ex times, India and China recognise the need to put the past aside and establish a healthy working relationship. But the process has been slow and hesitant. India still needs to recover the approach and global perspective of the early Nehru years and to recast its China policy in a wider perspective that looks beyond the bilateral and the regional. In recent months India has begun to expand its political horizon that was unfortunately foreshortened to the Asian region after 1962, with its "look east" po licy and efforts to put relations with neighbours, with China and the U.S. on a new basis. The process is spasmodic, for the nation is still haunted by the trauma of 1962 and by the subsequent China-Pakistan connection that played havoc with the strategi c balance in South Asia. Nations suffer war and defeat and pay for the consequences of wrong policies or faulty implementation, but they survive and treat the event as a learning experience. But, four decades after the collapse of India-China friendship and the formation of the China-Pakistan equation, these events have not been subjected to any rigorous and objective analysis or regarded as valuable learning experiences for the nation. Nor has China's inability or unwillingness to explain the why of it s relations with Pakistan and of its aid to the Pakistani nuclear programme, helped to put the past aside.

Four decades later it is apparent that there were deeper causes for the confrontation between India and China: the territorial issue was only the ostensible reason. It is also significant that the situation on the ground was not altered in any major fash ion; it remained much as it was before the border war. Since then, the post-1962 status quo has held and been reinforced by the agreements of 1993 and 1996. On the whole, peace and tranquillity do obtain all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and significant confidence-building measures are in place. Several points along the LAC, some of them important for Indian security, are proving difficult to resolve but both sides are determined to continue the exchange of views and information. Neverth eless, India will continue to be wary and uncertain, for China has not retracted its historical claims to vast stretches of Indian territory, nor accepted the 1974 merger of Sikkim with the Indian Union. From a pragmatic perspective, however, it can be a rgued on the basis of China's actions, that these positions are only notional. The control and administration of the areas that China claims in maps or disputes, as of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, is firmly in Indian hands. China cannot hope to give sub stance to these claims without envisaging a real war with India which it cannot possibly hope to win and which, hopefully, neither country wants. Given the hangover of the 1962 trauma and the fact that territorial issues are notoriously difficult to reso lve as the case of the Russian-Chinese border testifies, a settlement may not be reachable in the near future. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the further stabilisation of the LAC is important for it will symbolise and, over time, confirm, the ground realities. The real concern in the coming future is not whether Chinese claims will remain notional, but whether Beijing's authority to refine and stabilise the LAC will remain unchallenged. China is a fast-changing society in which new and powerful int erest groups are emerging which may whittle away at the commanding power of the party. As in India, these groups, including the army, may come to exercise sufficient influence over matters of foreign policy that would tie the hands of the Central governm ent.

There have been other consequences of 1962 that India cannot hope to undo structurally but could mitigate by skillful diplomacy. One is that most of India's northern borders are de facto and/or disputed requiring a high level of military readiness . This is a tremendous drain on the country's limited resources. Another is that the confirmation of South Asia as a multi-state region by the emergence of the sovereign states of Bangladesh and Bhutan gives China's diplomatic presence south of the Himal ayas a degree of political legitimacy. It can no longer and should no longer be viewed only from an India perspective. It is not the fact but the quality and nature of that presence that India should worry about. The history of the past 50 years reveals that the nature of Chinese presence in this region tends to be benign when India-China relations are sound and cooperative. Until at least 1960, China's relations with India's neighbours were minimal, and on the whole were adjuncts to its India policy. T hereafter the reverse was true to the extent that its Pakistan policy was increasingly an adjunct of its Soviet policy. In today's world, globalisation and the communications revolution have increased the density of all inter-state relations. It is to be expected that China's interaction with the South Asian states will inevitably and increasingly be multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral as well as multi-purpose. For instance, it would be unreal to expect that a qualitative improvement in relations with Ind ia will mean that China will abandon Pakistan. This is not likely to happen because on China's political map, Pakistan has a trans-South Asia identity with important links to the Islamic world as well as to Central Asia. Pakistan could also play a role i n China's global strategic concerns as it has done in the past. Much the same will apply to China's interaction with all other South Asian sovereignties.

Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988 initiated a break with the past relationships of that country with both India and Pakistan, spurred along by the collapse of the Soviet Union by 1991. Since then there have been significant signs of change a nd 'adjustment' in China's policies with regard to Pakistan and Kashmir and the evolution of its South Asian policy. That policy was outlined in 1996 in President Jiang Zemin's address to the Pakistan Senate. His advice to Pakistan was that the Kashmir i ssue should be resolved bilaterally and not in international forums, or be put on the back-burner while contacts with India are strengthened. More recently, China's responses to the nuclear tests in the two countries have been identical, apart from the o bservation that India was the first to test. Since then it has lauded the Lahore process and during the Kargil conflict China called for an end to hostilities and respect for the Line of Control (LoC). Its support for the South Asian Association for Regi onal Cooperation (SAARC) is also well documented. These positive trends should not be overlooked even as India continues to protest and watch developments in China's nuclear and missile relationship with Pakistan.

THERE are obvious challenges for Indian diplomacy inherent in the geo-political realities of South Asia. The first is, of course, to accept and come to terms with all that these realities mean for foreign and security policy-making. Accordingly, India ne eds to develop good-neighbourly relations with its smaller neighbours on the basis of enhanced respect for their sovereignties, their separate state interests and, above all, for their sensitivities. This is more a matter of approach, attitude, and style of diplomatic and political interaction than of policy.

For instance, India can no longer unilaterally subsume the defence and security of Nepal to that of India, as Nehru did in 1950. That attitude has for too long coloured the strategic thinking of experts who tend to equate the defence and security of Indi a with that of South Asia. While this may seem eminently realistic from a particular Indian perspective, it cannot be assumed. India's South Asian strategic frontiers can be secured only by means of diplomacy and friendship, while military defence for so vereign states, except where there are military alliances, has to be confined to the spatial limits of the Indian state. China's political presence in South Asia is a function of the multi-state nature of the region and the challenge to Indian diplomacy is to ensure that this presence is not inimical to India's interests or to its security by narrowing strategic differences and enlarging areas of mutual understanding with it. This requires taking China seriously, treating its unique perspectives on the world with respect, and granting legitimacy to its national and strategic interests. India can then objectively assess how and where China impinges on its interests and where it may find opportunities and shared or overlapping concerns with China.

As India and China celebrate the first 50 years of diplomatic exchange, and advance the process of 'normalisation', both share the view that this process must lead to the establishment of a constructive, cooperative and friendly relationship for the 21st century. The efforts made to transcend the post-Pohkran strains in the bilateral relationship have not only been successful in returning the process to the pre-Pokhran mode but have lifted the dialogue to a new level. For the first time in 50 years thes e two big neighbours have embarked on an ongoing security dialogue, the first round of which was held just last month (Frontline, March 31). This will hopefully provide an additional forum for a substantive exploration of the interests, views and concerns of the two countries and lead to a deeper understanding of each other. Since the Gulf war confirmed the unipolar distribution of world power, China has been reassessing its U.S., policy in the light of the U.S.' international behaviour and Ameri can defence and security strategies for the Asian region with some anxiety.

Its fear that U.S. policy may tilt more towards 'containment' of China than 'engagement' were heightened by the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last May. Following the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) disregard of the role of t he United Nations in the Kosovo crisis, it has charged the U.S. with innovating a new and more subtle form of intervention in the name of human rights and democratic transitions. As a counter, it has argued the case for encouraging what it perceives as a yet weak but historically inevitable trend towards a multipolar structure of the international system. India, with its vast potential and now its nuclear status, cannot be left out of its calculations and all indications are that China would rather enco urage India towards 'pole-hood', as it were, than see it join forces with the U.S. It has therefore followed the Clinton visit to India with great attention. At the same time, India shares many of China's concerns about the manner in which the U.S. may u se its awesome power and influence.

In the wide concept of security that is becoming universally accepted today, everything from environment to extremism threatens the peace of nations and the health and stability of human societies. On many of these issues, as for instance, on human right s, on interventionism, on the World Trade Organisation, on Intellectual Property Rights, on 'no-first-use' commitments and on a future non-nuclear world, India holds positions similar to those of China.

All this presents Indian diplomacy with the additional challenge of managing its flowering relationship with the U.S. and its empathy with all democratic polities without damaging its relations with China. The choice for both India and China is between a dopting means that sharpen contradiction and confrontation that can have only zero-sum outcomes, or by adopting a problems approach and the skillful use of diplomacy and persuasion to mitigate bilateral problems. The latter approach need not breach the a djustment or compromise threshold of the two countries on issues that involve national sensitivity. The choices made will determine whether the next 50 years of state relations will be more constructive and mutually beneficial for both India and China, t han the past half century has been.

Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea is with the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

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