Saturday, Nov 26, 2022

Beware the rhyme of history

If the past is any guide, neither appeasement nor empty bluster will work against China. India must initiate urgent reform of its archaic defence structures

 German annexation, Spanish civil war, world war 1, civil war, adolf hitler, george bush, jawaharlal nehru, Sino-Indian War, Neville Chamberlain, munich conference Termed “tianxia” in Mandarin, the “Chinese dream” envisages the establishment of a hegemonic Chinese Empire as the centre of world authority to which other nations must show deference. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

It is “Peace for our time”, declared British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on September 30, 1938, as he returned from the Munich Conference having tamely agreed to the German annexation of Czechoslovakian territories. This was to be the penultimate act of appeasement before Germany triggered World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939.

Well before it sparked this global conflagration, Germany had provided enough evidence of its hegemonic intent and utter disdain for the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, crafted for the purpose of preventing German re-militarisation. In contravention of its provisions, Adolf Hitler introduced conscription, sent his military to gain combat experience in the Spanish civil war and then, in 1936, re-occupied Rhineland. Emboldened by the passivity of Britain and the European powers, this was followed, in 1938, by the forcible union (Anschluss) of Austria with the Third Reich because of its German-speaking majority. Craven appeasement and hopeless optimism had set the stage for the Gotterdammerung that was to follow, exactly a year after Munich.

History, according to Mark Twain, “does not repeat itself but it rhymes”. On the 100th anniversary of World War I, Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan had pointed out uncanny similarities between the contemporary geopolitical landscape and the Europe of 1914. She argued in an essay that the same structural forces that led to the Great War a century ago could be in action in 2014. Mercifully, the centennial of WW I came and went peacefully, but MacMillan endorses Mark Twain with her advice: “If we can see past our blinders and take note of the telling parallels between then and now… history does give us valuable lessons.”

Till recently, most of us were convinced that the power of economics and globalisation would not permit another great war. President George Bush was articulating all our fond hopes when he said that, “the spread of democracy and free trade across the world would form the surest guarantee of world peace.” Yet, the extraordinary growth of trade and investment between China and the US has not served to dampen suspicion and tensions.

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On the contrary, says China expert Michael Pillsbury, there has been a belated realisation in the US that eight Presidential administrations following Nixon’s have actively assisted the ascent of a militaristic China in the mistaken belief that they were helping a weak and victimised country become a liberal, democratic nation. There is angst in America over the notion that by handing over sensitive information, technology, military know-how and expert advice, the US has actually helped the achievement of the “Chinese dream”.

Termed “tianxia” in Mandarin, the “Chinese dream” envisages the establishment of a hegemonic Chinese Empire as the centre of world authority to which other nations must show deference. This may explain the Chinese foreign minister’s patronising remark at the 2010 ASEAN conference to his Singaporean counterpart: “China is a big country and other countries are small, and that’s just a fact.” A brief look at post-1949 events reveals the inherent bellicosity of the Chinese state.

Soon after the end of the Civil War in 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drove into the East Turkistan Republic and incorporated it into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Ever since then, the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has been engaged in serial strife: The occupation of Tibet and the entry of the PRC into the Korean War in 1950; suppression of the Tibetan uprising in 1959; the Sino-Indian War of 1962; involvement in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1969; a seven-month long conflict with the USSR in 1969; a major conflict with Vietnam in 1979. Skirmishes in the South China Sea (SCS) and tensions across the Taiwan Strait have occurred with regularity all the while.


Given its growing economic and military strength, revisionist outlook and past record, China can be expected to push its influence in the region, grab territory and re-write the rules of international conduct to suit its own interests. A recent manifestation of China’s belligerence is the campaign of “cartographic expansion” that it has mounted through the “9-dash line” in the SCS and repudiation of the 1914 McMahon line on the India-China border. Other examples of Chinese intransigence are the illegal creation and militarisation of artificial islands in the SCS and its contemptuous dismissal of UN arbitration on these sovereignty issues.

The choices for India in the face of Chinese hegemony are stark. The constraints of India’s political system render it unlikely that it can bridge the economic and military gap vis-à-vis China within a reasonable time. Distracted as they are by intense political activity, and their preoccupation with interminable election campaigns, our political elite seem incapable of applying themselves to strategic thinking or planning. Even though the Sino-Indian equation is tilted in China’s favour, as a democracy, a nuclear weapon state and a significant economic and military power, it is incumbent upon India to stand firm as a bulwark against regional hegemony.

As it seeks its “manifest destiny”, India badly needs breathing space for growth and consolidation within a democratic framework. But Beijing, hard-nosed as ever, is dropping unsubtle hints that it could be “peace for our times” if China gets to keep Aksai Chin and India surrenders Tawang. Ironically, this is the time that India’s defence budget has hit a historic low of 1.6 per cent of GDP and its arsenal is full of voids.


Neither appeasement, nor empty bluster — as PM Nehru found to his cost in 1962 — will work with China. The pundits on Raisina Hill are, once again, chanting the mantra of “jang nahin hogi” (there will be no war). Should this prophecy prove correct, it will be great news for the country. But chances of it coming true will rise exponentially if India keeps its powder dry by crafting a grand strategy, by initiating urgent reform of our archaic defence structures and by reviving our comatose military-industrial complex.

First published on: 24-03-2017 at 12:12:53 am
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