Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has been rightly excoriated for his government’s nonchalance in the face of stealthy Chinese incursions into eastern Ladakh in the 1950s and 60s, and the lame justification offered by him for the inaction. “Not a blade of grass grows in Aksai Chin,” he told Parliament, suggesting that the loss of this barren plateau was no big deal.
The debate has persisted whether it was China’s National Highway 219 cutting across Aksai Chin or Nehru’s misguided “forward policy” which constituted the actual casus belli for the Sino-Indian border-conflict of 1962. After declaring a unilateral ceasefire on November 20, troops of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) withdrew 20 kms behind what China described as the “line of actual control” (LAC), which generally conformed to the British-negotiated McMahon Line. In the west, the Chinese stuck to their 1959 claim-line in Ladakh, retaining physical control of the 14,700 sq km Aksai Chin.
Although the 1962 ceasefire line became the de facto Sino-Indian border, in a bizarre reality, both sides visualised their own version of the LAC, but neither marked it on the ground; nor were maps exchanged. This has inevitably led to frequent face-offs. If Nehru is blameworthy of strategic naïveté, his successors must be regarded as equally culpable of timidity and lack of resolve for not seeking a resolution of this issue.
Post-conflict, it is customary for belligerents to undertake early negotiations, in order to establish stable peace and eliminate the casus belli. Strangely, in the Sino-Indian context, it took 25 years and a serious military confrontation in 1987 to trigger a dialogue — leading the two countries to sign the first-ever Sino-Indian Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) in 1993. Indian diplomats claim that this has helped maintain “mutual and equal security”, while the bilateral relationship has progressed in other spheres. And yet, the failure to negotiate a boundary settlement after 22 meetings of special representatives of the two countries cannot be seen as anything but a failure of statesmanship and diplomacy.
In stark contrast to India’s vacuous strategic thinking, China’s post-civil war leadership had conceived an early vision of the country’s future. Ambitious and realist in scope, this strategy visualised China attaining, in the fullness of time, great-power status and acquiring a nuclear-arsenal. Since the vision saw no room for an Asian rival, neutralising India became a priority. It was for this specific purpose, that Pakistan was enlisted in 1963 as a partner. In China’s anti-India strategy, Pakistan has played an invaluable role by sustaining a “hot” border and holding out the threat of a two-front war.
In China’s grand-strategy, an undefined LAC has become a vital instrumentality to embarrass and keep India off-balance through periodic transgressions. These pre-meditated “land-grabs”, blunt messages of intimidation and dominance, also constitute a political “pressure-point” for New Delhi; especially since the Indian Parliament had passed a quixotic resolution in 1962 demanding that “every inch of Indian territory” be recovered from China.
While Indian troops have, so far, shown courage and restraint in these ridiculous brawls with the PLA, there is no guarantee that in a future melee, a punch on the nose will not invite a bullet in response. In such circumstances, rapid escalation into a “shooting-war” cannot be ruled out. Thereafter, should either side face a major military set-back, resort to nuclear “first-use” would pose a serious temptation.
For reasons of national security as well as self-respect, India cannot continue to remain in a “reactive mode” to Chinese provocations and it is time to respond in kind. Since India’s choices vis-à-vis China are circumscribed by the asymmetry in comprehensive national power, resort must be sought in realpolitik. According to theorist Kenneth Waltz, just as nature abhors a vacuum, international politics abhors an imbalance of power, and when faced with hegemonic threats, states must seek security in one of three options: Increase their own strength, ally with others to restore power-balance, or, as a last resort, jump on the hegemon’s bandwagon.
India’s decision-makers can start by posing this question to the military: “For how long do you have the wherewithal to sustain a combat against two adversaries simultaneously?” Depending on the response, they can consider the options. Neither Nehru, when faced with an aggressive China in 1962, nor Indira Gandhi in the run-up to the 1971 war, had any qualms of jettisoning the shibboleth of “non-alignment” and seeking support from the USA and USSR respectively. Today, India has greater freedom of action and many options to restore the balance of power vis-à-vis China. Even as Xi Jinping opens multiple fronts — apart from the COVID-19 controversy — across the South China Sea, South East Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Asia, Donald Trump is burning his bridges with China. In the world of realpolitik, self-interest trumps all and India must find friends where it can. Given China’s vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean and the real possibility of America losing its strategic foothold in Diego Garcia, India has a great deal to offer as a friend, partner or even an ally; with or without the Quad.
However, if ideological or other reasons preclude the building of a power-balancing alliance, coming to an honourable accommodation with China remains a pragmatic option. Zhou Enlai’s proposal of 1960 — repeated by Deng Xiaoping in 1982 — is worth re-examining in the harsh light of reality. The price of finding a modus vivendi for the Sino-Indian border dispute may be worth paying if it neutralises two adversaries at one stroke and buys lasting peace.
Neither option will be easy to “sell”. But given his nationalist credentials, a huge parliamentary majority, and a Teflon-coated image that has enabled many difficult decisions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is possibly the only leader who can do it.
(The writer is a retired chief of naval staff)