The brutal Chinese ambush that killed Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh last week will hopefully compel Delhi to confront the enduring tragedy of India’s China policy. That tragedy is rooted in persistent political fantasies, refusal to learn from past mistakes, and the belief that the US and the West are at the source of India’s problems with China.
This is not about blaming one party or another that ruled Delhi in the last seven decades. There is plenty of blame to go around; and the problem predates independence. Each generation has compounded the challenge with the reluctance to discard the illusions that India’s China policy has nurtured over the last century.
Let us start with Rabindranath Tagore, who went to China in 1924 with the ambition of developing a shared Asian spiritual civilisation. Tagore returned deeply disappointed as radical groups, including members of the newly formed Chinese Communist Party, turned on the poet and his hosts for conspiring to divert Chinese attention away from the imperatives of modernisation and, yes, westernisation.
Next was the turn of Jawaharlal Nehru, who approached China as a modernist and nationalist. He met a delegation of Chinese nationalists at Brussels in 1927 and issued a ringing statement on defeating western imperialism and shaping a new Asian and global order. But when the Second World War broke out a decade later, the Congress was unwilling to join hands with China in defeating Japanese imperialism. For all the exalted rhetoric of anti-imperialism, Indian and Chinese nationalists could not come together for they were fighting different imperial powers.
As India’s first PM, Nehru reached out to the Communist rulers of China, campaigned against the western attempt to isolate them, serenaded Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955. Within five years, India and China were at each other’s throats and a war broke out in 1962. Atal Bihari Vajpayee traveled to China in February 1979 to re-engage Beijing. Before he could head home, Beijing had launched a war against a fellow communist regime in Vietnam. So much for Asian solidarity! Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 sought to normalise relations with China while continuing to negotiate on the boundary dispute.
That defined a template that in the end neither normalised the relationship nor resolved the boundary dispute. To make matters worse, other issues have taken a life of their own — for example, the massive annual trade deficits. If India thought economic cooperation will improve mutual trust and create conditions for resolving political differences with China, it has been in for a rude shock. India’s massive trade deficit with China is now a little over half of its total trade deficit. Worse, India is finding it hard to disentangle the deep economic dependence on imports from China and resurrect its manufacturing sector.
As the Cold War came to a close, India bet that political cooperation with China on global issues will provide the basis for better bilateral relations. It could not have been more wrong. P V Narasimha Rao and his successors joined China and Russia in promoting a “multipolar world” — the code for limiting America’s power after Washington came out victorious in the Cold War and facilitated the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Nearly a quarter of a century after embarking on a strategy to blunt America’s “unipolar moment”, Delhi is now struggling to cope with the emergence of a “unipolar Asia” — with Beijing as its dominant centre. China’s rapid rise has also paved the way for the potential emergence of a “bipolar world” dominated by Washington and Beijing.
That brings us to the perennial illusion in Delhi about Asian and anti-Western solidarity with China. Despite the failure of the repeated efforts to construct such unity with China — in the interwar years, the decade after independence, and the post Cold War years — the Indian elite persists with the myth.
Linked to this is the unyielding claim that the US is seeking to divide India and China; but for the evil imperialists, the fantasy goes, Delhi and Beijing would be enjoying everlasting peace and friendship. The fact is, we don’t need America to divide India and China; our respective territorial nationalisms and irreconcilable conflicts of interest do that job rather well.
There are other interesting facts, too. The British imperialists, for example, wanted Indian and Chinese nationalists to unite against Japanese imperialists during the Second World War. London encouraged Chiang Kai-shek to visit India and meet with Mahatma Gandhi; Gandhi met Chiang but refused to cooperate. While the Congress opted out of the war, British India, Great Britain and the US embarked on a massive effort to support the beleaguered Chinese government in Chungking.
China never really bought into the Indian ideas of building coalitions against the West. While India never stopped arguing with the West, China developed a sustained engagement with the US, Europe and Japan. Mao broke with Communist Russia to join forces with the US in the early 1970s, less than two decades after he fought the American forces in the Korean War. Deng Xiaoping promoted massive economic cooperation with the US to transform China and lay the foundations for its rise.
While China has leveraged the deep relationship with the West to elevate itself in the international system, Delhi continues to think that staying away from America is the answer for good relations with Beijing. Beijing sees the world through the lens of power, while Delhi tends to resist that realist prism. India has consistently misread China’s interests and ambitions. The longer India takes to shed that strategic lassitude, the greater will be its China trouble.
Delhi needs to come to terms with the fact that a gigantic power has risen on its door step. India must also recognise that China, like the great powers before it, wants to redeem its territorial claims, has the ambition to bend the neighbourhood to its will, reshape the global order to suit its interests. China has certainly not hidden these goals and interests; but India has refused to see what is in plain sight.
Acknowledging China’s dramatic rise and recognising the scale of the challenge it presents are the first steps for Delhi in crafting a new China policy. For the Modi government, this should be a valuable opportunity to get back to basics on restoring internal political coherence, accelerating economic modernisation and expanding India’s national power.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 23, 2020 under the title “End of make-believe”. The writer is Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express