Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the recent stand-off between the armies of India and China deserves attention for more than one reason. It represents the views of the Congress and it follows the allegations made by both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi that India has lost some of its territory to China and the government was hiding this fact.
The Indian Army and the government have denied that there have been Chinese incursions on Indian territory. The Indian Army’s integrity and apolitical character are beyond doubt. Political regimes change, but the armed forces largely remain unaffected by it. The army has safeguarded itself from vices such as casteism, communalism, regionalism etc, which have inflicted most of India’s institutions. Then army chief, General J J Singh, showed great resilience in the face of pressure from the UPA government to provide community-wise statistics of the army’s composition to the Sachar Committee in 2008. He categorically stated that patriotism was the only religion of the army.
Any discourse which unreasonably drags the armed forces into political controversy damages its reputation and demoralises it.
Being a former prime minister, Manmohan Singh is expected to know this better than any of his party colleagues. The threat perception from China needs no evidence; it has been more than obvious. But restating it exposes pre-Modi governments, particularly the ones that were headed by the Congress. The 1962 war that led India to lose 38,000 sq km of strategic territory was the result of self-betrayal by the Nehru administration. Warnings from the socialists, RSS, and prominent faces in his own party were ignored. Congress governments, including the UPA under Manmohan Singh, left 3,800 km of India-China border open without adequate infrastructure. The Chinese military has engaged in territorial adventurism every single year since 1962. The pace of construction of roads, rail bridges and airports on the Indian side of the border has been slow compared to the situation on the Chinese side. Then defence minister, A K Antony, admitted as much in Parliament in 2013. The speed at which infrastructure is built on the Indian side of the border has increased since the Modi government took charge. Therefore, the Congress lacks moral ground to tutor the Modi government on defence preparedness.
We should not allow domestic political concerns to influence the public discourse on China. In 1959, the Jana Sangh leader Deendayal Upadhyay described the Chinese creed as “cartographic aggression”. Those who denigrate it as “jingoism” not only fail to understand nationalism but are also guilty of condoning China’s strategy of perpetual expansionism. India cannot neutralise China’s territorial ambitions by chanting peace; it can do so only by acquiring power. Hollow idealism cannot protect national boundaries and sovereignty.
China’s speeding economic growth cannot — and should not — be the only parameter to judge its character. It is devoid of democracy and abhors liberalism, both hallmarks of the modern world. Xi’s philosophy is to convince Europe, the US and India that its political system and ideology of governance are superior to theirs. A report by the Global Public Policy Institute (‘Authoritarian Advance’, February 2018) says the Chinese leadership “aims to present its political concepts as a competitive, and ultimately superior, political and economic model”.
Xi has acquired more power than Mao ever could. There is an unprecedented concentration of power at the top. Like any other dictator, he believes in confrontational tactics and uses both muscle and money as tools of geopolitical strategy and to further hegemonic ambitions. The US Congress realised this back in 2005, when it overwhelmingly voted against Chinese state oil company, CNOOC, making an $18.5-billion bid for Unocal. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, countries such as Australia and Japan, wary of Chinese domination, have started safeguarding their economic sovereignty. The resurrection of an era of national self-reliance and non-hegemonic relationships in economic and trade matters is causing pain to China.
Xi made another tactical shift to further his agenda in countries such as India. The pre-Xi regimes used communist parties to serve their interests and image under the facade of “ideological fraternity”. Xi realised the limitations of this strategy and took two steps forward, surprising non-communist forces. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unhesitatingly mingles with non-Left parties and tries to cultivate pro-Chinese sentiments using soft power. At the 19th party congress of the CCP in October 2017, Xi unravelled a new ideological roadmap for China in unambiguous terms. It proposed to export “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems faced by mankind” and “contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance”. This is the advocacy of illiberalism and a rejection of open society.
Chinese political interest in India is not a new phenomenon. Earlier, it was guided by ideology and closely linked to Indian communists. The conflict between the former Soviet Union and China cast its shadow on the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the 1962 war became a reason for the CPI to split. The 32 members of the CPI National Council who protested the party’s resolution that declared China an aggressor formed the CPI(M). The CCP engineered another split in the CPI(M), leading to the formation of CPI(ML) in 1967. Peking Radio and Chinese media openly encouraged the rebellions in the CPI(M). Things have now changed under Xi. Not all are in the same boat but all roads lead to Rome.
Systematically, Chinese influence increased in the media, academia, opinion industry, NGOs and even social-cultural organisations, not only in India but also in Europe. They used proxy lobbies to reach out to those who seemed inaccessible to them. The pact between the Congress and the CCP and the invitations extended to ideological adversaries are a part of this outreach strategy. The hospitality extended to them and the facade of collaborations in art, culture, scholarships, etc help Beijing trivialise narratives that expose authoritarianism, restrictions on individual liberties, distortion of Marxism, and, above all, the human rights violations in China.
Beijing’s role in Taiwan and Hong Kong caused no consternation among the Indian people. This is a reversal of Indian people’s consciousness against Chinese expansionism in the 1950s and 1960s. Leaders, including Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Deendayal Upadhyay and J B Kripalani, openly professed the independence of Tibet and sovereignty of Taiwan. Raghu Vira, a member of the Constituent Assembly who left the Congress in opposition to Nehru’s China policy in 1961, said the overwhelming support to Nehru’s China policy in both Houses of Parliament “constitutes a picture of fatuity and fickleness, which though devoid of guile is not devoid of guilt, for it has prepared the ground for unleashing upon the Asian world horrors and miseries unknown to the history”.
Modi’s unambiguous policy towards China is reflected in New Delhi’s defence preparedness and pragmatism in world politics. China’s displeasure shows the legacy of passivity and inaction that Modi inherited from his predecessors has been buried. It is also clear that India has come out of the self-inflicted delusion that China under Xi does not carry the legacy of Mao Zedong’s deception and lies.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 26, 2020 under the title ‘Understanding Xi’s China’. The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP and member of the BJP.
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