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How India, China can mastermind the Asian century

January 05, 2010 17:22 IST

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) says that Sino-Indian cooperation at the Copenhagen climate summit is a sign of things to come.

The most important occurrence of the last year of the first decade of the 21st century was the Copenhagen climate summit. I am not referring to the non-agreement on climate change but to the unprecedented co-operation seen between China and India.

The coming together of the two of the world's fastest growing economies was indeed an event of great significance. It showed the convergence of long-term interests of the two countries and also showed the kind of clout the two can wield together. Not surprisingly the 'dominant' Western media (and its slavish counterpart in India) totally missed the significance of this coming together of the Asian giants. Remarkably, this happened despite the heightened rhetoric between the two countries over Arunachal Pradesh and the Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang.

The first decade of the 21st century could well be called the wasted decade! Surely there have been even more miserable periods in world history, but in terms of human misery and lack of hope, the last decade comes quite close to the top.

The first decade started on a hopeful note with the dotcom boom and the end of the cold war era. But the attack on the US on 9/11 in 2001 eclipsed the optimism. The Afghan war and Iraq war hastened the economic decline of the US that plunged the world into a recession. But ironically, the world economic crisis (could also be described as the economic scams in the West) also showed the strength of the Chinese and Indian economies.

These two not only weathered the storm but have now emerged as the engines that would pull the world out of a recession. Indeed, the economic relations between the two countries are excellent.

The trust deficit

Unfortunately the economic relations are not reflected at the political level. Indians could possibly understand Chinese actions in the past when as part of the Cold War dynamics, it supplied Pakistan with nuclear weapons material and technology. But if the relations are to move forward China has to be restrained in using the Pakistani proxy to hurt India. It is instructive that while India accepts Tibet as an integral part of China, the Chinese do not reciprocate on Kashmir.

The Chinese are peeved at the Indian support and asylum to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees. But except for the 1960s and 1970s, when India actively colluded with the US to foster unrest and armed struggle in Tibet, this has ceased since the 1980s. Today the Chinese acknowledge this reality and have themselves been holding secret talks with the Dalai Lama's representatives.

Equally significantly, the Chinese support to insurgents in India's northeast is also now a thing of the past. My contacts with the Tibetans have convinced me that regional autonomy (not independence) will satisfy the majority of Tibetans and the Dalai Lama. The Chinese are wrong if they think that they can wait it out till the passing away of the present Dalai Lama, for the younger generation of Tibetans is even more radical. Chinese concessions on autonomy, on the lines of Kashmir, will remove this major irritant in relations between the two countries.

The border issue is another area that engenders lack of trust. The border war of 1962 itself has its genesis in Chinese suspicion that India was acting as the American cat's paw. Else it found it surprising that India made an issue out of Aksai Chin, an area of no strategic significance to India but vital to the Chinese (as a link between the restive provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang). An overbearing Jawaharlal Nehru and an opportunity provided by the Cuban missile crisis (of October 1962) were contributory causes.

Here the Chinese failed to understand the dynamics of Indian democracy that forced Nehru's hand. Although a minute reading of the Henderson Brooks Report does hint that a group within the Government of India was possibly responsible to provoke a war with China so that India should land in the American camp. (The sole surviving copy of the report was in my custody during the writing of that history).

In a sense both the countries were 'insecure' in their initial years. China suspected a Western design to undo it through Taiwan (then called the Republic of China and given a seat in the UN Security Council) and Tibet. In the words of Krishna Menon, Pakistan was an imperial outpost in South Asia to further Western interests. Nearly 60 years on, while China has dealt with Taiwan and Tibet, India remains insecure as ever.

For unlike China, the Kashmir issue and Pakistani intrigues continue to attempt to destabilise India. The trust deficit is therefore asymmetric, with India the greater loser.

India, China, US triangle

A triangular relationship, as in Euclidean geometry, is forever unstable. Any two sides if they come together will always be greater than the third. My research into the Kennedy archives in 2003 unearthed some interesting American research papers. Right from the early 1960s, the US has been concerned with a rising China.

The basic theme of the American policy papers was to follow a twin track policy vis a vis China -- economic engagement and military containment. Except for the disastrous Ronald Reagan era when this was abandoned and China received generous American help in military technology (that also created the Frankenstein of Islamist terror and Pakistan's nuclear arsenal) and this policy has continued.

China is deeply suspicious of the US, Japan, India and Australia axis that seems to be emerging. The Chinese response has been to have its own naval bases around the Indian Ocean (the strings of pearls -- Gawadhar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Coco Islands in Myanmar).

A couple of years ago, out of the blue, I got a call from a foreign student doing her doctorate in a leading Chinese university. She wanted to discuss the impact of US technology transfer to India and it adverse effect on the 'Asian balance of power', as she put it. During my limited interaction with the Chinese, a few years ago, I also saw this issue being brought up again and again by the Chinese.

The main concern of the Chinese in the coming decade is likely to be the American attempt at military containment of China. For in the immediate future at least, the US is likely to remain a predominant military power.

Way forward for Chindia

The trust deficit between India and China is the main obstacle in the way of mutual co-operation. A prominent person involved in the border negotiations had once told me that the Chinese do not seem to be interested in resolving the border issue. I suspect that border issue is being kept alive by the Chinese as a convenient casus belli should it decide to intervene militarily in the subcontinent at some future date.

The border issue as an easy option has long gone past its expiry date. Any military expert would point to the Chinese that the days of easy 'victory' a la 1962 are long past. India is far too strong on the border as evidenced during the 1987 Somradong Chu incident near Tawang.

There are no strategic targets or natural resources for the Chinese to covet Arunachal Pradesh. The persistence of her claim is belied by the recent elections in Arunachal Pradesh where the people showed their preference to be with India. The periodic sabre-rattling by the Chinese over this issue seems to be a result of bureaucratic inertia that refuses to see the altered circumstances.

In the north, in Ladakh, the Chinese are already in occupation of the portion of Aksai Chin it wanted. India has never seriously challenged this status quo. But India may find it politically difficult to openly accept this. In the other sectors of Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh-Tibet border there is no dispute.

If the Chinese want, the two countries can begin the process of resolution of the border problem by accepting and demarcating the border in the central sector. This will create the necessary climate to resolve the Ladakh and Arunachal borders with some give and take or some creative solutions like permanent lease etc. The Chinese claim on Tawang town, based on the fact that it was once part of Tibet, can be countered by the Indian claim that Chumbi valley and Gartok were once part of Sikkim! Solution on the lines proposed above can build trust between India and China.

Rumour has it that in 1960, in order to resolve the issue of Aksai Chin, Chinese Premier Chou En Lie had offered a swap between Chumbi valley and Aksai Chin! Nehru missed that chance and rest as they say is history! China and India can ill-afford to let pass another opportunity to bury the past.

But no genuine rapprochement between the two is possible unless the Chinese tone down their support to their proxy in the subcontinent -- Pakistan. From the Chinese point of view there is sound logic in supporting Pakistan. Pakistan's raison d'être for existence is anti-Indianism. Thus it is a useful insurance against India.

In the last decade or so, China has replaced the US as its principal military supplier. To some extent, aided by a timid and unimaginative Indian approach to Pakistan, China has been successful in keeping India bogged down in the subcontinent. But common sense would dictate that the cost of insurance should not be excessive so that it bankrupts. Somewhat that situation has arisen vis a vis Pakistan. As India's power rises, the cost of keeping Indo-Pak parity would rise.

In addition the situation in Pakistan is such that its continued existence is itself in doubt. China has to seriously think if it wants to keep all its strategic eggs in the leaky Pakistan basket!

The takeover of Pakistan by extremists is a real possibility. In that situation it would become an international pariah. Would China then like to go against the world and support such a rogue state? China is also well aware of the virus of terrorism can infect its Muslim majority province of Xinjiang. Reagan created the monster of Al Qaeda to fight the Russians and the US paid the price on 9/11. Does China want to repeat this and pay a price at some future date? Chinese restraint in using Pakistan proxy against India will do much to create trust and move Sino-Indian relations forward.

Today China and India combined have emerged as the biggest users of cell phones and computers. The basic programmes used however are an American monopoly. It is time that India and China created an operating programme and their own wireless standards. The world has the option to switch to this if it wants to communicate to the two biggest markets and economies. India and China combined can break the American monopoly in software. This has obvious strategic implications and is a win-win situation for both the counties.

Does the leadership of the two countries have it in them to seize this historic opportunity?


It needs to be remembered that except for the last 300 years, during the previous 5,000 years of recorded human history, it was India and China that dominated world trade and technology. An excellent book by a Goan scholar Claude Alvares, Homo Faber is must-read for anyone to know the reality of Indian and Chinese excellence in technology before the advent of the industrial revolution.

In early 20th century, a few years before the first world war broke out, the US overtook the UK in shipping tonnage. That marked the decline of UK as the world power and rise of the US. The effect of this major shift however became visible only in the post second world war period in 1945. In 1971 under President Nixon, the US abandoned the 'Gold Standard' that had linked US dollar to gold ($ 34 to an ounce). Future historians will mark that as the beginning of the end of the American century. Like in case of the UK, the effects of this major shift in world economic power are becoming visible only now.

The coming together of India and China over the climate change issue is similarly an event of epic proportion and may well set the tone for the next decade of the 21st 'Asian Century', provided the nations do not sacrifice long-term interests due to the exigencies of the present.

Colonel (retired) Anil Athale is coordinator of the Pune-based think tank Inpad and co-author of the official history of the 1962 Sino Indian War.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)