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India can never trust the Chinese again!

October 14, 2020 19:24 IST
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'Magnanimity and appeasement have no place in the world of realpolitik as India has learned the hard way,' notes Vivek Gumaste in the first of a two-part column.

IMAGE: An Indian Army convoy on its way to the border with China, October 10, 2020. Photograph: PTI Photo



Nations carve their destinies by their own foibles -- or their own fortitude.

India's current predicament vis-à-vis China is a crisis of its own making; a self-inflicted disaster precipitated by decades of naive idealism, astounding gullibility and incredible obsequiousness -- all of which have contributed to a shoddy and lackadaisical military preparedness.

The immediate priority is to restore the status quo ante peaceably along the nebulous LAC by negotiations, aggressive posturing and international pressure.

However, more importantly, what this spat must do is to shake India out of its reverie, prompt a reassessment of our existing China policy and set in process a new, robust blueprint for the future.

Consumed by Pakistan's shenanigans along the LoC and lulled into a sense of complacency by China's double entendre, India’s China policy has suffered visible neglect over the years.

The genesis of India's tentative and faltering China policy must be traced back to Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.

Nehru was smitten by China and conceptualised a new world order in which the two emerging Asian powers would work together to ensure peace and harmony.

However, Nehru's vision was at odds with China's geo-political ambitions: Believing in its own exceptionalism, China dreamt of a unipolar world in which China alone would be the dominant power not only in Asia but also the world; there was no place for India in its grand scheme.

After China invaded Tibet in 1950, Sardar Patel, India's home minister, warned Nehru: 'Recent and bitter history tells us that Communism is no shield against imperialism and that the Communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include important parts of Assam.'

But Nehru failed to see the writing on the wall. He disregarded the Chinese threat; he chose to blindly trust the Chinese, taken in by their superficial protestations and the rousing reception that he was accorded when he visited China in 1954.

On his return to India he remarked: 'The mighty welcome' he had received 'was not because I am Jawaharlal with any special ability but because I am prime minister of India for which the Chinese people cherish in their hearts the greatest of love and with which they want to maintain the friendliest of relations.' (page 172, Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi).

In his naivete he surmised that it was 'exceedingly unlikely' that India would face an attack from China and despite the happenings in Tibet, India should reach 'some kind of understanding with China, for India and China at peace with each other would make a vast difference to the whole set-up and balance of the world.'

This 'some kind of understanding' was the beginning of an open-ended disastrous appeasement approach that has been the bane of our China policy.

On its part, China continued to pull wool over our eyes, espousing a false fraternity ('Hindi-Chini bhai bhai') even as it surreptitiously constructed a road linking Sinkiang to Tibet through the Indian territory of Aksai Chin.

Eventually, when India objected, China settled the dispute via a 21-day war which India was ill-prepared for. India was ignominiously humiliated, bruised seriously and left badly shattered.

The betrayal was too much for Nehru to bear; he was a broken man and was never able to overcome the treachery -- he died two years later.

Despite the betrayal of 1962, successive Indian prime ministers continued to reach out to China.

Under the current government as well, there was a sustained effort to woo China in the hope of burying the past and looking to the future.

The 'Wuhan Spirit' and the 'Chennai Connect', referring to the two informal summits -- Wuhan, April 28, 2018 and Mahabalipuram, October 11, 2019 -- held between Narendra Modi and PXi Jinping were meant to embody the ethos of India-China relations.

Nevertheless, barely seven months after the Mahabalipuram summit, in an act reminiscent of the duplicity of the 1950s China forcibly entered and occupied Indian territory; a complete negation of what the two informal summits were supposed to convey.

The trust deficit engendered by the current altercation will be difficult to bridge and, honestly speaking, India should not even attempt to do so. It must work under the assumption that China is an untrustworthy neighbour to avoid further grief in the future -- lesson number one.

To finetune our China policy we need to decipher the Chinese mindset -- lesson number two.

While China has outpaced India in the last two-three decades both economically and militarily, the two nations were similarly placed in the 1950s. However, China has always deemed India to be an upstart, inferior power which needed to be put in place -- 'taught a lesson' -- if need be repeatedly.

Kuldip Nayyar, the veteran journalist, in his book The Critical Years writes: 'After the Chinese attack on India in October 1962, Shastri told many persons: "We are the ones who in fact introduced Prime Minister Chou En-lai to the non-aligned powers in Bandung." When this remark reached Chou En-lai he reportedly observed that he was surprised at the 'effrontery of a third-rate power like India claiming to introduce to the world the prime minister of a first-rate power like China.'

Sarvepalli Gopal in his authoritative biography of Nehru quotes a Chinese official who explains that the prime objective of the 1962 war was to demolish India's 'arrogance' and 'illusions of grandeur' and that China 'had taught India a lesson and, if necessary, they would teach her a lesson again and again.'

Nearly six decades later, Chinese opinion of India has not changed. During the Doklam crisis in 2017 an article in the official Chinese mouthpiece Global Times warned: 'The famous or infamous India bravado is never backed up by substance in its history with China. If memory is short on the Indian side, perhaps there should be a second lesson.' (Time for a second lesson for forgetful India. Global Times, 7/24/2017).

And more recently, Song Zhongping writing in Global Times, surmised, 'China claimed victory in the 1962 war, which should be a lesson for India. India should not make provocations. If it does, history will repeat itself'.

Lesson Number Three: Traits like magnanimity and appeasement have no place in the mundane world of realpolitik as India has learned the hard way and must be jettisoned in favour of a more transactional approach.

India has always been generous in its dealings with China. After Independence, India became an enthusiastic supporter of China; Nehru advocated and facilitated China's permanent membership of the United Nations security council, lobbying with Egypt, Britain, Burma and the US to achieve his objective, even at the cost of India's own permanent seat at the UNSC.

If India was under the impression that its nicety would be reciprocated it was sadly mistaken. China has not only consistently blocked India's quest for a permanent seat, but has used its status in the security council to encourage Pakistan's India-centric terrorism.

Academic Vivek Gumaste, who is based in the United States, is the author of My India: Musings of a Patriot. You can e-mail the author at

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