Who is afraid of the Chinese dragon?

It is extremely important for India to further assure Bhutan of support, as also assuage the anti-India feelings in Nepal.

 |  4-minute read |   15-07-2017
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In the late 1950s, I remember as a child the elation in New Delhi over the liberation of China, after Mao Zedong led the legendary Great March to outwit the Japanese imperialists. Mao, Zhou En Lai all became great names.

In the earlier 1950s, my grandparents, one a prominent educationist and the other a well-known doctor, were part of a mission to China. In later years, this wind of decolonisation, later non-alignment, brought diverse countries like China, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, India and others into the non-alignment bloc avoiding the allure of US regional forces.

In less than a decade, the winds of friendship between China and India changed. Though India recognised Tibet as an integral part of China, the latter was extremely annoyed with India providing shelter to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. This sparked off a border dispute as early as 1959.

The problem was that the Chinese rejected the British-drawn borders which they had never accepted, whereas the Indian government recognised the MacMohan border demarcation. In that period, PM Jawaharlal Nehru dug his heels in and refused further talks.

With the breakdown of talks, with Zhou En Lai not invited to find a mutually acceptable compromise, tension grew on the Sino-Indian border. It was a complete mismatch on the border. The Indian troops were on lower ground whereas the Chinese troops controlled the heights.

The Indian troops lacked warm clothing, mountain boots, modern assault rifles and artillery support. There was no Indian mountain brigade. To make matters worse, Nehru took the bad advice of Lt General BM Kaul and IB chief BM Mallick to adopt a “forward policy” in 1962, which meant that ill-prepared Indian troops would occupy positions claimed by China.

War was inevitable. So was the crushing defeat of the poorly-armed Indian Army which had to face an overwhelming force from high ground. The Indian forces were routed. All this was avoidable.

The defence minister VK Krishna Menon had to resign as the scapegoat due to extreme pressure, including from the President of India. Most tragic was the loss of the Panchsheel spirit.

The current Sino-Indian friendship ties are comparatively weak compared to the early years. With current events which are straining ties, a lot of patient, painstaking diplomacy is required. Unfortunately, the Chinese have their own ambitions and are creating new tensions on the Indian borders.

charkha_071517071635.jpgChina wanted India to be part of its One Belt One Road project. Photo: PTI

As before China has questioned the demarcated borders and is now threatening Doklam in Bhutan, as well as areas in Arunachal Pradesh. There is an intriguing development to all this.

China wanted India to be part of its One Belt One Road project, its highly ambitious “one belt, one road” policy. For India the problem is that the “one road” would infringe on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” - PoK - which India cannot accept. The Chinese, who are now very close to Pakistan with the latter becoming a quasi-client state of China, feel affronted since a number of countries have accepted OBOR and other connected issues.

But the Sino-Indian problem is more complex. The Chinese claim large parts of islands, littoral states including maritime routes on the South China Sea. These countries, in the main, have not accepted the Chinese claims. However, India has entered into an agreement with Vietnam to prospect in the islands the latter has claimed. This has annoyed China which had attacked Vietnam more than a decade ago, and had to retreat to Cambodia.

Further, the Indian, Japanese and US Navies are carrying out exercises in the Malabar region of the Indian Ocean, relatively close to the South China Sea. But very few countries are even willing to negotiate Chinese claims to the littoral states or its domination of the South China Sea, where it also claims the sole right of passage.

This is against the maritime right to passage in the South China Sea. Since the Indian Navy has been part of this flotilla, the Chinese are furthered annoyed with their Indian neighbours.

Therefore, the issue is not solely about India’s northern borders. The pressures exerted there are linked to the extreme southern borders on the Malabar coast. A later political gambit of China is to claim that if Indian occupies Bhutan, the Chinese have every right to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir.

But even when the Plebiscite Resolution was being debated in the UN in 1947-48, the Chinese were not party. In fact, China was not even a member of the UN then. So the Chinese warnings and even threats have little legal basis.

Nonetheless, Indian policymakers need to pursue patient and prudent discussions with the Chinese to allay their apprehensions. It is extremely important for India to further assure Bhutan of support, as also assuage the anti-India feelings in Nepal. These important neighbours have not been as vigorously wooed as they should have been. This is a serious shortcoming in our current foreign policy. It must be corrected at the earliest.

Also read: Forget OBOR, China should first resolve border issue with India


Kamal Mitra Chenoy Kamal Mitra Chenoy @kamaichenoy

The writer is an academic and activist.

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