The China syndrome

For China, India is not just a bordering country; it is the unstated ‘Other’, the perennial would-be challenger. This changes the stakes for it.

In October this year, India commemorates the 50th anniversary of the war with China. That defining conflict of 1962 — with its military humiliation and crippling of Jawaharlal Nehru — still haunts this country. Its memory triggers a whole range of often conflicting emotions about China — from fear to wariness, obstinacy to hostility.

As a result, there is no one Indian view on China in the establishment but several. This has been reflected in New Delhi’s position in years of border negotiations. Different interlocutors have represented different schools of thought — sometimes giving the impression that India can give away more than it can; sometimes adopting a harder line than warranted; sometimes negotiating not with the idea of settling the dispute but with the sacred belief that India must stall for time.
Not all the prevarication and equivocation is India’s fault. China’s record is far starker. Its disavowal of realism is one of the issues hanging over the current negotiations, to be renewed in New Delhi this week.
The talks take place in a context. Despite the occasional problem, 2011 was a remarkably placid year for India-China relations. True, the talks were scheduled for December 2011 and postponed after the Chinese delegation refused to be present in the Indian capital at the same time as the Dalai Lama. True, battles between dodgy Indian businessmen and their Chinese associates — “crooks meeting thugs, and both hiding behind patriotism”, as one observer puts it — do make for great
television.
Nevertheless compared to, say, 2008 or 2009 — when the Chinese adopted a nasty tone, needled India and seriously sought to sabotage India’s Nuclear Suppliers’ Group exemption — things look much better. There are several reasons for this. Primarily, the Chinese perception of American decline after the financial crisis of 2008 gave them a sense of triumphalism that proved premature.
From Vietnam to Japan, China began flexing muscles as Asia’s self-appointed Big Brother. In the context of India, Beijing seemed to reconsider a 50-year-old position on Jammu and Kashmir and see it as contested territory. This has been slipped under the carpet but could yet come back to trouble the relationship.
Overall, though, the past 12 months have been of a different order. Faced with a backlash in the Asia-Pacific region — and seeing everybody from the Asean nations, which have moved closer to India, and Australia (which has announced a stronger US naval presence on its territory) stare back — China has blinked. There has been a courting of India and a studious refusal to get into a war of words over the smallest provocation, unlike 2009.
Of course, this new gentleness may only be short-term and expedient. As soon as China regains its robustness — when its economic concerns, caused by the potential of Eurozone implosion, and its leadership’s generational transition are behind it — it could speak a different language. Even so, there now is a window — even if just a two-odd year window — for India to settle the border dispute.
Success will depend on how soon and how easily both sides can overcome the ghosts of history. In India, 1962 remains a potent memory. In a year when the sacrifice and incredible courage of its soldiers — equipped with ordinary guns and canvas shoes and sent to fight in the heights of the Himalayas — will be recalled and paid a justifiable tribute, especially as the anniversary of that traumatic October approaches, an honourable compromise with China will not be the message many would want to hear.
There are other pitfalls. The India-China equation has a history going back well before 1962. In the 1950s, border arguments floundered on different interpretations of the Treaty of Tingmosgang, signed in 1684 between the King of Ladakh and the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa. The McMahon Line, dividing India and China, is itself the product of cartographic experiments by the British Raj.
Having said that, China has been willing to overcome maximalist claims and take a generous view while resolving border disputes with other countries. It is only in the case of India that it insists on an agreement that will result in territorial advance.
For an Indian government — any Indian government — the prospect of getting back territory it may have lost vis-à-vis China is unrealistic. A halfway house that does not disturb the status quo and keeps settled populations where they are can be sold to India’s people. What cannot be sold is surrender of territory currently under India’s control.
This is a common-sense view but, as ministry of external affairs officials have pointed out in the past, not everybody in Beijing sees it for what it is. There continues to be hope for some territorial concession by New Delhi. This could be of strategic (or, more accurately, tactical) advantage in a localised military exchange. This could be deemed necessary merely to establish China as the superior power that got the better of India.
Whatever the reasons and sources of Beijing’s optimism — whether a misreading of previous negotiators or an inability to understand the limits of a government’s autonomy in a democracy — the point is the Chinese delegation’s capacity and willingness to harmonise
millenarianism with pragmatism will be a key factor.
For China, India is not just another bordering country; it is the unstated “Other”, the perennial would-be challenger. This changes the stakes for it.
In his book, An Odyssey in War and Peace (Roli, 2011), Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob describes a 1958 visit by a Chinese military delegation to Ambala: “During the banquet organised for the visitors I was taken aback by the remarks of a Chinese general that ‘China would never forget that Indian troops took part in the sacking and looting of the Summer Palace during the 2nd Opium War’.” That was in October 1860.
Two bloody Octobers, 102 years apart, have had Indians and Chinese forming hardened impressions of each other; and these are anyway societies with long memories. If they want to settle their border, they need not a rear-view mirror but an eye to the future. Good luck to the interlocutors.

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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