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Odd Arne Westad is an award-winning historian and one of the world’s foremost experts on the Cold War and contemporary East Asian history. He is a Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and the co-director of LSE IDEAS, a centre for the study of international affairs, diplomacy and grand strategy. His just-released book, Restless Empire, has already received critical acclaim. He talks to Pranay Sharma on Sino-Indian relations, what the simultaneous rise of the two Asian giants means as well as the challenges and opportunities before the two nations in the coming days.
Your most recent book, Restless Empire, looks at China’s interaction with the wider world since 1750. How would you interpret the history of Sino-Indian relations over the 20th century?
China and India have had an uncertain relationship all through the 20th century and up to the present day. During the anti-colonial period, many Chinese and Indians were inspired by each other; Tagore, for instance, had a major influence in China. But there was also an undercurrent in Chinese radical thinking of abhorrence at the Indian loss of independence and subservience to the British. India’s fate was an example of what China had to struggle to avoid. Some of these Chinese views have lasted up to today. India was far too influenced by the West, too easy in its intercourse with foreign cultures, for the taste of Chinese nationalist radicals. And even after Indian independence, there was always a suspicion in Beijing that India served British, or European, or Western interests as opposed to the increasingly radical orientation of many Chinese.
Why was the early bonhomie between the countries, the ‘Bandung moment’ as it has been called, so short-lived?
China had already chosen to align itself with the Soviet Union after the Communists won the civil war. Under Nehru, India was neutral during the last phase of the war and continued that neutrality (even if it was much critical of US policy) during the Korean War, which many Chinese saw as a war of self-defence against US expansion in Asia.
The ‘Bandung moment’ therefore did not so much come out of China’s identification with India as fellow Asians, as because of a reorientation in the Soviet Union’s foreign policy after Stalin. The Soviets wanted China to better its relations with Asian neutrals and Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese leadership followed suit. It should be said, though, that around and immediately after the Bandung conference, relations between China and India really did improve. As is so often the case in Sino-Indian relations, increased contact led to a realisation of common ground and viewpoints.
How important a factor was ideology in the framing of Chinese policy towards India, especially after the Great Leap Forward was launched by Mao?
It was in many ways China’s ideological development that destroyed the honeymoon with India in the 1950s. As Mao took his revolution further to the left, and began preparing for a break with the Soviets, the Chinese Communists antagonised large groups within their own country, especially minority groups around its borders. Obviously the contacts between Indian officials and Tibetan leaders—coming at a point when China was becoming increasingly hardline on Tibet—did not help. By 1959—as we can see from Soviet records—the Chinese leaders had begun to see India as an agent of imperialism, even intent on helping in the dismantling of China.
Why, in your opinion, did the border dispute escalate into outright war?
As with all wars, there are (at least) two sides to that story. Beijing viewed India’s forward patrolling into disputed territory as an affront, and speculated that it was a precursor to a land-grab by India at a time when China was weak after the collapse of the Great Leap and the break with the Soviet Union. On the Indian side, there was obviously a need to assert its territorial claims after the events in Tibet and increasingly shrill anti-Indian Chinese rhetoric. Even so, it is clear from Chinese documents that this was not a war China wanted to fight. Willingness to negotiate on both sides could have prevented it.
"Economic self-interest ought to govern their relationship, but strategic issues like Pakistan still dominate India-China ties."
Fifty years after the war, what do you think are the key drivers of the relationship between India and China?
The key to the relationship ought to be economic self-interest, but at the moment it seems much more likely to be strategic issues such as Pakistan or border problems. China and India could both achieve a lot through extending their economic exchanges. This is not about economic ‘cooperation’; it is about stimulating market mechanisms to work (and not hindering them from working). Some sectors of the Indian and Chinese economies are complementary, as I note in my book. In high-tech terms, China basically does hardware and India does software. India is not doomed to failure if it opens up more to the expanding Chinese economy.
Are there any ‘lessons’ that the two countries should take away from the 1962 war?
The one big lesson is to concentrate on issues that could bring the two countries closer together before it is too late to do so, namely after a big strategic issue has come into play in a very negative way. A lot could be achieved by more economic exchange, closer educational contacts, and a diplomacy that deliberately ‘accentuates the positive’. China’s closeness to Pakistan will remain the most difficult issue to deal with for Delhi (far more difficult than the border issues). The next Indian prime minister will have to steer a very perilous course: between building trust with China and letting Beijing know just how dangerous Pakistan’s stranglehold on its South Asian policy could be. China wants to be a global Great Power, but its alliances (North Korea, Pakistan) hold it back.
The rise of new powers is always held to be destabilising for the international system. How do you think the rise of China and India will impact the international order in Asia and beyond?
The biggest problem in a systemic sense with regard to China’s and India’s near-simultaneous rise will be the relationship between them, at least for the next generation. Neither will challenge the United States as the global superpower just yet. Both will attempt to influence the larger region around them, with the intensification of their rivalry looking a probable result. I would not be surprised to see Sino-Indian rivalries extending as far as Central or Southeast Asia over the next decade. It is therefore essential that the two sides spend the next few years building trust to help offset the negative consequences of their rise in power and influence.
"Their rivalry need not turn into sustained conflict. A lot rests on the wisdom of leaders in Beijing and Delhi over the next decade."
And what role will the US play in defining the future course of Sino-Indian relations?
Whoever is elected this autumn, the next US president will have, as a key task, to move even closer to India in order to balance China’s rise in Asia. From an Indian perspective, it is essential to realise that a very close strategic relationship with the United States can be a burden more than an asset in dealing with China. One of India’s strengths in formulating a balanced approach to its great neighbour is the independence of its foreign policy. It would be a mistake by India to feel so threatened by China’s rise that it becomes a de-facto ally of the United States. Such an alliance relationship could intensify Sino-Indian conflict, rather than contain it.
So, can India and China ever be partners? Or are they forever doomed to be rivals?
Over the next generation, China and India will rival each other in economic growth and on some strategic issues in Asia. But this rivalry does not need to become one of the kind that leads to sustained conflict or even war. A lot depends on the wisdom of leaders both in Beijing and Delhi over the next decade or so. There has never been a more critical time-period in the Sino-Indian relationship. A more self-confident leadership in Delhi will be able to handle the China issue better. And that will be a good thing for both parties.