May 17, 2020
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A stronger India must counter China with open-minded caution


ormally unnoticed, the anniversary of Sardar Patel’s November 7, 1950, warning to Pandit Nehru about China repays attention this year. The recent spate of similar alarums and the government’s deliberate dampening of them reminds many people of the earlier contrast between a hard-headed practicality identified with Patel, and woolly wishfulness attributed to Nehru. That story, like the India-China relationship itself, is not so simple.

Worse than ignoring history is misreading it. Exciting public hysteria obstructs sensible handling. Not every compromise is doomed to be a Munich, nor every intervention a Vietnam. This is not 1962, except for one damaging legacy: public mistrust of the government. New Delhi appeared as covering up for both Beijing and itself. But similar criticism of today’s government misses out on both past and present.

Between our self-image of innocence, and our wariness, we overlook how others assume hostility from us.

Nehru made mistakes—it’s no service to his greatness, or to the great things we owe him, to pretend that he was faultless, or that everything was his fault. Internal mischief was also at work—the deliberate exploitation of the crisis to unseat him. Driven into a corner, he found the only way out—a negotiated settlement—being relentlessly closed to him. That his own chosen strategy was misconceived, that if he realised the potential for danger he should not have done so little to prepare the country, are weighty charges. But Patel’s fears of Communists at home, and their being used by Communism abroad, inclined him to start treating China as an inveterate enemy. We need to look beyond the Manichean oversimplifications to which the Nehru-Patel differences are usually reduced, and develop a clear, realistic public consciousness of what India should expect from China, and how to deal with it.

Patel’s letter, as was well known then, was conceived by Girja Shankar Bajpai, former secretary-general, ministry of external affairs, who thought China’s move into Tibet, and rude dismissals of our concerns, necessitated responses Nehru was not ready for. Bajpai took China’s actions as a warning not of the inevitability of conflict but of the essentiality of preparing for it, if only to prevent it. His concern was that India had never dealt with China, had no idea what a Communist China’s world, or India, policy might be. Its Tibet move was bound to transform the India-China strategic relationship and make our boundary a live issue, and we therefore needed to develop a solidly tenable position from which to negotiate. While deploring China’s behaviour, he took it as a warning to alert us, not a call to war. Patel himself indicated the difference: in his November 4 letter thanking ‘Sir Girja’ for the note that became the letter to Nehru, Patel thinks China should be treated not only with suspicion but hostility. That is still the debate.

Ten Suggestions Patel Made In His Letter To Nehru

  1. A military and intelligence appreciation of the Chinese threat to India, both on the frontier and to internal security.
  2. An examination of our military position and such redisposition of our forces as might be necessary, particularly with the idea of guarding important routes or areas which are likely to be the subject of dispute.
  3. An appraisement of the strength of our forces and, if necessary, reconsideration of our retrenchment plans for the army in the light of these new threats.
  4. A long-term consideration of our defence needs. My own feeling is that unless we assure our supplies of arms, ammunition and armour, we would be making our defence perpetually weak and we would not be able to stand up to the double threat of difficulties both from the west and northwest and north and northeast.
  5. The political and administrative steps which we should take to strengthen our northern and northeastern frontiers. This would include the whole of the border, i.e. Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal territory in Assam.
  6. Measures of internal security in the border areas as well as the states flanking those areas such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Assam.
  7. Improvement of our communications—road, rail, air and wireless—in these areas, and with the frontier outposts.
  8. Policing and intelligence of frontier posts.
  9. The future of our mission at Lhasa and the trade posts at Gyangtse and Yatung and the forces which we have in operation in Tibet to guard the trade routes.
  10. The policy in regard to the McMahon Line.

It is axiomatic in international relations to consider every state as potentially inimical or potentially useful, often both simultaneously. Intentions can vary, capabilities are unmistakable and shape intentions. A professional approach must be based on one’s own capabilities and how they can affect others’ intentions. How China might want to deal with us was open to debate; how it would actually deal with us would depend on its assessment of our capabilities. That basic fact remains valid even today.

As comes out more emphatically in his later dispute with India’s ambassador to China, K.M. Pannikar, Bajpai’s main point was that we would now have a boundary to negotiate, and our ground position would be vital. Uncertainty is always a major factor in international relations, but sound judgement weighs probability alongside possibilities: your assessment provides a working hypothesis, but wisdom requires full preparedness. You do not play around with major powers. Serious attempts at cooperation are always advisable—while keeping eyes wary, and preparing for unwelcome developments.

Patel’s letter listed 10 precautions, including military and intelligence appreciations, reappraising military preparedness, constructing and policing boundary posts, political and administrative measures and internal security. Nehru, normally politely prompt in correspondence, didn’t answer Patel: recognising Bajpai’s views, he walked into his office and laughed—“So you are marshalling the big guns behind you”. Indirectly, though, Nehru responded with his China assessment in his November 17 letter to chief ministers. As in his other ruminations, one can detect signs of firmness and realism amongst idealistic hopes and historical imagination. But little except administrative consolidation was done regarding the main purpose of the November 7 letter. Instead, while insisting we stood by our frontiers, we went ahead with reducing the army: 52,000 less in 1950, another 1,00,000 less planned for 1951.

Some 60 years later, we are still seen as caught between the down-to-earth toughness attributed to Patel and the softness associated with Nehru. The realistic approach, so simple and obvious that it hardly needs formulation, needs projection: you must be seen as ready and able to look after your interests purposefully and efficiently. That is where our ways of functioning are our own worst enemies.

An American newcomer to Chinese ways recently observed “how arrogant they have become”. An experienced colleague replied, “When were they not arrogant? The trouble is now they have power”. Remarkable real achievement reinforcing their historic sense of superiority, many Chinese have become more disdainful or intimidating—to everyone. Considering how our own swaggering loudmouths upset our neighbours—arrogance without comparable power—Chinese excesses should not surprise us. The next superpower expects deference, if not obedience. Its heavy treading on our sensitivity is typical of a wider attitude.

It would be foolish irresponsibility for India not to count aggressive hostility as a danger our contingency planning must be ready for (assuming our nation is inclined to ready itself for contingences). China thinks that way: reverse apprehensions about India obviously inform Beijing’s policy-making. Between our self-image as a peaceable innocent with no ill-intention towards anyone, and our fearful defensiveness about everyone else being out to do us down, we overlook how others assume hostile potential from us. China’s analysts see us enjoying two advantages: for using the Dalai Lama to destabilise Tibet, and for using our strategic position in the Indian Ocean to interfere with their vital sea routes. We have no such intentions, but China does not take that for granted. We have always underestimated how neurotically touchy China is about anything seen as remotely putting its rights in Tibet in question. Judging by capability, not intentions, they also consider our commanding geographical position astride their Indian Ocean access routes as a potential threat. Even without territorial disputes, or an interest in strategic limitation of India’s rise—especially mistrust of any Indo-US cooperativeness—and other possible reasons for countering India, these two points alone would make China’s strategic thinkers plan for an adverse India.

Presented with an agent eager to destabilise India, China has already given Pakistan the lasting capability to neutralise our conventional superiority over the latter through nuclear weapons. Consolidating its dominance in Myanmar, and enjoying the resentments against India so active among our other neighbours, China has also been looking down on us as an upstart that cannot match it—and showing us up as that is doubtless another element in its policymaking. The recent article in the Chinese media listing our weaknesses as foreshadowing disintegration reflects views not confined to Chinese ill-wishers. We should realise we do present apocalyptic possibilities to several outsiders. The image itself is a handicap and needs correcting—not by bluster but by competence as a state.

The long list of China’s actions detrimental to our interests inevitably feeds India’s worst fears, and China is not naive: it must realise it is giving us cause for alarm. Is that what it intends? The only answer possible is: we cannot be sure. China can help us be sure—if it wants to. Our attempts to understand it cannot be one way. We too must judge by capabilities.

But there are indeed advantages to seeking a constructively cooperative relationship. Both the former and the continuing superpower have had disputes and antagonisms with China no less serious that India’s—plus profound ideological differences. Despite these, the US and USSR/Russia have moved to working together with China. That must be precisely India’s approach: seeking positive interaction while making itself powerful enough to shape or cope with China’s behaviour. We must consider overt hostility a clear and possible danger. But it is a danger we can avert by keeping our own house in order. If that is too much to ask for, we are indeed in for trouble.

(The author is the son of Girja Shankar Bajpai, and had served as India’s ambassador to Pakistan, China, the US, and was secretary, external affairs ministry)

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