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The Challenge of China Border

The unresolved border with China is the most demanding security and foreign relations challenge faced by India. We congratulate ourselves that we have managed the problem for almost three decades without allowing it to come to a boil. However, because this has only ensured that our security environment has not deteriorated, this is at best a negative credit. The residual foreign relations problem caused by the lingering and unresolved security issue has only aggravated over time. When the troops of the two countries clashed in 1962, China was quite a politically isolated country whose intimacy with the Soviet Union was withering and its relations with the USA hostile. During the same three decades that we have managed border security with agreements, China has also evolved and grown to become an altogether different type of a country, making the political challenge of the continuing border problem qualitatively different.

Let us first look back at the situation obtaining during and after 1962. Though it was not known at that time, China had just come out of the most devastating famine any country had experienced in the modern times and a quite damaging power struggle. The inner party fight was won by Mao only with the support of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Like any bureaucracy or power group, the PLA also demanded its pound of flesh and obtained it with an increased share in the decision making bodies of the Communist Party like the central Committee and the Politburo. One of the most striking consequences of this heightened clout of the PLA was the strident and aggressive foreign policy pursued by China in the 1960s of supporting and promoting armed revolution in Asian and African countries. It could not be a coincidence that the ideological split with the Soviet Union, the party plenum that replaced Mao with Liu as the President of China, Mao’s fightback with the help of the Generals, and the appointment of Lin Biao as Defence Minister, all took place in 1959, the same year which also witnessed the crucial events that seriously damaged India—China relations, the uprising in Tibet, the denial by China that we ever had an agreed border and the open personal attack by Chinese media on Nehru. The interconnections among the ideological rift with the Russians, militarisation of foreign policy, and the policy of support for guerilla movements should be obvious to all. This trend reached its acme in 1969 when the 9th Party Congress elected a Politburo with half its members from the armed forces. It was this Congress that declared Lin Biao the successor of Mao, an utterly un-Marxist formulation that was promptly and correctly denounced by People’s Democracy, the organ of the CPI(M), for which the CPI(M) was duly castigated by the Chinese party as ‘revisionist’.

The 1960s was the decade in which the Chinese conducted a foreign policy of intervention and destabilisation all along their neighbourhood. This became more blatantly obvious once the Cultural Revolution was launched but that phenomenon did not create such a policy. For example, Zhou Enlai’s conclusion that Africa was ‘ripe for revolution’ was pronounced well before the Cultural Revolution started as was support for the communist uprising in Indonesia. The first was ignored while the second was violently suppressed. Neither made any impact on China who merrily went about urging the friendly communist parties in neighbouring countries to overthrow the governments through armed uprisings. Chinese media spoke nonstop about supporting the struggles of the communist parties of Burma, Thailand, ‘Malaya’, and the Philippines in addition to the support to the Indochinese nations, to which the naxalites were added in 1969. The war against India was the earliest and the most violent example of this somewhat reckless policy pursued after the military increased its influence in the formulation and implementation of external policy. The virulence of the propaganda language employed at that time was also proof that China cared little for the negative impression it was creating in the minds of the Indian people.

A question may arise why disputed borders led to armed action with India while it got settled with agreements in the cases of Afghanistan, Nepal, and Burma (as Myanmar was called then). Unlike the South East Asian countries, our neighbours were free of any kind of alliance with the USA. It would have been impolitic to antagonise all of them. Settlement of borders with them would help China to argue that we alone were being intransigent, though in actual practice our determination not to concede compelled China to settle the borders with our neighbours. Our stand helped our neighbours and saved them from having to make concessions to China.

Fast forward by another decade, and we find that the situation has changed radically. By 1970, China was talking to the USA while continuing to aid and support Vietnam. Was it by chance that Lin Biao vanished around the same time? The first indication of domestic crisis in 1971 was the disappearance of the entire military membership of the Politburo in one go in September of that year. The story of the plane crash in Mongolia and the dubious claim about Lin Biao’s attempted coup, flight, and crash followed soon after. Kissinger’s secret visit took place just a few months earlier. This was the beginning of a great strategic turnaround of China’s foreign policy engineered by Mao that culminated in Nixon’s visit in February 1972.

Just as the rise of the PLA in domestic politics was followed by a foreign policy of destabilisation of China’s neighbourhood, the reduction the PLA’s power was followed by a radical change abroad too. China established diplomatic relations with dozens of states who merely “took note” of China’s claim to Taiwan and retained official links with that island, reclaimed its seat in the UN and the Security Council.

From our point of view, the significant event at that time was the signal for good relations made personally by Mao on May Day of 1970. In retrospect, it has to be seen as part of the pattern we saw earlier of downgrading of PLA’s power going together with a less confrontational policy abroad and an attempt to ease to tensions with their erstwhile foes. Nothing came of the initiative from Mao, but that was mostly due to unanticipated events – those connected with the freedom struggle in Bangladesh. While it is futile speculate about what would have happened in different circumstances, it is important to remember that there was an initiative by China to better relations with us taken at the highest possible level in 1970 at the same time when China was also opening out to the world by engaging with the USA.

Patterns are significant and it is a clear pattern that intrusion of the PLA into the external realm coincided with aggravation of tension and checking of the PLA led to easing of tensions. This also has lessons for the present in any effort to gauge China’s intentions, strategy and negotiating methods. It is also proof that an accurate understanding of the domestic power equations in China is important for formulating our plans.

What we have successfully managed is to contain the problem of the border. This has, however not helped us incentivise China to refrain from actions involving other countries to our detriment. It goes without saying that all the labour to keep the border calm has not helped us obtain any kind of help from China on a large range of matters of vital interest to us in the management of our external relations. That is why we have to acknowledge that the unresolved border with China is the largest security and foreign policy challenge that continues to afflict us, as was stated in the opening words of this essay.

It could be argued that the Chinese have consistently held the view that the time is not ripe for a solution and, therefore, there is nothing to do but wait. This is surely a counsel of despair and a prescription for inertia and inaction; it is a plan that abdicates all responsibility to take initiatives. Is it justified? Is it beneficial? Does it serve the interest of the people of this country? Before trying to answer these questions, let us have a brief look at the factors that cause this inertia on our part.

Our largest limitation is the absence of broad public knowledge of and interest in China, unlike in the case of most other big countries. There are permanent factors like China being the one major civilisation that we have hardly anything in common with. Our public has little interest in China. There is little that happens there that we relate to. An educated Indian can quickly think of a dozen things, political or cultural, that she appreciates about the USA or Japan or Russia but that is not so with China. Despite all the talk by the sarkar about thousands of years of friendship with China, the people just don’t feel that way. Therefore, there is no constituency, no stakes for the representatives of the people to make the special effort to resolve the issues with China. Inertia is quite an acceptable posture in such a situation.

However, this has costs which will become too large for us to bear. The largest is the heavy burden of defence expenditure. China’s systematic investment in infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang would compel us to match their effort. While, improvement of road and rail communication in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and J & K, as well as help to Bhutan to improve its transport facilities are good per se to improve the quality of life of our people as well as those of Bhutan, diverting investment to remote areas exclusively with an eye on holding the remote borders in strength would have a cost. Even this incidental benefit may not obtain if we enlarge the size of our armed forces, especially the army. How large an army would we need if we have to go on an offensive anywhere in the border even if such a policy is accepted to be politically viable, a questionable proposition? Secondly, what is the number of troops we can deploy to protect the border? Can we deploy enough numbers to achieve a level of strategic superiority that will force the Chinese to back down?

Two questions arise from the above. The first is whether Chinese military actions of the recent past are of the nature that requires such a response. A corollary to that is the way our polity and decision making mechanism would be altered by such a massive expansion of military presence. We are quite confident of the apolitical nature of the armed forces but an abnormally weighted input from the security establishment in the formulation of our policy is quite a different matter. We have seen how the intrusion of the military into policy realm distorted Chinese policy and ultimately harmed it. We would surely wish to avoid anything that would push us in that direction.

We should recognise that there are powerful forces at work in our country that would encourage a more aggressive approach. We saw this quite clearly in May 2013 when a steady drumbeat was kept up in the media by various commentators throughout the time the two armies were face to face. While the government was able to resolve that event without bending to the prescriptions in the media, the rather quick approval of new military formations on the heels of this incident shows that the public airing of such views were not without effect. One strand in such thinking is that somehow or other we should settle account with China for what happened in 1962, however unrealistic such expectations may be. Another lobby would fan these feelings to push us closer to the USA. Both these elements would be supported by lobbies of arms merchants and the part of the military leadership and bureaucracy which has close connections with these lobbies. This is a powerful coalition that can have an unhealthy impact on our choices.

It would be very difficult to show that we can obtain strategic superiority at the border or take military initiatives that would repulse the Chinese. In such situations, escalation of rhetoric, not to mention escalation of military deployment, could well be provocative without being a show of firmness. Do we want to be ‘willing to wound, yet afraid to strike’? In recent times, the Chinese have behaved and spoken with restraint as have our government in resolving local issues patiently. We must recall that post-Deng regimes have all been purely civilian regimes that have systematically reduced the role of the PLA in the higher political counsels. They have kept the PLA in good humour by giving them plenty of money but have circumscribed the military’s freedom in many ways. China has even tacitly given up seizing Taiwan by armed action except if the government there would formally declare independence. In these circumstances, any action that is seen as needlessly provocative will only be counterproductive.

In such a situation, it is naturally quite tempting to continue with the current policy of doing nothing much. However, it is hoped that the discussion above demonstrates that we can usefully begin a cost benefit analysis of an alternative policy that will lead to stable peace with China. The most important duty of our government is to improve the living condition of our people and restore the high growth rate experienced till a year back. Achieving peace with China is the most important way in which our foreign policy can contribute to this paramount objective by ensuring that our resources are not frittered away without purpose. It is therefore important that political parties and strategic thinkers play a ‘peace game’ just as war games are played by the armed forces, in order to find a national consensus on this vastly important matter and to chalk out a strategy to achieve this objective. Is the impending election an inappropriate moment for this? No, indeed it is precisely at this time that sincere leaders should articulate their vision for the future of our nation.

Why should the Chinese, who say the time is not ripe for a solution, respond to any overture from us? For at several years China has nothing to benefit from wars, crises, and confrontations. China has helped and befriended Pakistan as an economical way of pressuring us. This has also not been a cost free exercise for China and the dysfunctional situation in Pakistan poses problems for China although of a different kind from what it does to us. To put it briefly, and without elaboration, why not try to create a situation where China finds working with us more beneficial and far less problematical than their entanglement with Pakistan?

One need not resolve the border to be friends with China. One need not do it to create an Asian century. One need not do it in the name of a developing country alliance, especially against the USA. But we have to do it for the sake of the people of our country so that we deploy our resources in the best manner for improving their condition in life and free us from this diplomatic handicap that has hamstrung us for most of our life as a free nation.

(The writer, Mr G.S.Iyer, is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer , now based in New Delhi. He was formerly India’s Ambassador to Morocco and Mexico. besides holding senior positions in the Indian missions in Beijing and Tokyo. He knows Chinese language and post-retirement, focusses on writing about developments in China.Email:sankaran61@yahoo.com).

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