SOURCE: The Tribune
There are a few things about China that India needs to remember as it stares down the greatest power in Asia. China does not believe in any boundaries or maps created by the imperialist West which simply means that it will not agree to any map that came into being because of the imperial British, though the map may have been researched and drawn by an Indian working for the Geological Survey of India.
Throwing maps at China on the negotiating table has gained nothing in the past and will gain nothing in the future. Guided by historian Sarvepalli Gopal, the foreign policy makers used maps for over a decade to convince China to keep out of Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. It did not work.
Gopal was one of the most accomplished Indian historians, brought back to head the historical division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Incidentally, he was also the son of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and one of my teachers. His young colleague in this failed enterprise to convince China, Parshotam Mehra, would later head the department of History at Panjab University, where he could not persuade anyone to become either a China specialist or a specialist in Central Asia. One of their key tasks was to collect evidence about India’s border with China and help demarcate it. China refused to acknowledge such knowledge of colonial provenance, walked into the plains of Aksai Chin in eastern Ladakh and into the mountain valleys in the eastern reaches of the Himalayas.
The second thing to remember about China is that, like the now dead-and-gone Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that was headed by Russia, it claims that it does not believe in or practise imperialism. Imperialism is a product of the capitalist West and abhorred by the Soviets and the communists. In reality, in the name of spreading the Soviet form of government, Russia managed to occupy and colonised some 30 nationalities in the early 1920s. Millions were killed. Some regions, like the mountainous Chechnya, lost almost 90% of their population. Thousands kept getting killed for the next seven decades before the USSR was wound up. China’s expansion of influence beyond the river valleys of its south is much akin to the creation of the USSR but with a significant difference — these territories, speaking diverse languages, economically interdependent, were connected through a broad Buddhist-Confucian thought, much like the historical nation of India, connected with what broadly can be called Buddhist-Hindu ideas.
Which brings us to the most important third point: that having shunned Western imperialism and capitalism, China firmly believes in and practises the age-old principle that has been followed on a small-scale before the British colonised us. That principle continues to live with us in many forms. In north India, it is summarised as ‘might is right’ or jiski lathi uski bhains. Of course, the Chinese do not believe any more in the Maoist doctrine that power grows out of the barrel of the gun. That was too crude a formulation, fit only to mobilise an illiterate peasantry. Some power also comes through talking to someone else who is powerful enough. Which means that India needs to convince China that it is powerful enough to create problems, were China to persist with what India considers is bad behaviour.
Some power for the Chinese also comes from occupying the Himalayas and the 2.5 million square km of the cold desert plateau of Tibet, south-west of the Chinese river valleys. Today, the Chinese are industrially strong, have invested in research, continue to invest in translational research, and hope to become world leaders in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2025, which is what makes them physically capable of holding on to the Tibetan plateau, irrespective of the wishes of India or the Dalai Lama.
India’s problem with China starts only when China moves south of the Tibetan plateau, into the territory of the south-flowing rivers, as it has been doing since 1951. For, this land, south of Mount Kailash, has been part of the historical nation of India which speaks hundreds of languages, follows different social customs and cultural practices, but is still considered one nation.
Strategists have still not pointed out that the compulsions of democracy, the constant needling by the Congress and the press, have ensured that the government in India does not have the option any more to allow China to occupy any portion of the south-flowing rivers.
In a sense, by pushing southwards, first at Burtse in September 2015, then at Doklam in 2017, China signalled its plan for enhanced military control of the Tibetan plateau. The Burtse stand-off in northern Ladakh lasted all of five days. The face-off at Doklam lasted almost three months after which the Chinese backed off only to return a year later. Few in India, other than the specialists, talked of these developments. The occupation of the banks of the Pangong lake this year has caught the public imagination. The stone-age clash in the Galwan valley only firmed up public interest.
Such public interest and the logic of winning the next election were something which the Chinese had not factored into their strategic calculations.
They also made a serious miscalculation about the industrial and military strength of India. India does not have the strength to win any large-scale war with any country. But it has always had the capacity to give a befitting riposte. In this face-off, it took India just a few weeks to amass over 50,000 troops, fully operational, against the Chinese.
Moreover, India sent clear signals that it would not hesitate to escalate matters and was willing to challenge the Chinese in the air and the sea.
This was a very different India from the one adept at getting conquered, so long as it was allowed to survive. ‘Be like grass, bend before the wind’, was a popular saying in Punjab till recently.
This India is willing to invest time, money and mental energy in defending itself and ensuring dignity for its people. What also goes in its favour are two little appreciated facts. First, India has a young population, is rebooting itself to overthrow the tentacles of mediocrity that have held it back. Second, economic forecasts project that China’s growth will slow down during the next 10 years, from 6.1% in 2019 to 3% in 2030. It means that the costs to China for a sustained face-off with India become so much more. If India were to keep working for getting the Chinese out of Aksai Chin and also push for the independence of Tibet, the costs begin to escalate in ways that are favourable to India.