Anil Athale


Karl Marx had once said that history is like a millstone around the neck of living generations. For history is not made in isolation from the past. There can be no better example of this truth than the tortuous course of Sino-Indian relations for the last 30 years. The memories of Indian humiliation in the brief border war may be distant for the young but for those who lived through those years, the wounds are as fresh as if inflicted yesterday. India has not been able to overcome distrust of the Chinese ever since.

China has reciprocated that distrust in kind. As the principal arms and nuclear/missile technology supplier to the rabidly anti-Indian Pakistan, she has missed no opportunity to do harm to India.

The historic agreement signed by P V Narasimha Rao and Li Peng nearly six years ago has been quite effective in maintaining peace along the Sino-Indian border. A limited trade by land route has also been going on for some time. While this has helped India to reduce its deployment on the border to some extent, the main beneficiary has been China since it retains the all important Aksai Chin area.

Even border trade is essentially in their interest given the fact that communications between China and Tibet are over difficult terrain and it is cheaper to get Indian goods.

There are obvious limits to the improvement of Sino-Indian relations.

The first is Chinese insensitivity to Indian concerns vis a vis Pakistan. The second is the presence of the Dalai Lama in India and the resolution of the Indian Parliament of November 14, 1962 that pledges to recover every inch of Indian soil from the Chinese possession, 'howsoever long it may take or howsoever difficult the struggle.'

Importance of Li Peng's visit

It is against this backdrop that Li Peng is visiting India from January 9 to 18, 2001. While his official position as speaker of the Chinese national assembly is not terribly important, it is believed he is the power behind the throne. He could well be compared with the late Deng Xiaoping, architect of Chinese modernisation. It is an opportunity that India must not miss if it wants to bury the hatchet and begin a new era in Sino-Indian relations.

The Public Opinion

By far the biggest obstacle in the path of improvement in relations is the public perception of the Chinese 'betrayal' of 1962. As the co-author of the official history of that conflict and having had access to the Top Secret Henderson Brooks inquiry report, this analyst can state without fear that this perception is wrong. It was India that foolishly provoked China and landed itself in a military disaster.

It is over 30 years since the ill-fated border war of 1962 and under the law there is no bar to publish this account. Yet it is being kept under wraps on frivolous grounds. A former foreign secretary opposed publication on the grounds that it may spoil relations with China. On this logic the history of the Second World War should never have been made public as that would spoil the relations between Germany and the rest!

The Chinese on their part have already published their account. The truth is that this move to make public our failures in 1962 is being opposed as that would expose the image of bureaucratic infallibility. Nehru, the then prime minister, was primarily responsible for this disaster and protecting his reputation was necessary for the dynastic Congress party all these years (or even now).

But it has been over three years that we have had a non-Congress government and yet the truth remains hidden from the public gaze. Political inertia and the stranglehold of vested interests may well be still at work. Whatever the reason, the first step towards a realistic China policy can only be taken when the people of India come to know the truth about the 1962 disaster.

The Tibet issue

This has been a major irritant for the Chinese and there are some similarities with Kashmir. There is obviously no question of abandoning the just cause of the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama as that would go against the 5,000-year-old Indian tradition. But today the differences between the Tibetans and the Chinese have narrowed down considerably.

Three years ago in conversation with the foreign secretary of the Tibetan government in exile, it came to light that most Tibetans will be satisfied with autonomy. The issue now is that while the Chinese are prepared to grant it to 'Inner Tibet,' the Tibetans in India insist on the autonomy for even those parts of Tibet that are now merged with other Chinese provinces. The issue is not insurmountable and on the lines of Inner and Outer Mongolia, a solution can be found.

Once the Tibetan issue is resolved and the truth about 1962 is known, the border dispute between India and China can be resolved to mutual advantage.

The Sino-Indian border row is recent in origin because for nearly 5,000 years there was no military clash between the two Asian giants. The difficult geography as well as the non-expansionist nature of the Indian civilisation were the main factors for this absence of conflict.

The modern Sino-Indian border dispute centres on the remote area of Aksaichin that is located north east of the Ladakh region. Aksaichin lies beyond the Karakoram range and rests on the Kunlun mountain range.

The origin of the Indian border being placed on the Kunlun mountains (and not the revered Himalayas as popularly imagined) goes back to the early 19th century. At that time the Russians were expanding eastward and the British, afraid of their threat to India, decided to put a wedge between Central Asia and Tibet by laying claims to the Aksaichin area. But as the Russian threat waned, this remained a mere line on the map and neither China nor the British seriously got it under their occupation. Since Aksaichin has no human habitation and no known economic sources, this bleak cold desert remained a 'no man's land' through most of the 20th century, right till the 1950s.

In 1959, China built a highway through this area linking the provinces of Sinkiang and Tibet. This is of great strategic significance for China as geography precludes a direct link between these two troubled provinces from any other place. India came to know about this only when China chose to publicise the inauguration of this road.

Like the British discovered in 19th century, India too came to a conclusion that the area of Aksaichin is of no strategic importance, whether for defence or as a springboard for offence. But once the Chinese highhandedness was discovered, the opposition and public opinion was so incensed that Nehru's government was forced into making it an issue of national prestige. Some degree of American machination (to drive away India from non-alignment) could have also played a role.

It is believed that in December 1960, Zhou Enlai offered the strategic Chumbi valley in the east (the area that threatens rest of India's link with Assam) in exchange for Aksaichin. But a weak willed Nehru rejected this out of hand and instead launched a militarily disastrous 'Forward Policy' of establishing small posts in the Aksaichin area.

After this the Chinese methodically prepared for a military clash while India under the influence of amateur General B M Kaul went on to disregard military logic.

In October 1962, taking advantage of the Cuban missile crisis, the Chinese launched a full scale attack and routed the ill-equipped Indian Army.

There was no Chinese betrayal, but mere Indian blundering. It is time to put the past behind us and revive the 1960 proposals.

Chinese Interest

The time seems appropriate for a rapprochement between India and China. The Chinese seem worried about the fallout of Islamic terrorism in the Sinkiang province. As a matter of fact, they have fenced off the border with Pakistan to prevent infiltration. The Americans under George W Bush are also likely to be tougher on China.

All this may prompt China to reduce its arming of Pakistan and the needling of India on Kashmir in return for Indian neutrality in the Sino-US confrontation in future. For the first time in the last 50 years, China may well see some advantage in securing peace with India.

Indian public opinion will need to show matured understanding on the border issue if this is to happen.

The Chinese are known to be supreme realists. China will only deal with an India that is economically and militarily strong. In the end the best guarantee for peace with China may well lie in continuing the Indian nuclear programme that can deter China and the economic clout that can make dealing with India profitable.

One reason for China's anti-Indian stance and fighting India through the 'monkey on our back' Pakistan has been the conviction that India does not matter. Indian domination in IT and Pokharan II should have led to some re-thinking in China,

Together, India and China account for nearly half the world's population. Both boast of a continuing 5,000-year-old civilisation. India and China are in a league different than from say Egypt or Greece where very little of ancient civilisation remains. This issue alone makes for a strong case for a co-operation between the two nations.

There is some need to define civilisation as distinct from culture. France, England or even the US have a distinct culture but one civilisation. Much confusion has been caused by Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations' thesis (incidentally, a much over-rated work.) With their distinct world view, philosophical moorings, unique arts, aesthetics, religion and language, the nation states of China and India are the only two 'civilisational states'. This automatically ensures they cannot accept a world hegemony of a single culture. Thus, in the long term, the two are 'natural' allies. No short term tactical move should detract from this basic truth.

The Chinese, under the influence of its military, the People's Liberation Army, and India under its arrogant and Anglicised foreign affairs bureaucracy have often lost sight of this. Many of the current problems between the two nations are a direct result of this mindset. The PLA has been backing China's pro-Pakistan tilt to the detriment of its long term interest.

In India, a respected diplomat like Appasaheb Pant once confided to this author that Nehru's patronising attitude towards China and Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference in 1955 began souring relations between the two nations. If the two countries have to build a long term relationship, these pitfalls must be avoided.

The Alliance of the Future

Arnold J Toynbee, in the last volume of his world history series, prophetically remarked, 'Once the economic changes and industrialisation going on in India and China becomes a reality then the huge populations of these nations will begin to count in the military/industrial calculations of world power. Such invigorated giants will then demand their just share in world resources currently monopolised by the West.'

Toynbee was half right, only China seems to have reached a stage of development where she is taken seriously by the West. One reason for China's anti-Indian stance and fighting India through the 'monkey on our back' Pakistan has been the conviction that India does not matter. Indian domination in information technology and Pokharan II should have led to some re-thinking in China. India may yet prove the tortoise in the technology race, a race that will determine the power balance in the 21st century.

Advantage: India & China

Western domination of the world is a 300-year-old phenomenon. It must be reiterated that for the rest of the 4,700 years, the Asian continent ruled the roost and was the cradle of the most advanced agricultural civilisation. Being on top of the heap, Asia (essentially India and China) lost out to Europe in understanding the power shift that industrialisation meant.

Today, as the world moves to the 'knowledge revolution', these ancient civilisations are in a better position to adapt and change, like Europe in the 16th century. This phenomenon of the 'underdog' having an advantage in a revolutionary situation can be seen domestically (upstart provinces with little industrial infrastructure overtaking advanced regions) as well as internationally. Japan did this to the West earlier and now lags behind India in IT.

Even more fundamentally, the Indians and Chinese share a basic truth, that the world is not black or white but grey. The Indian concept of sat (altruism), rajo (acquisition) and tamo (aggression) has a parallel with the basic Chinese concept of Yin and Yang. This understanding of the world lies at the root of the civilisational view of the two countries and is in contrast to Greco-Roman absolutism. This view is also closer to the 'reality' of nature and therefore has a greater chance to survive and ensure the survival of earth and mankind.

Both India and China have a duty towards mankind to make sure that the earth is not destroyed by peoples and civilisations that treat nature as an adversary to be conquered rather than lived with. Will the Indians and the Chinese have the wisdom to understand this?