Fifth Columnist: Off with the velvet gloves

Tags: Views

Not too many countries are willing to enrage China as India has in the past few weeks

The Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 was a much-discussed theme in India in 2012-2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the high mountain border war between two Asian giants. There were commentaries and analyses by Indian participants and experts, which sought to examine weaknesses and strengths of the two sides and the lessons learnt thereof from history. But the reaction to the conflict in China itself has been relatively muted, not the least because political views in the supposedly Communist country happen to be strongly government-controlled.

The one published Chinese version off the war, though much sanitised, comes in The Snow of Himalayas: The True History of China India War. The book, co-authored by two former members of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), Sun Xiao and Chen Zhibin, who apparently learnt a lot from China’s victorious participants in the 1962 conflict, is important for some of its content, which from the benefit of hindsight appears to be a lot more realistic than the contemporary Indian assessment of Chinese intentions in the years leading to the war buildup. Without taking away from the censorship (editing?) that the book must certainly have faced and the fact that it seeks to show Chinese attitudes in positive light, basically being a victor’s account, it does reveal insights into the mind of the inscrutable Chinese.

At a very special meeting in 1960 attended by China’s top military commanders on its eastern border when the Communist Party supremo and strongman Mao Tse Tung, finally decided to pull the trigger, there are moments of poignancy - indeed magnanimity – on the Chinese side, reveals the book.

It quotes Mao: “Nehru is an old friend of ours. His country was the second to establish diplomatic relations with us…we cannot embarrass him…We must do our utmost to avoid a bloody incident…We must be prepared for armed co-existence for a long time. In short we do not want to make war…” The book quotes Mao again.

“Recently, I have read a few books on India. India’s ancient civilisation is truly worthy of our admiration…” Yet, within months of expressing such noble sentiments and at the same time blaming prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru for being intransigent on the border issue, Mao put his final seal on the attack: “This time, if we do not get into war, it is OK but if we do, we will fight to project our might. We will have secured 30 years of peace.” The Chinese strongman was right on the ball!

Not since those turbulent years have the Chinese dropped diplomatic niceties, as in the past few weeks, descending down to issuing statements, which are downright threatening and aggressive, issued both in Beijing by Communist party-affiliated mouthpieces and in New Delhi by the Chinese envoy. The tantalising threat, asking India not to ‘forget’ 1962, was tackled by defence minister Arun Jaitley, who replied correctly, that 2017 was not 1962.

Defence experts calculate that China, in reaction to the ongoing Doko La faceoff on the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, has perhaps overshot its estimation. By issuing openly aggressive statements, there has been a partial miscalculation on its part. If Beijing seriously expects Indian troops to back off from the standoff, it is something that New Delhi cannot afford. Neither can Beijing now pull back from the area, which it now describes as disputed, because that is tantamount to an obvious loss of face.

The third option is quiet back channel diplomacy that seems a little frayed at the moment, given Beijing’s surly mood. But there should be little surprise at China’s new belligerence. While Beijing’s military muscle is something that no one can afford to take lightly, prime minister Narendra Modi has demonstrated thus far that military exchanges are as much about fighting your demons in the head as it is on the battlefield.

More importantly, Modi’s calculation is that China, given its high global stakes in which the big dragon seeks to appropriate the mantle of the world’s leading global superpower from the US, makes it diffident to any border adventurism. So while India cannot afford a war, the Chinese can afford it even less.

There are all indications that India is not willing to blink. Efforts are underway to have the heads of states or governments of all the 10 Asean countries at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on January 26 next.

It is a clear signal to China that India is trying to forge closer ties with South East Asian nations, all of whom are at the receiving end of China’s aggressive muscle flexing on the South China Sea question. The attempt is at a quid pro quo. Just as China seeks to isolate India in South Asia, New Delhi sees no harm in paying back it mighty neighbour in the same coin.

Beijing is reportedly not too impressed by the largest-ever joint mobilisation of India, Japan and US navies this week off the Malabar Coast. The point is how far can China go now? It has already asked for Sikkim’s separation from India and has rejected New Delhi’s right to speak on the behalf of Bhutan. Suddenly and quite out of the blue, India’s Look East policy has acquired a whole new dimension.

ranjitbhushan@mydigitalfc.com

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