Taking a page from our inherent capacity to adjust and be flexible, India should practice a little unemotional pragmatism.
Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff once remarked that an “adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy.” With adversaries, continues Ignatieff, “compromise is honourable. Today’s adversary could be tomorrow’s ally. With enemies, on the other hand, compromise is appeasement.” Is China our enemy or adversary? Do we distinguish between Ignatieff’s definition of enemy and adversary when it comes to to China?
Bearing witness to the last three decades in their relationship, I believe the two countries, India and China, have essentially attempted to build a “partnership” on the foundations of what is an adversarial relationship. In the 1950s, the “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” slogan reverberated. Following the “betrayal” of 1962, we regarded China as our enemy. Today, it is an adversary with which we must seek solutions, even if we have not forgotten the battle of Rezang La or the fall of Tawang.
The experience of the last four decades is our guide. On May Day 1970, Mao Zedong, China’s supreme leader, engaged our chargé d’affaires in Beijing, Brajesh Mishra on the rostrum at Tiananmen Square, to say, “We cannot keep on quarrelling like this. We should try and be friends again” to which Mishra replied, “We are ready to do it today.” Six years were to pass before the two countries restored their diplomatic relations to the level of ambassadors. The initiative was taken by Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister.
The relationship has continued to be an adversarial one, because the conflict of 1962 is not forgotten. At that fateful time, the whole country rallied around the flag in an outpouring of patriotic and nationalist sentiment. Political differences ceased to really matter. In recognition of the role played by the RSS in civil defence during the conflict, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited a 3,500-strong contingent of the organisation to march in the Republic Day parade of 1963. The Chinese were perceived as having aggressed on Indian territory and occupied sections of it. Chinese territorial claims on the northeastern sector of the border, then called NEFA and now Arunachal Pradesh, were a reminder of an unsettled boundary between the two countries.
Chinese support for Pakistan, first with the so-called boundary agreement of 1963 and then during the 1965 war, were an indication of the lower depths to which relations had fallen after 1962. The clashes on the Nathu La from 1967 and the harsh treatment meted out to two of our diplomats, Vijay Pillai and K. Raghunath (later to be foreign secretary), in Beijing by Chinese Communist Party Red Guards during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution only confirmed the worst suspicions about our largest neighbour.
But by 1976, the border was relatively quieter. The last incident involving loss of life (four Assam Rifles personnel in a Chinese ambush) occurred at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh in October 1975. The normalisation phase had begun with the return of the ambassadors. Atal Behari Vajpayee paid a visit to China in 1979 as external affairs minister (the visit was cut short due to the Chinese invasion of Vietnam), then Chinese foreign minister Huang Hua followed with a visit to India in 1981 and Deng Xiaoping made his “package proposal” to resolve the border question (which we rejected out of hand). Border talks commenced with little to show by way of progress – but dialogue and the “peaceful resolution” of problems became the name of the game. Most Indians had ceased to regard China as a friend. But, if Pakistan was an enemy, China was now an adversary.
We were crafting a modus vivendi with China. This was an adversary we had reason to be distrustful of, but not an enemy in the mode of Pakistan. The relationship was no longer seen as a zero-sum game. There was benefit to be drawn from it, if peace could be maintained on our borders with China, if tensions could be eased, if communication channels were unblocked and trade and people-to-people ties recommenced. A well-managed relationship between two of the largest countries in the world, in terms of their populations, could be a global public good. There was pragmatism in this approach. We could not destroy China. We could defeat it, ultimately, yes, by winning the race of economic development, improving our infrastructure, enhancing our military preparedness, proving the resilience of our democracy and our ability to manage diversity.
In the summer of 1986, a Chinese encampment was discovered at Wangdung in the Sumdorong Chu valley in Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese even built a helipad at the site of the intrusion. The Indian Army scrambled to occupy the heights of the Hathongla-Lungrola Ridge north of Tawang, overlooking the Namkha Chu and Sumdorong Chu Valleys. We were accused of “jockeying for positions” in the words of one Chinese diplomat. Our occupation of the heights, the reinforcing of two forward posts, Jaya and Negi, by our Army in close proximity to the Chinese camp at Wangdung, engendered a stream of hostile propaganda and invective from China. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 represented a brave attempt by India to de-escalate these tensions, and the overture succeeded. It built a modicum of mutual trust and seemed to open the way to an eventual resolution of the border issue.
The approach to build relations in all areas, even while continuing efforts to solve the border problem, essentially stems from the 1988 visit. The 1993 agreement on peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control followed. This writer remembers working on the first, nascent, draft of the agreement in 1991-92 together with the then Chinese ambassador in Delhi, the late Cheng Ruisheng. We took our inspiration from the experience of the Sino-Soviet border negotiations, and the concept of “equal and mutual security” that China and the erstwhile Soviet Union, later Russia, had defined in their negotiations.
Despite all this, it is easy to slide into bellicosity and mutual recrimination as the recent experience of Doklam showed. Fortunately, before things got out of hand, pragmatic diplomacy triumphed over the threat of dysfunctional conflict. The mutual disengagement practiced at Doklam in an act of strategic pragmatism and wise political leadership on both sides has eased the situation, no doubt. To draw reference from Ignatieff, there was no appeasement, but a compromise was achieved.
From compromise, where do we go? Has the ‘refresh’ button been pressed in regard to the relationship? This is where the doubts surface. One cannot escape the impression that the Masood Azhar matter (the buzz among some Chinese officials is that the latter issue was close to resolution until the Tawang visit of the Dalai Lama was announced), our membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have together become the sine qua non on which our approach to China is based. Is the day-to-day bilateral relationship functioning smoothly? Maybe, not. In such circumstances, another Doklam-like crisis may have unforeseen consequences.
Allowing an adversarial relationship to slip into a corrosive ‘enemy’ mode would be unfortunate. What is the calculus of advantage to us in such a scenario? The Americans for instance, practice a great deal of give and take in their relations with China. When transacting everyday business becomes obstacle-ridden, with no quarter given, then we need not be rocket scientists to determine where we are headed. Let the relationship be process-driven in order to ensure a modus operandi that works and is not broken. Throwing the gauntlet is only worth it if we have made sober calculations about our end game. Taking a page from our inherent capacity to adjust and be flexible, let us practice a little unemotional pragmatism. Restoring China to enemy status is not a desirable, or sustainable, goal.
Nirupama Rao is a former foreign secretary and ambassador to China and the US.