Battle of attrition

Battle of attrition

China has sought to keep India strategically contained within South Asia by propping up Pakistan politically and militarily.

There seems to be discomfiture on the part of China about India memorialising this year the 50th anniversary of the Sino-India border conflict of 1962. The mainstream reaction of China has always been to underplay the 1962 border-dispute as a ‘minor scuffle.’

Why did 1962 happen? We have long been fed by the revisionist account of Neville Maxwell’s opus ‘India’s China War’ published in 1970 which blamed Nehru for arrogance and obduracy in the face of Chinese efforts to seek a negotiated solution. Not only Maxwell, but many of our pro-China communists, thought that it was India which asked for its humiliation at the hands of China in 1962.

During the last two decades, however, a few former Indian defence officials including faculty at the Indian Defence Academy like Parshotam Lal and Srinivas Raghavan rubbished the central thesis of Maxwell.

But the publication of Steven Hoffmann’s  account in 1990 is an important corrective to the revisionist thesis by capturing Indian perceptions more closely. There seems to exist a near-universal consensus in tracing the problem to the colonial days.

Make no mistake about it. That China is a hydra-headed monster with massive expansionist plans across South Asia is no longer a secret. It was Mao who termed Tibet as the ‘palm’ of a hand with its five fingers as Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and what has so long been as NEFA that pertain to our north eastern states.

He claimed that these were ‘Chinese’ territories that needed to be ‘liberated’. And there is merit in the argument that the pacifist Indian leadership remained blind to Communist China’s repeated claims on Tibet and large part of Indian territories.
Clearly, China is in no mood to attach much significance to a ‘war’ that India considers as of epic proportions.

A Beijing-based researcher on Sino-India relations has to say that the Chinese foreign policy at popular and elite levels is about competing with the US, putting Japan in its place and keeping a ‘wary’ eye on Russia, while maintaining China's unity in terms of, for example, recovering Taiwan and pacifying Tibet and Xinjiang. Compared to India’s demonic obsession about China, India merits little attention of China.

Is China really as indifferent about India as it makes itself to be? It is true that the People's Liberation Army withdrew from all the territory it gained in the eastern sector and gave the territory back after holding it for a few weeks. Much to the outrage of the nationalists, China has secretly signed quite a few border agreements with its neighbours, in particular Russia and Central Asian states.

But recently in context of Japan’s ‘purchase’ of the Diaoyu Islands,  considered as a grave ‘violation’ of China's territorial sovereignty, Chinese vice foreign minister Zhang Zhijun registered strong protest.

Settled disputes

Fifty years is a long stretch of time in diplomatic calendar. China is no stranger to settlement of border disputes as China and Russia settled their decades-old border disputes signing an agreement fixing the 4,300-km border for the first time. China and Kazakhstan have resolved their border dispute and are working to demarcate their large open borders to control population migration, illegal activities, and trade.

Besides India, China has been involved in complex disputes with Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. But why is a settlement of the Sino-Indian border dispute given a slip, as years roll on, begs for an answer.

An article titled ‘Who sows discord in India-China relations’ in the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily regarded highly by the Chinese political and military establishment warned that the US and western media were trying to ‘sow discord’ between the two Asian giants and lead the two neighbours in the direction of a confrontation.

The article said that having to describe Chinese attempts to expand mutual co-operation with other South Asian nations as ploys to encircle India through a ‘string of pearls’ was a “a deliberate attempt to provoke the anti-Chinese forces in India”.

The problem is: one cannot attach a very benign tag to China’s desire of a peaceful rise. China has sought to keep India strategically contained within South Asia by propping up Pakistan politically and militarily with transfers of nuclear and missile technologies.

It has fortified its military hold over Tibet, weighing down the military balance against us in the north. It has signed multimillion dollar aid, trade and defence deals with many Indian Ocean nations, while Chinese state-owned corporations have financed commercial ports in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota and Colombo), Bangladesh (Chittagong) and Burma (Sittwe and Kyaukpyu). As a dominant economic player in central Asia, it is competing ferociously with India in shoring up areas of influence in both Iran and Afghanistan.

Perhaps, it is best not to repeat past mistakes and stick to inflexible stands. It is about time to get past the theory of surprise and betrayal spun around the defeat in 1962. On the one hand, we need solid military support to match the Chinese threat and on the other, we need to garner enough economic clout to neutralise China.

There is enough room to accommodate the aspirations of China and India, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei recently said in response to India's commemorative activities. Engaging with China and improving relations with it wherever practicable must be encouraged.

But, for two aspirational nations that some 2,000 years ago held the lion’s share of the world economy, this century could well be a battle of attrition – though there is little chance of a repeat of 1962 – India, in the face of China’s phenomenal economic growth, its obsession with national power and its expanding military capabilities, cannot not afford to lose.

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