There is no reason to assume that India’s rapidly rising neighbour, set to become the world’s largest economy in the next two decades, will not play the normal game of nations. But the current hawkishness and jingoism in sections of the media and strategic circles in India is without basis and uncalled for, argues a veteran strategic affairs specialist.

In the last few weeks a number of accounts have appeared in our media of ‘incidents’ on the Indo-China Line of Actual Control (LoAC) that portrayed China as exerting military pressure on India. There were also reports of China objecting to the Asian Development Bank loan to a development project in Arunachal Pradesh on the ground that it is a disputed territory and issuing stapled instead of stamped visas for travellers, of Kashmiri residence to China.

Very hawkish articles appeared in the media on both sides. In China, an analyst repeated the argument of the 1960s that India cannot stay united. In India, the ghosts of 1962 were resurrected and there were predictions that there was likely to be a Chinese attack on India by 2012. The retiring Naval Chief’s sober assessment that militarily India is not in a position to catch up with China on equality of forces and equipment in the conventional sense and therefore India should consider technological solutions to cope up with, and not confront a rising China, was misinterpreted as defeatist sentiment in certain media and strategic circles.

It is no doubt significant that while all this tension generation is in the media of the two countries the two governments have sought to reduce the tension and discourage the hype in the media. Some political parties, ex-service officers, and strategists have drawn totally inapt comparisons with 1962. I am one of the few surviving senior citizen civil servants who were in the Ministry of Defence at that time. I functioned as a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee from November 1962 till December 1964.

Year 2009 is not 1962. In 1962, China was isolated from the international system. It was conducting a ‘Hate America’ campaign annually and also denouncing the Soviet leadership as revisionists and capitalist roaders. The Chinese attack on India was launched to coincide with the Cuban missile crisis to make sure that the two superpowers would be preoccupied with each other and not be able to apply pressure on China. The Chinese also promptly withdrew from the Arunachal Pradesh territory they occupied back to the McMahon line.

At that time under the advice of American Ambassador J.K. Galbraith the Indian leadership did not use the Air Force for fear of superior Chinese retaliatory capability. The truth, which we did not know at that time, was that the Chinese Air Force was totally grounded as the Soviets had denied them spares and aviation fuel — not because of the attack on India but because of the ongoing ideological dispute. The debacle in Sela-Bomdila happened not because the Indian Army was outgunned and outmanned but because the divisional commander did not fight and attempted to withdraw from a well entrenched position due to sheer panic. There are books on the ‘unfought war’ by people who were there at that time. Since then the Indian Army has faced the Chinese under valiant leadership and acquitted itself very creditably.

China of today is not the Maoist country that argued that power grew out of the barrel of a gun and that even if 300 million Chinese perished in a nuclear war 300 million would survive to build a glorious civilisation. Times have changed since the ideology of countryside surrounding the cities was advanced during the Cultural Revolution. ‘Dig tunnels deep and store grain everywhere’ was the Maoist slogan in preparation for a nuclear war. China of the 1960s was an isolated country and today it is one of the largest trading nations of the world. Those who build skyscrapers and Three Gorges dam will not be thinking of war in the same way Mao did. China is energy-import dependent and its energy transit lanes through the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits are very vulnerable

China has a much greater stake in Taiwan than it has in Arunachal Pradesh, which it totally vacated after occupying large sections of it in 1962. It has not risked a war on Taiwan over the last 60 years. It has been extraordinarily patient about it since it understands the risks involved in using force on Taiwan recovery. There was a time (the whole of the 1950s and 1960s) when U.S. aircraft and warships would violate Chinese airspace and Chinese territorial waters regularly. China issued the relevant 437th and 593rd serious warnings to the United States. That continued until it allied itself with the U.S. in 1971 faced with the perceived Soviet nuclear threat. Ideology did not stand in the way.

There are valuable lessons for India in China’s patience and purposive response, untrammelled by ideological baggage or the overburden of memory. When Henry Kissinger started his secret trip to make up with Beijing, he told the doubters that the Chinese were pragmatists.

China is a rising power and is most likely to overtake the U.S. as the country with highest GDP in the next couple of decades. It wants to be the dominant power of Asia in the immediate future and that will mean an unequal relationship with other major Asian powers. The only nation that is perceived to have the potential to challenge China, not in the short run but over the longer period, is India — with a comparable population, a similar civilisational heritage, and the advantage of a younger age profile. While a meaningful challenge from India to China is not likely to come for at least a couple decades, India is in a position to play the role of a balancer in the ongoing rivalry between China and the U.S.

Chinese policies towards India have subtle elements of sophisticated coercion to attempt to prevent a closer partnership developing between India and the U.S. China may also have plans to shape a final settlement of the Tibetan issue on the passing of the present Dalai Lama. The pressure on Arunachal and procrastination in finalising the border may be a part of a long-term strategy to compel India to accept a post-Dalai Lama dispensation in Tibet and bring the matter to a closure.

China asserts that it will be rising peacefully. There is no disputing that peaceful rise is in its interest. But that does not preclude the normal practices in the game of nations of pressure, influence, and dominance — economically, politically and even militarily but without recourse to the actual use of force. That has happened all through history and there is no reason to assume that China will not practise the normal game of nations.

India has to learn to cope with this challenge without getting hysterical. Nor should it hamper in any way the growing trade relations between the two countries. There is, in fact, a good case to develop mutual dependencies in a globalised world, with due care to ensure that the dependency does not become unfavourably one-sided against our interest. The most effective way of doing it is to step up our economic growth to 10 per cent by exploiting all available favourable factors in the international economic and political system, as China is doing; develop rapidly our border infrastructure; augment our military capability without delays; and attempt to develop stakes for all major powers in our growth and security.

While doing all this, there is no need to indulge in jingoistic rhetoric. There can be firmness in dealing with the LoAC or other issues where there are attempts at exploiting unequal advantages in situations. India has arrived at a stage in international politics when it has to demonstrate maturity in playing the game of nations.

(The author, a retired civil servant, is an internationally known strategic affairs specialist and commentator.)

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