Saturday, 2 January 2021

A Cautionary Tale for India From the 1950s (Sunday Guardian)


The Korean War offered an opportunity for the US to open a second front in Tibet, but India rejected any such plans, and later during the war took a line that favoured the USSR, PRC and North Korea.

In the US, tens of millions believe that Joe Biden stole the election from Donald Trump, and some of them may decide to register their opposition to (what they believe to be) such a coup in ways that would accentuate rather than douse emotions that are not congruent with the tolerance to opposing views that is essential in a democracy. Or should be. There is, of course, the growing realisation within an increasing band of individuals concerned with policymaking in Washington that their country has been in a battle over primacy with a power whose leadership has from 1949 been focused on replacing the US as the lead power on the globe. Given such a situation, even  a superficially fractured US Congress has lately been coming together to pass legislation on Tibet that backtracks from the earlier acceptance of permanent control by Beijing of that ancient monastic land. The US wanted to assist Tibetan resistance movements through supplies of weapons, but could not do so because Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to permit such items from being transported through India. It was believed by Nehru that the blank cheque he handed over to Chairman Mao on Tibet in 1950 would be repaid by the latter’s formal acceptance of the McMahon  Line as the frontier between India and China. Amazingly, the entry of the PLA into Aksai Chin was not even mentioned by the Indian side but neither was the implicit offer of Premier Zhou accepted that Aksai Chin would remain with the PRC but the line in the rest of the frontier would become the agreed boundary. Getting the worst and not the best of both worlds – in this case the US and China – became an art form in the 1950s. The Korean War offered an opportunity to the US to open a second front in Tibet, but India rejected any such plans, and during the Korean war took a line that favoured the USSR, PRC and North Korea over the US and South Korea. This was done in the expectation by Nehru that the reward for such good behaviour would come in the form of a settlement of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute, which remains unresolved even while disputes between Beijing and Moscow (not to mention Rangoon) have been settled long back. These were concluded by China on terms that created an atmosphere for good relations rather than continuing tensions with the other two countries. As the Government of India was making more than its expected share of concessions to Beijing without any sweetener in exchange, it was no surprise that the Chinese Communist Party leadership did not see any reason to make any concessions to India, a stance that has continued. Adopting the Mao-Zhou playbook of concentrating on PRC interests to the exclusion of the needs of the other party may have been the best course for India to follow. Nehru delighted in the belief that his government was the successor to the British raj, an illusion aided by the government’s occupation of the stately buildings left behind by the departing colonial power. Unfortunately, none of the rights and privileges that British-ruled India had in other (even nearby) parts of the world remained with the government which took office on 15 August 1947. The manner in which substantive concession upon concession was handed out by Nehru to other countries was continued by his successors, usually for nothing more tangible than a few flattering words. Z.A. Bhutto won the peace in Shimla soon after the 1971 war while armed with nothing more than generous whiffs of his favourite perfume, Shalimar. The Prime Minister of Pakistan was repaid for this by the Pakistan Army by being hanged soon afterwards.

Collateral (i.e. unintended) damage appears to be a concept unfamiliar to several Prime Ministers in India. Jawaharlal Nehru believed in championing the PRC’s case on Tibet and in the United Nations and later, taking the side of China in the Korean war and in much else, a stance continued with little change until recently. The expectation of each PM was that such an accommodative stance would ensure the consent of Beijing to a boundary settlement generous to India. This failed to happen. What did take place in the 1950s was a sharp deterioration in relations with Washington and a consequent fillip in the US arming of the Pakistan military and reinforced diplomatic support to that country at the cost of India. An example of the manner in which relations with an important partner may be affected by deals with another is the purchase of S-400 systems by India. In the 1950s, Nehru saw the PRC as a country that would never go to battle with India, and the USSR as being the guarantor of adherence to such non-violence, rather than as the facilitator of the PLA, which was the actual situation. This was evident during the 1950s, a period when US-created alliance systems designed to militarily constrain Beijing were not simply shunned but sought to be sabotaged by Nehru. In retaliation, the US further intensified its largesse to Pakistan, even though aware that the target of the military of that state was neither the PRC nor the USSR, but India, something that the authorities in Rawalpindi constantly reminded their contacts in Moscow and Beijing to silence from Washington. It was not that there were no misgivings about such a policy within South Block. It was just that the Prime Minister believed he alone had the wisdom to discern the truth about the future. In Nehru’s view, a grateful Beijing would agree to the border settlement suggested by the PM and in any event, would not precipitate a war with India. Neither of these forecasts were accurate. As a consequence of the line favoured by Nehru, the Indian Army faced the PLA alone in 1962. In the 1950s, there was an acceptance in Washington and among several of its allies that future kinetic conflict with the USSR and the PRC was very likely. These days a similar view has begun to elbow out the perceptions of those within the Democratic Party who share the Nehruvian faith that war with these powers is not just unlikely but impossible. The neo-Nehruvians in Washington believe that the effects of the energy and ambition that are becoming more and more visibly demonstrated by Beijing are susceptible to rollback through commerce and diplomacy alone. The expectation, and not merely in Moscow or Beijing, is that the incoming Biden administration may repeat the prime-time television tactics of past US Presidents and generate substantial sound, fury and smoke on the China front without any actual fire. Should India stand aside from efforts at forming a coalition capable of challenging the steady takeover of vast geopolitical spaces by the Sino-Russian alliance as it did in the 1950s? There is no way to secure the Indo-Pacific except through a partnership between the US and India, that should be made explicit through an Indo-Pacific Charter. Not just the US but Australia and Japan have been pointing to the need for leadership by India in efforts at maintaining primacy in the Indo-Pacific. Whether this takes place or the events of the 1950s get repeated (leading to results similar to those of the 1960s) is a question that several world capitals believe does not as yet have a clear answer. Should India repeat history and choose to opt out of evolving alliance systems focused on the Sino-Russian alliance, General Secretary Xi Jinping and President Vladimir V Putin will have cause to celebrate.


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