India-China ties: Time to look beyond 1962 fiasco

Tuesday, 23 October 2012 - 9:00am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: DNA
No official remembrance, no ceremony, not even a cursory mention by an otherwise quite voluble political establishment. It’s almost as if the war never happened!

It is a strange spectacle. At a time when the Indian media is leaving no stone unturned in recalling the dark days of the 1962 Sino-Indian war and the global media is dutifully reporting on the episode, the Indian government has thought it fit to just brush aside the awkward memory of India’s humiliating defeat.

No official remembrance, no ceremony, not even a cursory mention by an otherwise quite voluble political establishment. It’s almost as if the war never happened!

But the humiliation of 1962 continues to haunt Indian consciousness. Lata Mangeshkar’s poignant rendering of Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon has made sure that ordinary Indians will revisit the tortuous memory of 1962 with every strain of the song. After all, she has not sung any victory song for us and no one else has the ability to match the perfection with which she has rendered the heart-breaking lyrics of Kavi Pradeep.

Successive Indian governments have not displayed the confidence to come to terms with the shocking defeat of 1962 and nothing symbolises this better than the refusal to make the Henderson Brooks report public.

Commissioned by General JN Chaudhuri, who took over the as the chief of the Indian Army after the 1962 war, the report was to examine the conduct of military operations during the war. It should have been made public long back and the Indian military officers should be studying it as an essential text. But that has not happened.

As a result, instead of an informed discussion about the causes of the 1962 war and the way it was handled by the Indian political leadership and the military, we as a nation have become used to dealing in speculation. At times we blame Nehru, at times the Indian military’s leadership and the times those wily Chinese.

The fact remains, however, that like all wars, the 1962 war also had multiple causes and unless we examine them dispassionately and learn due lessons for the future we will not be able to transcend our past and prepare adequately for future challenges.

Historians will continue to debate the causes and the conduct of the 1962 war and as new facts will emerge the debate will shape up accordingly. But there is no reason to make India’s China policy of today a hostage to the 1962 war. The India of 2012 is not the India of 1962. India is today more confident in asserting its interests. And with its rising capabilities should be better prepared to deal with the consequences of an ascendant China.

But that’s where the real problem lies. In reality New Delhi even today remains ill equipped to deal with China. There are multiple levels – diplomatic, economic, cultural — at which China and India are engaging each other. Yet despite that pretence of an engagement, suspicions of each other are at an all time high. And the issue is not merely about the border and Tibet anymore.

Today, New Delhi and Beijing both view themselves are rising powers and as a consequence, their interests and capabilities are rubbing off against each other not merely in Asia but in various other parts of the world as well. The two states do not fully comprehend the complexities of each other’s domestic politics. China’s opaque political system festers a lack of transparency that can only be dangerous over the long term. India’s, often cacophonous, domestic political system seems perpetually unable to attain a seriousness of purpose vis-a-vis China.

As if this were not enough, popular opinion in both countries is rapidly turning against each other. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that two-thirds of Chinese respondents viewed India unfavourably. The feeling is mutual with only 23% of Indians describing their relationship with China as one of cooperation and only 24% viewing China’s growing economy as a good thing. So much for the trade leads to greater understanding thesis!

Alarm bells are ringing all around Indian’s periphery as China’s growing military might is allowing it to dictate the terms of engagement to its neighbours. A comprehensive programme of naval development is underway with some warning of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine taking on a new degree of salience.

Last month, China unveiled its first aircraft carrier – the Liaoning – with five more reportedly under development. China is busy developing an extensive near-seas capability allowing it to pursue its ambitions unhindered even from the influence of the world’s reigning heavyweight, the US.

Yet India remains diffident in articulating a China policy that can go beyond clichés. It’s not about matching China weapon for weapon. It is about managing China’s rise in a manner that does not lead to India giving up its vital interests. There is no likelihood of border settlement anytime soon but the infrastructure upgradation on Indian side of the border has only just begun.

Despite 15-odd rounds, the border talks between China and India have not led to anything substantive. India should be worried about rising nationalism and the rising sway of the PLA in policymaking in China which will make it even more difficult for the two sides to reach a diplomatic solution.

No doubt, there is much to be said about the Indian political establishment’s reluctance to declassify the Brooks committee report but those who are suggesting that once the report is out in the public domain, there might be a radical change in the tone and tenor of the Sino-Indian relations are also overplaying the importance of the report.

The report was largely about the conduct of the military operations and provides serious insights into the way internal decision-making in the military worked at that crucial time. But it does not delve into the larger policy questions and the role of the political establishment. India’s China policy of today should be assessed in terms of today’s ground realities and they are changing so fast that New Delhi is at pains to catch up. And this is neither the fault of Nehru nor of the Chinese but of today’s political establishment.

The writer teaches at King’s College, London, and is the author of The China Syndrome


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