Wednesday, 17 June 2020

How Indians Should Learn To Think About China


As I write, tensions between India and China have increased along their common border. For the first time in decades, soldiers have been killed (even though firearms were not used - the deliberate tradition of avoiding the use of firearms by both sides has doubtless prevented many a flare-up in the past in spite of sporadic scuffles over the years). Accusations and counter-accusations of violations have been traded.

Admittedly, I get most of my news and information from the Indian side, with a smattering of reports from international media that sometimes quotes Chinese official sources.

The mood in India today

One of the curious aspects of the conversation on the Indian side is the criticism by liberals of Modi's handling of the situation. This is not, as one might expect of liberals, along the lines of urging restraint or working for a peaceful solution. The attacks on Modi are from a position further to the right. Liberals are taunting Modi for being a pussycat and daring him to display greater belligerence towards the Chinese. This spectacle of liberals exhibiting a hypernationalism more characteristic of the right is a bit puzzling. Right-wing voices are obviously more muted in terms of criticising the Modi government, although their commentators are probably dismayed at his seeming inaction.

The point of unanimity among these Indian voices, right-wing or liberal, seems to be that the Chinese are treacherous enemies who cannot be trusted. There is consensus that India must somehow teach the Chinese a lesson, but the obvious dilemma is how to bell a cat five times your size.


The comments being made by Indians about China today, and thus the Indian attitude towards China that these represent, remind me of my childhood. I was born in 1963, a year after India's humiliating defeat by China in the 1962 border war. I remember how people of my parents' generation used to talk about China. The Chinese were treacherous people, they said. Zhou En Lai visited India promising peace, and even delivered an emotive quote in Hindi - "Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai" (Indians and Chinese are brothers), but as soon as he returned to Beijing, he ordered his troops to attack India, or so the narrative went.

Pakistan was the perennial enemy, of course, but the fact that India was never defeated by Pakistan moulded attitudes differently. The humiliation of a military defeat at the hands of China made all the difference.

As a former army officer put it recently in a candid Facebook comment, 

In the [army], our western neighbour [Pakistan] is looked on with varying degrees of pity, but our northern neighbour [China] is universally detested.

This is perfectly understandable given human nature. We tend to look down upon people we perceive as weaker than ourselves. We detest and resent those we perceive to be stronger.

Indian attitudes towards other countries

Indeed, a stronger power needs to behave exceedingly well and not be a threat if it is to elicit unqualified admiration. Most Western powers including the US have historically not threatened India in a direct way, although there is an indirect humiliation in the fact that the West does not respect India or its civilisation. That is why there is admiration for the West among Indians, tinged with some resentment that India's civilisational greatness is not given sufficient recognition in return. 

Towards Britain in particular, one would expect an attitude of outright hostility among Indians. Yet Indians display a surprising absence of rancour towards the British even though the latter presided over the most ruthlessly exploitative system in recent history - colonialism. Every element of the British setup in India, from its administrative bureaucracy (with its tellingly named "collectors"), to the railways and ports designed to ship raw material off to England to fuel its Industrial Revolution on the cheap, to the teaching of English to delegate part of the job of administration to native servants, everything was done to serve the interests of the British Empire to the utter detriment of India and the Indian people. Yet, because of the few scraps that were thrown their way, Indians developed an image of the empire that was relatively benign and even the stuff of romance. It was classic Stockholm Syndrome.

The reason for my digression into the Indian attitude towards the West, and Britain in particular, is to contrast it with the corresponding attitude towards China.

What might have been

On the face of it, India and China should have been natural allies and "brothers" (bhai-bhai, as Zhou En Lai put it). Both are ancient civilisations. The impassable border of the Himalayas ensured that the two civilisations had little contact over land, except through a few intrepid explorers and scholars. The major communication between the two was through the sea route, which favoured trade over war and conquest. The two countries were therefore spared the bitter history of conflict in spite of millennia of cultural contact.

In more recent times, both countries had been victims of colonialism. After the East India Company ceded control of India to the British crown in the aftermath of the 1857 war of independence, the country became a proper colony and remained so for almost a century. China too underwent its "century of humiliation" under no fewer than six colonial powers, one of which was Japan. When India attained independence in 1947 and Mao's communists seized power in 1949, the relationship between the two countries promised to be one of brotherhood. Two poor, populous, newly-liberated countries with no history of enmity or war between them, both with ancient civilisations that had known of and respected each other, should have been natural friends and allies.

Yet it all went horribly wrong. Why?

When I think about India and China, I see the relationship at three different levels - Political, Personal and Civilisational.

1. Political

I blame one historical figure for all of the needless ill-will that has become this generation's inheritance - Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mind you, Nehru was a visionary in most respects. His idea of the Indian state with its uncompromisingly democratic institutions, its secular nature with all communities treated alike, and his policy of non-alignment in foreign affairs, were all brilliant concepts ahead of his time. Not too many leaders at the time could have pulled off what he did. The failures of other newly-liberated countries (Ghana under Nkrumah, Egypt under Nasser, Yugoslavia under Tito, and Indonesia under Sukarno) highlighted how lucky India was to remain united, remain a democracy and gradually progress. It is a huge debt that today's generation of Indians owes to Nehru.

Yet there was at least one blind spot in Nehru's vision, and it was in his attitude to the Chinese. I believe Nehru was at heart a "brown sahib" who inherited the British patrician contempt for the Chinese people. To put it bluntly, he was probably a racist. He treated with disdain the hand of friendship offered by Mao and Zhou. He refused to re-negotiate the border that had previously been agreed by two earlier sovereigns (The British Empire and the Kingdom of Tibet). [The annexation of Tibet is of course an example of imperialist thinking by the Chinese. They believe that just because Tibet had once been ruled by Chinese emperors, it "belongs" to China indefinitely. But that is another matter. Once the annexation of Tibet became a fait accompli, realpolitik demanded that India respond to the new communist government of China when it raised the border issue in an initially civil manner.] As it turned out, not only was Nehru dismissive of the Chinese request for negotiations, he displayed breathtaking stupidity in actively provoking hostilities, and from a position of weakness to boot. The "Forward Policy" of his foreign minister VK Krishna Menon, which Nehru fully endorsed, consisted of placing Indian military outposts further and further into Chinese territory. One is at a loss to understand how Nehru expected this provocation to go without retaliation.

A Chinese and an Indian soldier face off at the border, in a photo from the 1960s

Needless to say, the Chinese taught Nehru a bitter lesson. Interestingly, although they advanced quite far into Indian territory during the war, they unilaterally withdrew to their original positions once the point had been made. Six decades later, many of us can clearly see that the fault was Nehru's, not that of the Chinese. They made a point and then withdrew.

But a generation of Indians was scarred for life by that short war. That generation could never see the events of their time in this way. The few who blamed Nehru did so for reasons of domestic politics. To most Indians at that time, the Chinese became known as treacherous people who could never be trusted, because they tended to stab you in the back after promising friendship.

That was an unfortunate narrative, and it's even more unfortunate that a replay of that narrative is underway today.

Modi seems to have borrowed a leaf from Nehru's book, which is ironic considering that he seems generally determined to be the un-Nehru in every other way. He has taken China too lightly.

To be sure, Modi has made more efforts than any past Indian prime minister to normalise relations with China. Even as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he made several trips to China to woo investment into his state. And as Prime Minister, he has made 5 official visits to China and met Xi Jinping on many more occasions. His personal rapport with Xi was meant to usher in a new era of trade, investment, cooperation and friendship.

Yet why has everything fallen apart? The hasty answer would be the one Indians seem comfortable with - that the Chinese are a treacherous people who can never be trusted. They have taken advantage of India's moment of weakness because of the Covid crisis, and have decided to attack.

I would urge saner reflection.

Specifically, I would call attention to the "Wuhan Consensus". When Modi and Xi met in Wuhan in 2018, they made an agreement with wide repercussions, and I believe Modi either did not understand the extent of its ramifications, or he has been sabotaged by elements within his own policy establishment.

Essentially, the Wuhan Consensus was that India would "cooperate with" China, and China would not create any trouble on the border in spite of its existing territorial claims.

China probably expected that after the Wuhan agreement, India would stop working against its interests. But since then, India has taken a number of steps that could be viewed by China as violating that agreement. India's discussions with members of "the Quad" (the US, Australia and Japan, with India to be its fourth vertex) which has the explicit objective of containing China, a recent statement by the Indian home minister claiming all of Aksai Chin (which the Chinese hold), statements from ministers urging a boycott of Chinese goods, talk of restrictions on Chinese investment in India, widespread criticism of China over Covid, etc., have no doubt angered the Chinese leadership.

A neutral person should try to look at it from Xi Jinping's perspective as well. He probably has critics even within his own establishment, notably from within the PLA (People's Liberation Army). The PLA has been getting stronger within the Chinese establishment, and is known to be urging a more muscular foreign policy. The Wuhan Consensus would have been a hard sell for Xi internally, but if he could show that he had bought India's cooperation so as to be able to concentrate on the bigger challenge posed by Trump's US, he could probably secure an internal consensus as well. But as soon as India began to make moves that violated that agreement from the perspective of China's interests, Xi would have been under immediate pressure to act.

My view on these developments is that Modi has failed - twice. The Wuhan Consensus may not have been fully thought through in terms of its ramifications. However, once agreed, its violation (real or perceived) was a second mistake.

What do I think India should have done? I think India should have dusted off Nehru's policy of Non-Alignment, and brought it up to date for a new era. The Cold War between the US and USSR is a thing of the past, but a new geopolitical struggle is looming. The West still lines up, however uneasily, behind the US. On the other side, China is leading a loose alliance with Russia and Iran. Both sides are looking to see which one India will choose.

My belief is that India must not choose either side. India must walk a tightrope between these two blocs, and the skills of its political leadership and diplomats will of course be taxed to the utmost in maintaining good relations with all powers while resisting pressure from them. This is not a cynical recommendation to play both sides and extract benefits from both, although that is how things will probably manifest themselves. I believe India simply has no choice. It cannot afford to be drawn into either side of this conflict. India must make itself economically strong, internally cohesive (no divisive communal nonsense), and be seen to be committed to international law rather than to narrow alliances. The latter is a zero-sum game, and we are witnessing the costs of playing that game.

At the time of writing, I have no idea how this immediate crisis will play out, but in the longer term, I don't see any alternative to Non-Alignment on India's part.

That's what I think about the political side of the India-China issue.

2. Personal

I'm equally concerned about the attitudes of people. The current climate seems to have given Indians, even liberal Indians, licence to indulge in stereotypical and viciously racist characterisations of their Chinese counterparts.

I will confess that my upbringing in India in the 1960s and 70s, moulded by the attitudes of older people, made me similarly distrustful of the Chinese as a race. However, I was fortunate to have migrated to Australia as an adult. As a result, I was able to emotionally leave behind a society traumatised by a humiliating war, and enter a more neutral environment where I was able to come in contact with hundreds of people of Chinese extraction, and form friendships with many of them. It has been a growing-up experience I would not have had if I hadn't left India.

In neutral societies such as Western countries, Indians and Chinese have the opportunity to meet as equals and often intermarry. The differences are clearly not irreconcilable.

It should come as no surprise that Indians and Chinese are quite similar in their cultural attitudes and beliefs. In fact, the cultural "distance" between India and China is much smaller than the corresponding distance between either of them and Western culture.

As a couple of quick examples from my personal life, I have found that Indian family relationships and obligations are more readily understood by Chinese people than by Westerners.

I once remarked to a Chinese work colleague that I was concerned about my parents back in India because I was the eldest son (the elder child and only son, to be precise). He placed his hands on my shoulders and massaged them, remarking with a laugh, "Your shoulders are very heavy". His understanding of my situation was immediate. The responsibility of the elder son towards his parents in their old age is a concept common to many eastern cultures.

A couple of years later, my parents were coming over to Australia for a month-long visit, and I mentioned this to an Anglo-Australian colleague. He asked me, "And will they be staying with you?" He was well-travelled and open-minded, and yet he genuinely couldn't comprehend that there was no question about where my parents would be staying when they visited Australia. I since learnt that many Australians with parents in the UK organise separate accommodation for them when they visit. Staying together is viewed as an imposition in Western culture, particularly the Anglo one. The Asian cultures are alike in being very different from this.

It pains me personally to see some of my most "liberal" Indian friends engage in blatantly racist stereotyping of the Chinese people, simply because of misunderstandings between the Chinese and Indian governments.

Mind you, I have absolutely no sympathy for the Chinese communist party and the government that it controls. I assess the various actions of the Chinese government as they occur to the best of my ability and decide what to think about them. But I have learnt enough from my many interactions with Chinese friends to make a clear distinction between the Chinese government and Chinese people. I refuse to let the negative behaviour of a government colour my view of people.

Let me shift gears once again and talk about my view of civilisations.

3. Civilisational

At a high-level, I consider myself a humanist. But I am not a naive believer in a borderless world and a common world government. The book that opened my eyes to the reality of the world was "The Clash of Civilisations" by Samuel Huntington. I realised after reading that book that a single united world, the dream of many liberal humanists, was a chimera, but so too was the right-nationalistic view of multiple nation-states. The world is neither one universal family, nor is it 200-odd distinct countries. From the perspective of identity, the only durable entities are civilisations, and these number between 6 and 14, depending on how you categorise them. (For example, Islamic civilisation may be seen as a monolith, but also separately as the Arab, Turkish and Persian civilisations.)

I see human history not as a pure conflict, or clash, of civilisations, but as a rough relay race. At different times, different civilisations dominate. They jostle and push one another aside in order to get ahead, but they also trade with and learn from one another. From a larger perspective, humanity progresses thanks to the innovations coming from its component civilisations. The Chinese civilisation innovated paper, gunpowder, printing and the compass. The Indic civilisation contributed, among other things, the place-value system of arithmetic along with its essential element, the concept of zero. Arab civilisation contributed advances in algebra, chemistry, and a host of other areas.

Western civilisation learnt from those that came before it, and it has in turn contributed to humanity in full measure. Virtually all of the technical advances and social revolutions (e.g., the European Enlightenment) of the last few centuries have come from Western civilisation. The relay race of human advancement continues on in its messy way, with plenty of jostling and pushing between its various civilisations and their representative nation-states, but with inevitable progress for all of humanity.

Not a clash but a (messy) relay race of civilisations

With such a big-picture perspective, I refuse to be drawn into petty characterisations of people and countries, and I am unable to accept a narrow concept of loyalty to a particular country or even a civilisation. I was born into one civilisation, and I live in a country that represents another civilisation, but I find it petty to consider myself to belong exclusively to one or the other. I have seen too much!


In sum, I would urge thinking Indians (especially liberals, who pride themselves on their ability to rise above the brutish level of thought represented by right-wing bigots) to stop their knee-jerk responses to media reports from the India-China border. Ponder the three aspects of the India-China relationship that I have touched upon above.

1. Political and geo-political - Avoid a "my country right or wrong" approach and try to see history impartially. Critique the actions of the Chinese government by all means, but without resorting to racist stereotyping. Also recognise that the Indian leadership has also made mistakes in its approach to China, in the 60s and even today. Whatever eventuates in the short-term, the best long-term policy for India is a renewed version of non-alignment.

2. Personal - Stop demonising people of another race. Recognise that Chinese people are human beings like yourselves. In fact, they are culturally closer to you than people of many other societies.

3. Civilisational - Look beyond the seeming clash of civilisations to see that competitive innovation results in progress for the human race as a whole. Both India and China (like the West, the Arab world, and others) will contribute to humanity's progress as a by-product of advancing the interests of their own people, and the consequent bumping and jostling should be viewed with acceptance as a necessary feature of human evolution.

1 comment:

Ramdas said...

Masterly, as usual if I may add