The China conundrum
The Republic of India joined the United States in the latter’s military manoeuvres to contain the People’s Republic of China for important reasons. First, New Delhi is standing eyeball to eyeball against Beijing along the British-determined Sino-Indian border, the Line of Actual Control. New Delhi’s stance is in part the legacy of the 1962 India-China war, which some analysts concluded was largely due to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s insistence on retaining the contested territorial border between the PRC and the ROI.
The border is the outcome largely of British Indian Empire’s military expeditions into Tibet in the late 19th Century during the Great Game to pursue the Forward Policy, interpreted by the British Viceroy Lord Curzon as establishing a chain of protectorates – including Sikkim and Bhutan – to buffer his Empire’s north-eastern border against the Russian Empire.
The British Indian Army (BIA) imposed the 1904 Convention of Lhasa on the Kingdom of Tibet. Under the unequal Treaty the Empire extracted trade concessions for its East India Company and established control over Tibet’s foreign policy to oversee its relations with Russia. The BIA’s Colonel Francis Younghusband, with a nod from London, demanded Tibet pay an indemnity of Rs. 7,500,000 to the British Indian Empire to compensate the inconvenience and costs of invading the Kingdom. He coerced Tibet into conceding Chumbi Valley as security until full payment of the indemnity in instalments was completed over 75 (seventy five) years. The indemnity was later reduced to Rs. 4,995,000. However, two outcomes were, first, the territorial border with Tibet was re-drawn and, second, the Kingdom was converted into a political shield to stem Russian Empire’s expansionism.
Under the subsequent 1906 Convention Between Great Britain and China Respecting Tibet, the dominant British Indian Empire coerced the Qing Dynasty “not to permit any other foreign state [Russia] to interfere with the territory or internal administration of Tibet”. In return the British agreed to recognise China’s claim over Tibet, though the Qing Dynasty lacked the military power to enforce agreement during China’s Century of Humiliation (1839 – 1949). The PRC incorporated Tibet in 1951.
The imperial manoeuvres of the British Indian Army primarily determined the imprecise and sometimes fluctuating territorial border that has been the source of contention and occasional conflict between the ROI and the PRC. After battling the Japanese occupation army and defeating the US-backed Chiang Kaishek’s forces, Chairman Mao faced Anglo-US aggression in the East (Formosa/Taiwan) and South-East Asia (Korea/Vietnam). To make matters worse, the Sino-Soviet confrontation was rapidly coming to a boil. So he moved swiftly to defuse the India-China border issue that hostile Anglo-US interests could exploit to fuel further aggression in the west against the victorious 1949 Revolution.
In May 1959, Beijing sent a note to Delhi. “The enemy of the Chinese people”, explained Mao, “lies in the east — the US imperialists have many military based in Taiwan, in South Korea, Japan and in the Philippines which are all directed against China…our principal enemy is US imperialism…China will not be so foolish as to antagonize India in the west.” He deputised Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to resolve the border issue and diminish the scope for threat. The latter wrote an apparently conciliatory note to Nehru in November 1959, regretting the “unexpected border clash took place on October 21 within Chinese territory in the area south of the Kongka Pass” and urging “effective steps, speedily and without hesitation, to earnestly improve the disquieting situation on the border.” Obviously alluding to Anglo-US machinations, Zhou cautioned a border clash in the future “even though a minor one…will be made use of by people who are hostile to the friendship of our two countries to attain their ulterior objectives.” In April 1960, China’s Foreign Minister Chen Yi virtually pleaded with his Indian counterpart Swaran Singh: “[t]he USA has its bases around us, atomic missiles and atomic weapons around us. Our dispute with India is very small…We are in a serious situation and need your friendship”.
As a quid pro quo Zhou proposed “a ‘package deal’ for a final settlement: China would accept India’s control over today’s Arunachal Pradesh, which meant its de facto recognition of India’s jurisdiction up to the McMahon Line, if India accepted China’s control over Aksai Chin”, the northern corner of Indian Occupied Kashmir that China had historically administered.
However, the Indian National Congress (INC) – established by a retired British colonial bureaucrat, Allan Octavian Hume in 1885 – imbibed the British Indian Empire’s worldview. The British Indian Elite with a few notable exceptions – Subash Chandra Bose was one – were co-opted into the INC; they owed gratitude to the British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten for crushing the revolutionary challenge from Bose and Trailokyanath Chakraborty between 1944 and 1946 and delivering the reins of power into the INC’s safe hands. What’s more, Nehru invited the Viceroy to rule as the first Governor General of independent India. If the revolutionaries’ Indian National Army had defeated the Viceroy’s British Indian Army, it’s fair to surmise that the “moderate” INC elite who stepped into the shoes of the departing British would instead have very likely joined the colonial rulers’ exodus, similar to that witnessed during the flight of China’s Kuomintang army to Formosa/Taiwan and retreat of the US-led NATO forces from Vietnam.
Given its pro-British sentiment, Delhi-centric Congress leadership may have been less receptive to Beijing’s entreating and perhaps emboldened by the British High Commission’s possible negative stance to spurn the compromise offered by Zhou. After General Kaul reported in June 1962 “[i]t is better for us to establish as many posts as we can in Ladakh…as I am convinced that the Chinese will not attack any of our positions even if they are relatively weaker than theirs”, the Congress government pursued the Forward Policy with greater vigour; it directed the Army “to patrol as forward as possible from our present positions towards the international border as recognised by us…with a view to establishing additional posts…to prevent the Chinese…advancing further and…to dominate…Chinese posts already established in our territory” (emphasis added).
A further reason, argued an Indian analyst, why Delhi rejected the solution Zhou offered was because “Prime Minister Nehru, [was] an idealist who had just recently participated in an independence movement that was largely based on ideology. The legacy of this sort of thinking was that Nehru and many others in the Indian establishment acquired a self-righteous manner of thinking that held that the Indian position was morally correct and that if they stuck to it without wavering, others would eventually see the righteousness of their position.” After 20 hours of talks with Nehru, Zhou returned empty handed; and New Delhi persisted in its Forward Policy and moved troops into the contested region.
Mao interpreted the Indian Army’s manipulation of facts on the ground, which he perceived as “India’s nibbling policy”, as a strategy to push forward the disputed border, and, unsurprisingly, launched military operations in October of that year. Since then the Sino-Indian border dispute has festered and escalated and India is compelled to ally with the extra-regional power US to face China.
Politics of Water
New Delhi’s lack of cooperation and defuse the India-China border dispute in time has complicated negotiations. Beijing allied with Islamabad after Pakistan joined China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the inauguration of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the lynchpin of BRI. Consequently New Delhi’s space to manoeuvre vis-à-vis Islamabad has shrunk. It faces an uphill task in negotiating with Beijing over the sharing of river waters, a task made more complex and sensitive by the impact of climate change on fluctuating river water flows. This is the second reason New Delhi is reaching out to Washington.
Beijing controls the headwaters of major South and South-East Asian trans-border rivers that originate in the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau and carry down life-giving fresh water. Hydroelectric dams China constructs on rivers on the Chinese side of the border allow considerable scope for China’s regional water diplomacy; their implication for potential water insecurity in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and countries of the Mekong Delta are obvious (Map 2).
China recently demonstrated its water-related geo-political leverage. When Islamists, allegedly from Pakistan, attacked India’s Uri military camp in 2016 Prime Minister Narendra Modi ominously intoned: “Blood and water cannot flow at the same time” and reportedly cautioned Islamabad he would suspend talks on water-sharing under the Indus Water Treaty. A disruption of water supply would jeopardise the CPEC, which critically relies on the Indus for water and hydropower. Beijing reacted swiftly: it announced the construction of a dam is being ratcheted up on a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo, the Tibetan section of India’s Brahmaputra river that flows into Arunachal Pradesh. New Delhi’s implied threat to disrupt the Indus Water Treaty did not materialise.
The deepening Chinese influence in countries bordering India – Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh – poses obvious difficulties for pursuing the Forward Policy and is a further reason for India’s anti-China alliance with the US to open a second front against Beijing in the South China Sea. The double confrontation seems not to cause much alarm in New Delhi, where many policy analysts draw comfort from US backing and cheer India’s “rise” as a throwback of sorts to the British Indian Empire. For instance in 2010 India’s veteran foreign policy analyst exulted “The Return of the [Indian] raj” on the heels of the 2008 Indo-US Nuclear Agreement.
India-United States alliance
The current pro-US posture took shape early when Washington inveigled New Delhi into the 2008 Indo-US Nuclear Agreement with inducements that included a not so vague promise to support its aspiration for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Unsurprisingly that promise, as with many others, has evaporated like the morning dew.
The Agreement is a high water mark in New Delhi’s drift into America’s sphere of influence to synchronise their foreign policies vis-à-vis China, hone closer military ties and to strengthen ‘functional interoperability’ between their armed forces. The 2008 Agreement, asserted Teresita Schaffer at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, is to make “India a more durable and reliable nuclear partner” of the United States; a strategic objective, explained Council of Foreign Relations’ Charles D. Ferguson, is “to counterbalance China”, to contain its rapidly growing power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Washington manoeuvred aggressively to dominate rising Eurasian powers and entrench US unipolarity imagined by the Brzezinskian Project in 1997. However, by 2020 the rise of PRC and reviving Russia, with India, Brazil and Indonesia not far behind, rapidly shifted the geo-strategic balance of power in favour of the emerging multipolarity, exposing US’ primarily military efforts laced with sanctions to maintain the fading unipolarity to be increasingly irrelevant. Today, the US is seeking India’s assistance to arrest the steady decline of its own hegemonic position, a decline that began internally as Monopoly Capital tightened its grip throttling the competitiveness of the US economy from the mid-1970s, if not earlier, and was reinforced externally by the military defeat in Vietnam followed by the similar debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US/NATO ambitions in Eurasia dovetails with New Delhi’s naval strategy of containing China by leveraging “choke points”, especially the Malacca Strait, to economically strangle China during possible future hostilities. More recently, in 2014 Brookings Institute approvingly examined India’s Indo-Pacific strategy-shift from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’. So, the US Senate fortified the military collaboration in 2018 with the $716 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). New Delhi continued the pro-US shift in 2022 by taking India into the East Asian Quad, dubbed the “Asian NATO” and led by the US, to confront the PRC in the South China Sea, hoping to strike a Strategic Balance against the China-Pakistan partnership.
However, New Delhi has calibrated its alliance with the US by maintaining a Strategic Ambiguity through multi-alignment, by joining the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) convened by China but opposing the BRI since its flagship CPEC passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (by March 2022 147 governments have signed the MOU with Beijing). India, a rising Eurasian power, ignored US sanctions to trade with Russia (including energy imports) and also abstained on the US-inspired 2022 UNGA resolution against China’s ally, Russia over Ukraine. India’s abstention went against the Brzezinskian Project for a return to the tantalisingly brief US-dominated unipolarity from 1991 to about 2008; evidently riled by New Delhi’s stance the US Deputy Secretary of State declared: “we just have to keep working at this relationship and understanding the complexity of it, and helping India to really understand what is in their national security interests” (emphasis added).
It is expected in some quarters that New Delhi would gradually evolve an intra-regional dialogue within South Asia that could directly address China’s concerns rather than rely on an extra-regional power. Perhaps India’s strategic analysts are conscious that the US, in search of its Manifest Destiny, and its NATO partners, many of whom are former colonial powers, are barrelling along Barbara W. Tuchman’s March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam towards a collision course with China that has compelled John Pilger to caution, “Another Hiroshima is Coming”.
New Delhi may have an inkling that after the US has, IF at all, neutered Russia and China and re-established its unipolarity, resurging US hegemony will fall upon the next rising Eurasian power, India to continue the elimination of challengers to US power.
*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who received the Ph.D degree from the University of Cambridge. He was Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: email@example.com