This year, the UPA government is marking the 60th anniversary of Panchsheel, or the five principles of peaceful coexistence that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai signed during the latter’s visit to Delhi in 1954.
The elevation of Panchsheel into a unique non-Western doctrine of international relations underlines the inability of the Indian political establishment to recognise its past errors in dealing with Beijing and its refusal to prepare the nation to cope with the rise of China, the single most important geopolitical reality of our time.
Historians tell us that it was Zhou who demanded the insertion of the paragraphs on Panchsheel into the preamble of a routine trade agreement between India and the Tibet region of China in 1954. For Beijing, Panchsheel was about getting India to renounce its claims to a special relationship with Tibet that China gained control over a few years earlier.
The disastrous consequences of India’s misreading of China’s motivations and Delhi’s romanticisation of the relationship with Beijing in the 1950s form the central theme of Arun Shourie’s latest volume, Self-Deception.
India’s mishandling of the China relationship and the drift from “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai” to the war of 1962 has been told many times before. In Shourie’s racy and absorbing polemic, the tragedy of India’s past engagement with China becomes accessible to all. Shourie’s meticulous research into the 1950s is not about revisiting the past for its own sake. Instead, he seeks out the sources of India’s enduring mismanagement of the China relationship.
Shourie underlines the continuous underestimation of Chinese power, a refusal to accept evidence that contradicts India’s fond assumptions and a tendency to withhold information from the public. Shourie is not demonising China. He believes China has acted in its own interest and India has not.
If Shourie parses India’s illusions about China in the middle of the 20th century to make his case, Jeff Smith’s Cold Peace provides a fine complement by bringing the story into the 21st Century. Despite the significant expansion of India’s cooperation with China, Smith traces the deepening tensions in recent years.
Smith’s volume, based on solid research, puts the current developments on the Sino-Indian border including in Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, and the triangular dynamics with Pakistan and the United States in perspective. Smith, based at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, also explores the emerging areas of contention between China and India in the Indian Ocean and East Asia and concludes with an assessment of the new dangers confronting the bilateral relationship.
While Smith offers a thoughtful account of how the India-China relationship looks from Washington, Ashley Tellis addresses America’s own mounting problems with China. Romanticisation of China has strong roots in the United States and dates back to the first half of the 19th century when American missionaries started travelling there.
Of more immediate concern for Tellis is America’s profound misreading of China’s intentions and the consequences of its rise. While America’s semi-alliance with China to contain the Soviet Union in the final years of the Cold War might have made sense, its reluctance to come to terms with the implications of China’s growing power after the Cold War has been inexplicable.
China’s increasing assertiveness in Asia and its challenge to American primacy in Asia over the last few years, however, has triggered a fresh debate in the United States. Tellis, familiar to Indian audiences as one of the intellectual architects of the transformation of the ties between Washington and Delhi, weighs in on the debate with a superb tract.
Arguing that rivalry between Washington and Beijing is inevitable, Tellis concedes that containment of China, already the second largest economy and a formidable military power, is impossible. What the US needs, in his view, is a strategy to balance China by strengthening the national capabilities of Beijing’s Asian neighbours.
Unlike many in the US, Tellis does not view the partnerships with China’s neighbours as a quid pro quo. Instead, he insists that American investment in Asian strategic partnerships “is in Washington’s best interest irrespective of whether it is repaid in kind because it will diminish China’s ability to misuse its growing strength and increase American geopolitical maneuverability in the Indo-Pacific”. That in turn brings us to critical questions about India’s own options in dealing China and the role of alliances, especially with the United States.
Smith points to India’s central difficulty with China — a growing gap in the strategic capabilities of Delhi and Beijing. China’s GDP and military expenditure are now four times larger than those of India. Shourie underlines the importance of building up India’s own comprehensive national power and simultaneously crafting a network of intersecting alliances with key nations, nationalities and important constituencies around the world that share India’s concerns about China.
Although “alliances are a must”, Shourie argues, “we must not be, and must not seen to be dependent on any other country. Nor must our actions be subject to the approval of any other country — a country that our adversaries can dissuade”. Shourie knows that “working with others is often exasperating” but recalls Churchill’s dictum in the Second World War: “the one thing worse than fighting a war with allies is fighting a war without allies”.
Shourie’s argument that India must learn the difficult art of building interest-based alliances provides more than an alternative to the ambiguity and self-doubt that have characterised the UPA government’s China policy. It offers a bold new template for India’s foreign policy that must be widely debated in the run up to the next general elections.