India’s real ally

During a heated debate in parliament before the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Prime Minister Nehru declared that he favored peace over war with China, making it clear that he was willing to negotiate with the Communist nation till the bitter end to resolve border disputes.

Shortly thereafter, India’s pacifist founding leader got the shock of his life when his “brotherly” neighbor invaded his country, shattering Nehru’s view that by befriending China he could tame the dragon.

Still, Indian leaders even today would reiterate Nehru’s pledge -- India wants peace, not war. However, the vexing question is: What is the prudent strategy for India in a new world that is certain to see China’s rise and U.S. attempts to contain it?

India’s decision will greatly depend on how China plays its cards. China’s behavior, on the other hand, will be dictated by India’s economic and military conditions. A strong India would make China more willing to be flexible; a feeble democracy could tempt it to be bellicose.

To be sure, few expect India and China to plunge into a war, at least in the short-run.  When I asked Henry Kissinger last November if China could attack India in the next 25 years, he dismissed the possibility outright. “Stakes are too high,” the former U.S. secretary of state said, adding there is nothing to be gained by either side.

Still, given the new world reality India today finds itself between a rock and a hard place: China versus United States. To some, the choice is easy, but there are others who face soul searching.

Can India trust the United States?

India’s world views since independence had been shaped by its traumatic experience with Western imperialism. New Delhi has seen the United States at the West’s torchbearer. But the confidence with which India turned to the United States in 1962 after the Chinese invasion suggests an underlying trust in Washington. This could manifest again under new circumstances.

Frosty Indo-U.S. relations started gathering momentum in 1982 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Washington. The technology-transfer protocol signed by her successor, Rajiv Gandhi, was a definite landmark. With economic reforms and arms deals, Prime Minister Singh has placed India squarely in the Western camp, replacing non-alignment.

Many Indians, however, oppose supporting the United States against China. They fear that U.S. policy could change and the United States could withdraw from Asia, leaving its allies exposed to China’s rising power.

Some Indians consider an India-China pact on the border issue more important than warming up to the United States.  In New Delhi, there are influential leftists who oppose India playing second fiddle to America. Nevertheless, the U.S.-India defense caravan is moving forward no matter how many dogs bark in Delhi, as one Indian put it.

Can India trust China?

No doubt, China would prefer to have good relations with India. These two nations have some common agenda items. Both seek to gain more influence in international affairs and curtail what they see as the excesses of American power.

China realizes that the coming together of the world’s two largest countries could tilt balances against the United States. It simultaneously wants to push India into a cage to curb New Delhi’s power to challenge Beijing.

China’s strength and dynamism and its ambitions for political hegemony are elements of concern. Beijing’s track record makes it hard to trust the Chinese. China duped India at least three times on Tibet and the border disputes before the war.

Nehru had been suspicions of China. In 1960, he told U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker that the Chinese had an “aggressive nature.” This nature usually manifested when they felt themselves powerful. As the “Middle Kingdom” people, they considered themselves above everyone else, and they included India in a second-class category.

Nehru’s answer lay in his focus on developing India’s economy to create a national power base capable of resisting any Chinese military provocation. However, China’s growth rates far outstripped India’s, giving Beijing an edge to build a more powerful army. India never managed to catch up. In the context of the disputes with China, Nehru’s action was not an answer at all, but an implicit admission that India lacked the military power to evict the Chinese.

History must not repeat itself.

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