It’s time India took steps to contain China

India has not learnt any lessons from the 1962 war with China.

Most wars are won or lost for military reasons. But few leave a strategic and political legacy as divisive and debated as the Indo-Chinese war of 1962.

Fifty years after the ill-fated conflict, there is still debate on whether it was really a “war” or a “border conflict”. Then, Marxists, in private conversations at least, are still unwilling to admit that China was the aggressor. To them, India remains the villain of the piece. There is also a school of thought that maintains that the humiliation of 1962 could have been turned into glory if only India had used its (then) superior air force.

But all these arguments, debates and discussions are in the realm of semantics.

The fact is that the conflict has left a scar on the collective consciousness of the nation that half a century has not been able to erase.

What was the strategic outcome of the war?

• Globally, chairman Mao decisively scuttled Jawaharlal Nehru’s ambitions of emerging as the voice of the Third World;

• In this continent, China told the (still under-developed) south east Asian countries that India didn’t have the wherewithal to become their leader on the world stage; and

• Within China, it cemented Mao’s political position, under serious threat following a disastrous socialist experiment called “Great Leap Forward” that resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese people, as the Supreme Leader.

Fifty years later, India is still paying the price of that defeat.

The situation, though, is vastly different now.

China is on the verge of emerging as a “great power”.

India, on the other hand, is in danger of being ousted from the club of “emerging economies”, collectively called BRIC, that was supposed to succeed Europe, the US and Japan as the nations of the future.

Today, we still don’t have a strategic doctrine to emerge as a great power.

We’re still unsure about how to deal with China (and Pakistan).

And we’re completely undecided on how to engage powers like the US and Japan that can help us checkmate the dragon at our doorstep.

It has become fashionable in some circles within India’s power elite to ridicule India’s great power aspirations vis-à-vis China. They point to the growing disparities in a variety of economic, social and military indicators to propagate the theory that this is a lost race; the sooner India accepts the fact the better.

“China doesn’t care about India,” they say.

“China doesn’t remember the 1962 war,” they add.

“India is not even a part of China’s collective consciousness.”

Rubbish!

China is following Sun Tzu’s prescription that positioning and deception are all-important in any conflict. Today, India has to contend with China in its backyard – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Of these, Nepal and Sri Lanka lie within India’s strategic sphere. Yet, we see China looming large in these countries. It’s part of its so-called “string of pearls” strategy to hem India in and keep it rooted to its region.

Every (feeble and politically tentative) Indian effort to break out of its South Asian straitjacket is beaten back with threats, ridicule and rhetoric.

Result: we don’t have a presence in China’s backyard.

There’s no dearth of people telling us that this is just as well.
“China’s gone too far ahead,” we’re told. Trying to compete, these voices add, is fraught with danger.

Left unsaid is the threat – and a fear – of a 1962 redux.

Medieval Europe offers a good template to compare our current situation with. At different times, Spain, Portugal, Prussia, France and England threatened to emerge as the pre-eminent power in Europe.

Each time, other countries ganged up against the pre-eminent power of the day to prevent a pan-European hegemony.

That is what India must do now to prevent Beijing from emerging as the effective “capital” of Asia. Japan Inc., which played a massive role in China’s industrial revolution, is now looking for other safe investment destinations following the spat between China and Japan over Spratly Islands.

New Delhi should immediately form a high power group to woo Japanese investors to make India their home. A beginning has been made with the rail freight corridor project that can, potentially, channel billions of dollars of Japanese investments India’s way. Decisive follow-up action is necessary.

Then, Asia’s “arc of democracy”, from Japan to India, should logically be India’s sphere of influence. But the Indian government’s pusillanimity and indecisiveness have made countries in this arc wary of cozying up to New Delhi.

And finally, of course, there’s the US factor. India and the US have no strategic, territorial or military disputes. Both countries share common values and goals – like liberal democratic values. Yet, there’s hesitation in New Delhi on taking ties to their logical conclusion.

It’s time India decided, like China seems to have, to expand its areas of influence.

But is the government up to it?

On the 50th anniversary of India’s most traumatic military defeat and international humiliation, it is worth pondering over these issues.