Fifty years ago this month, India and China clashed in high Himalayas. India was beaten soundly. Its military planning and execution of war were, to put it mildly, incompetent. For the past half century, blame has been laid on the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for the debacle. His lack of realism and his greed for land that did not belong to India in the first place continue to be cited as the sources of conflict.
None of these arguments are incorrect stricto sensu. Much ink has been spilled on the subject by writers as diverse as Neville Maxwell and Perry Anderson. But few, if any, want to search for the sources of China’s conduct, in that war and later, in light of its history. Present day disputes—South China Sea is good example—annexations and claims in the past, Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, fit in a pattern that has deep historical roots.
Consider South China Sea first. Beijing claims “sovereign rights” over this wide swath of territory, something disputed by other countries. What is more interesting is the original source of that claim: It is based on “discoveries” all the way back to the period when T’ang and Song dynasties (618-1279 AD) ruled that country.
Nehru did something similar, although he did not cite the Vedas for India’s claim to Aksai Chin. His memory in the matter did not extend before the 19th century. He pulled out a map in which this region was shown as a part of India. Technically, it was not: he went beyond the farthest extent that British administrators could think of. Within no time the Chinese presented their version, which showed the entire region within its territory. China’s premier Zhou Enlai said these maps were drawn by “imperialists” and China rejected them. However, he was willing to agree to Indian claims in the east (Arunachal Pradesh) in exchange for what his country had already seized in the west.
The Chinese claim to Aksai Chin is based on—what else—the farthest extent of the Qing dynasty’s (1644-1912) domain. No serious scholar of Chinese history will accept that claim. Even a cursory look at the maps in two cases—China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing by William T Rowe (Harvard University Press, 2009) and China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia by Peter C Perdue (Harvard University Press, 2005)—shows these claims are not true. The simple fact is that notwithstanding its great conquests, the Qing simply had little staying power in regions as remote as Xinjiang and Tibet leave alone a forbidding place like Aksai Chin. To this day, China has a hard time in holding them. If, however, one believes that horsemen can mark national boundaries, then China’s claim has merit.
At the heart of the matter is an issue that China holds dear. It believes its imperialism—and Qing attempts to seize Tibet and Xinjiang and conquest of Sichuan were no more than that—is morally superior to the British variant. But what can be said, at best, is that these are competing claims by two states that succeeded British India (India) and Qing China (the People’s Republic of China).
Were matters to end there, quiet diplomacy and give and take in closed chambers would have a chance. The harsh reality, however, is that there is historical logic to these geopolitical realities. This makes neat solutions almost impossible.
Historically, there was a close link between China’s ruling dynasties and the security of its northern and southern borders. When “barbarian dynasties” (Yuan and Qing) presided, the northern borders were secure. When “real” Chinese returned, the problem re-emerged. During “barbarian” rule, China expanded; during “domestic” rule, it was defensive.
In the 20th century, the People’s Republic faced the same dilemmas. So long as the Soviet Union remained a friend, adventures (Korea) and threats (Taiwan) could be indulged in. Once this friend turned into a “social imperialist”, a new friend was discovered (across the Pacific this time). The period in between was one of relative calm. The timing of the attacks on India 50 years ago this month and later (in November 1962), tallies nicely with phases of sparring and warmth with Nikita Khrushchev in that period. When Khrushchev winked, the attack on India was prompt. The story with its fascinating details is recounted by Roderick MacFarquhar in The Origins of the Cultural Revolution (Columbia University Press, 1997) (volume 3, pages 297-323).
There is no need to invoke geographic determinism, but it is also futile to deny that Chinese history and geopolitical circumstances don’t have a tight fit. The fight over South China Sea today and the seizure of Aksai Chin in the last century are echoes of this facet of its history.
Today, China has, seemingly, banished all those contradictory pulls and pressures of history. The northern frontier is stable and so is the south. With immense material and financial wealth behind it, adventures of an imperial nature are not only tempting, but are safe as well. What Asian country in its right mind has the will, let alone the power, to resist a refurbished and revived Middle Kingdom? It is another matter that China does not call this imperialism: its scholars are busy refashioning theories and names to justify conquest. Today, China aspires to the Qin ideal of Tianxia, roughly “all under heaven”, where the Son of Heaven unites all squabbling political units. This time, of course, it will be under the People’s Republic. This is no longer about patches of territory, however large they may be. China’s ambitions are much bigger.
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic —in India and elsewhere—every fortnight.
To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist