Modi's gamble on China has not paid off. If anything, China has taken a harder line on security issues
Winston Churchill famously said: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last". India has been feeding the giant crocodile across the Himalayas for decades—and stoically bearing the consequences.
After China came under communist rule in 1949, India was one of the first countries to recognize the new People’s Republic of China (PRC). Jawaharlal Nehru, driven by post-colonial solidarity considerations, continued to court the PRC even when the Chinese military began eliminating India’s outer line of defence by invading the then independent Tibet. As Tibet pleaded for help against the aggression, India opposed even a UN General Assembly discussion.
By 1954, through the infamous Panchsheel Agreement, Nehru surrendered India’s British-inherited extra-territorial rights in Tibet and recognized the “Tibet region of China" without any quid pro quo. Such was Nehru’s PRC courtship that he even rejected US and Soviet suggestions in the 1950s that India take China’s place in the UN Security Council. Nehru’s officially published selected works quote him as stating that he spurned those suggestions because it would be “unfair" to take China’s vacant seat—as if morality governs international relations. Ironically, impiety and ruthlessness have been hallmarks of China’s policies.
In sum, Nehru’s sustained appeasement resulted in China gobbling up Tibet, covertly encroaching on Indian territories and, eventually, invading India itself.
Yet, just one generation later, India forgot the lessons of Nehruvian appeasement. Since the late 1980s, successive Indian governments have propitiated China. Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments, oddly, have grovelled at times.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2003 Beijing visit will be remembered in history for his formal surrender of India’s Tibet card. In a joint communiqué, Vajpayee used the legal term “recognize" to accept what China deceptively calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the PRC". Vajpayee’s blunder opened the way for China to claim Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet", a term it coined only in 2006.
Still, unilateral concessions have become the leitmotif of Narendra Modi’s China policy, now adrift, like his Pakistan policy. His concessions have ranged from removing China from India’s list of “countries of concern" to granting Chinese tourists e-visas on arrival. Modi, via the back door, has also brought back in joint statements Vajpayee’s errant formulation that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the PRC—a description India had dropped in 2010 to nuance its Tibet stance.
Removing China as a “country of concern", despite its inimical approach towards India, was integral to introducing a liberalized regime for Chinese investments. However, while Chinese investments have been slow to come, Indian policy has enabled Beijing to significantly ramp up its already large trade surplus with India. Racking up a whopping $60-billion annual surplus, China has heavily skewed the trade relationship against India, treating it as a raw-material appendage of its economy and a dumping ground for manufactured goods. In 2015-16, Chinese exports to India were almost seven times greater in value than imports.
How can Modi’s Make in India initiative succeed when China blithely undercuts Indian manufacturing to reap a fast-growing trade surplus?
After Modi came to power, he made closer ties with China a priority. He even postponed his Japan visit by several weeks so that his first major bilateral meeting was with Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the BRICS summit in Brazil. His overtures, including inviting China to be a major partner in India’s infrastructure expansion, were intended to encourage Beijing to be more cooperative.
Modi’s gamble, however, has not paid off. If anything, China has become more hardline on security issues, including the border. Moreover, it has not only shielded Pakistan-based terrorists like Masood Azhar from UN action, but also stepped up covert strategic assistance to Islamabad, including providing the launcher for Pakistan’s India-specific Shaheen-3 ballistic missile.
Having its cake and eating it too, China savours a lopsided trade relationship with India while being free to contain India. Indian appeasement has also allowed China to narrow the focus of border disputes to what it claims. The spotlight thus is on China’s Tibet-linked claims to Indian territories, not on Tibet’s status. China will not settle the border issue (unless its economy or autocracy crashes) because an unsettled frontier allows it to keep India under intense pressure.
Yet, a short-sighted New Delhi continues to stumble. Take the latest ignominy: India lost face in China’s eyes when it issued a visa to the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress chief Dolkun Isa and then cancelled it, after Beijing strongly protested against the action. The public explanation for cancelling the visa rings hollow. Isa has freely travelled in Europe and to the US despite the China-initiated Interpol “Red Notice" against him—a notice Indian authorities were aware of while issuing the visa. In any event, there were no Red Notices against the other two dissidents from China who were stopped from travelling to India for the same conference.
These actions illustrate the extent to which New Delhi is willing to go to propitiate China—even at the cost to India’s self-respect and international standing. Untrammelled propitiation underscores Karl Marx’s statement: “History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce."
Let’s be clear: India’s choice on China is not between persisting with a weak-kneed policy and risking a war. India can, and must, tackle an increasingly assertive and wily China without appeasement or confrontation. But without leveraging the bilateral relationship, including levelling the playing field for trade, India cannot hope to tame Chinese intransigence and belligerence.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.