October 22, 2012

Understanding China’s world view

Shyam Saran

Delegates at the annual Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

THE Chinese will insistently demand and sometimes obtain explicit formulations from a friend and an adversary alike on issues of importance to their interests, but will rarely concede clarity and finality in formulations reflecting the other side’s interests. Thus, there is the recurring demand that India reaffirm, time and again, its recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. In 2003, during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit, China conceded Sikkim as a part of India but this was not explicitly recorded in a written formulation. In 2005, during Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, China went a step further and handed over maps of China, showing Sikkim as part of India. Recently, some Chinese scholars have pointed out that the absence of an official statement recognising Indian sovereignty leaves the door open to subsequent shifts if necessary.

China is the one power which impinges most directly on India’s geopolitical space. As the two countries expand their respective economic and military capabilities and their power radiates outwards from their frontiers, they will inevitably intrude into each other’s zone of interest, what has been called “over-lapping peripheries”
I recall seeing the record of conversation between R.K. Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1962, some months before the border war erupted in October that year. R.K. Nehru drew attention to reports that China was leaning towards the Pakistani position that Jammu and Kashmir was a disputed territory. He recalled to Zhou an earlier conversation, where when asked whether China accepted Indian sovereignty over J&K, he had said, rhetorically: "Has China ever said that it does not accept Indian sovereignty over J&K?" or words to that effect. At this latest encounter, Zhou turned the same formulation on its head, to ask, "Has China ever said that India has sovereignty over J&K?"

Much of the misunderstanding and lack of communication that has characterised India-China relations may be sourced to the failure on India’s part to be conversant with Chinese thought processes. It is easy to accuse the Chinese of betrayal, as Nehru did after the 1962 war, but a clear awareness that deception is, after all, an integral element of Chinese strategic culture, may have spared us much angst in the past. Such awareness should certainly be part of our confronting the China challenge in the future.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao with Dr Manmohan Singh: China is respectful of India’s role in multilateral fora, where on several global issues Indian interests converge with China.

Chinese ‘contextualise’

Another important feature of Chinese thinking is what I would call, "Contextualising". Significant decisions and actions must always be located in a broad assessment of political, economic, social and even psychological factors that constitute the stage setting for the proposed activity. This lends an inherent prudence to Chinese strategic thinking, but once events have brewed to the right mix and the timing is right, action must be swift and decisive. The Chinese strategist may wish to avoid war, if such a war carries inordinate risk. However, the use of force is an essential and accepted part of pursuing national interests and war is not necessarily an unmitigated evil. The Indian attitude towards the use of force and the dangers of war is more ambiguous. The use of force is often seen as a failure of diplomacy, not an extension of it. And this is an important difference between the two countries. The conversations between Nehru and Mao in 1956 on the nature of war reflect this clearly.

Let me try and illustrate this by examining some of the events leading up to the 1962 border war. In January 2005, Chinese TV broadcast a documentary entitled "The Secret History of the China-India War". This documentary is important for two reasons. It painstakingly spells out the domestic, regional and international context within which the decision to launch the attack against Indian border forces was taken. It refers to the hesitation within certain sections of the party leadership to "make an enemy out of India", at a time when China was still recovering from the ravages of famine and the disastrous consequences of the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward. The international situation was also not judged to be favourable. The ideological conflict with the Soviet Union, the commentary says, had now become a state-to-state conflict as well. The United States continued with its hostile policies towards China and the Chiang regime in Taiwan was becoming more aggressive. This is an example of the "contextualizing" approach. This probably corresponded to the assessment of Chinese posture on the Indian side; briefly, that while border skirmishes would continue, China was unlikely to engage in a full-scale war.

However, from the summer of 1962, the "context" had begun to change and the clues to this change were missed by the Indian side. After having retreated to the "second line of leadership" in the wake of the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao plotted his return to absolute leadership, using the PLA with the new Defence Minister Lin Piao, who had replaced Marshal Peng Tehuai, as an ally. The TV documentary points to differences of opinion within the Party leadership on the border issue. This, it said, was settled by the denunciation of those who counselled restraint, as "right opportunists". While having temporarily ceded the administration of the Party and the Government to other veteran leaders like Liu Shaoqi and Peng Zhen, Mao appears to have taken charge of issuing directives to the PLA personally, on handling border tensions with India. It was he who decided in August, 1962, to engage in a full-scale military assault on Indian forces, and to "liquidate the invading Indian army". But this was done only after his commanders had reported that the Indian side simply had neither the numbers nor the equipment to withstand a Chinese attack, particularly if the attack was of an unexpected scale.

On the international front, too, there was a window of opportunity, mitigating some of the constraints. In June, 1962, Chinese Ambassador Wang Bingnan had enquired from his U.S. counterpart in Warsaw whether the U.S. would take advantage of India-China border tensions, to encourage a Taiwanese attack on the mainland. He obtained a categorical assurance, which he claims in his memoirs, played a big role in the decision to go to war with India. Thanks to the impending Cuban missile crisis, the then Soviet Union sought Chinese support by conveying its intention to side with China in the border conflict with India. China may not have known about the looming US-Soviet crisis, but it certainly profited from the Soviet change of heart, temporary though this proved to be. Perhaps it is too much to expect that Indian decision-makers would have connected these dots together, but that is precisely what is necessary in dealing with China.

The other example of the importance of contextualising may be seen through a contrary example. In 1971, during the Bangladesh war, the US and China were allies supporting Pakistan. Kissinger tried to persuade the Chinese to attack India along the Sino-Indian border as a means of relieving pressure on their common ally, Pakistan. In the papers of Alexander Haig, who was the White House Chief of Staff at the time, it is reported that he did receive a formal reply from the Chinese side, conveying that China had decided not to move troops to the Sino-Indian border. One can confidently surmise that the constraining ‘context’ in this regard was the Indo-Soviet treaty of 1971.

The Wangdung incident

Lest any one believes that Chinese strategists always get things right, I would like to recall what happened in 1986 during the Wangdung Incident in the Eastern sector. In 1985, China began to signal that the so-called "package proposal" for resolving the border issue, essentially legitimising the post-1962 status quo, was no longer on offer. In official talks, Chinese officials stated explicitly for the first time that since the disputed area in the Eastern sector was much larger than in the Western sector, India would have to make significant concessions in that sector and China would reciprocate with appropriate concessions (unspecified) in the West. It was also conveyed to us that at a minimum, Tawang would have to be transferred to the Chinese side. When we pointed out that just three years back in 1982 Deng Xiaoping had himself spelt out the package proposal as we had hitherto understood it, the response was that we may have read too much into his words.
The shift could have been related to a greater level of confidence following China’s rapid growth and the fact that a young and as yet untested Prime Minister had taken office in Delhi. This was followed by the discovery in the summer of 1986 that the Chinese had crossed the Thagla Ridge and occupied a feature called Le, built permanent barracks as well as a helipad. This was in some way linked to the hardening of the Chinese position on the border and the new insistence on India making concessions in the Eastern sector.

An undiplomatic offensive

I recall accompanying Ambassador K.P.S. Menon to lodge a protest with the then Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister and being witness to a most undiplomatic offensive and vituperative harangue by the latter. He claimed that China was, of course, on its own territory, that it was only "strengthening border management" after the neglect of recent years and that India would be prudent not to over-react. Soon thereafter I was transferred from Beijing to Tokyo, but en route in Delhi I attended a strategy session called to discuss our counter moves. There was, I admit, a reluctance to take any military counter measures. However a couple of weeks later I learnt that the then Army Chief, Sundarji, had airlifted troops and occupied the parallel ridge, known by the peaks Lurongla, Hathungla and Sulunga , overlooking the Sumdorung river. Two forward posts, Jaya and Negi, were set up across the river just below the ridge and only 10 metres from a Chinese forward post. The Chinese were taken completely by surprise as perhaps were our own political leaders. The then External Affairs Minister, N.D. Tiwari, was transiting Beijing on his way back from Pyong Yang after attending the Non-Aligned Coordination Bureau meeting that September, to try and assuage Chinese anger. I was accompanying him en route to Tokyo having been deputed to Pyong Yang to assist our delegation. Senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were at hand at the airport to receive our delegation. In the brief exchange that took place at the airport, our Minister’s protestations of peace and goodwill were met with the not unreasonable comment that while our leaders were talking peace they were making aggressive military moves on the ground at the same time. China would only be satisfied if Indian troops vacated the ridge they had occupied. China would not be fooled; it would "listen to what is said, but see what action is taken."In later talks we agreed to vacate the heights on our side if the Chinese retreated behind the Thagla ridge, but since they were not ready to do so, we stayed put as well.

While we may not have planned it this way, the Chinese judged our actions through their own prism: that we had countered their unexpected move by a well orchestrated counter move of our own. Subsequently, I am told, that the offensive and overbearing tone adopted by Chinese Foreign Ministry officials also changed to being more polite and civilized The next several years were spent in the two sides discussing disengagement in this sector and finally in 1992, the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation was ended and a number of confidence-building measures adopted. The lesson to be drawn is not that we should be militarily provocative but that we should have enough capabilities deployed to convince the other side that aggressive moves would invite counter moves. This is the reason why it is so important for us to speed up the upgradation of our border infrastructure and communication links along all our borders, not just with China.
Chinese perceptions

Currently, there are two strands in Chinese perceptions about India. There are strong, lingering attitudes that dismiss India’s claim as a credible power and regard its great power aspirations as "arrogance" and as being an unrealistic pretension. The other strand, also visible in scholarly writings and in the series of leadership summits that have taken place at regular intervals, is recognition that India’s economic, military and scientific and technological capabilities are on the rise, even if they do not match China. India is valued as an attractive market for Chinese products at a time when traditional markets in the West are flat. China is also respectful of India’s role in multilateral fora, where on several global issues Indian interests converge with China.

I have personal experience of working closely and most productively with Chinese colleagues in the UN Climate Change negotiations and our trade negotiators have found the Chinese valuable allies in WTO negotiations. In such settings the Chinese comfortably defer to the Indian leadership. I have also found that on issues of contention, there is reluctance to confront India directly, the effort usually being to encourage other countries to play a proxy role in frustrating Indian diplomacy. This was clearly visible during the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Vienna in 2008, when China did not wish to be the only country to oppose the waiver for India in nuclear trade, as it could have since the Group functions by consensus.

China may have refused to engage India in any dialogue on nuclear or missile issues, but that does not mean that Indian capabilities in this regard go unnoticed or their implications for Chinese security are ignored. It is in the maritime sphere that China considers Indian capabilities to possess the most credibility and as affecting Chinese security interests. These two strands reflect an ambivalence about India’s emergence — dismissive on the one hand, and a wary, watchful and occasionally respectful posture on the other. Needless to say, it is what trajectory India itself traverses in its economic and social development that will mostly influence Chinese perception about the country.
Impact of Indo-US ties

Additionally, how India manages its relations with other major powers, in particular, the United States, would also be a factor. My own experience has been that the closer India-US relations are seen to be, the more amenable China has proved to be. I do not accept the argument that a closer India-US relationship leads China to adopt a more negative and aggressive posture towards India. The same is true of India’s relations with countries like Japan, Indonesia and Australia, who have convergent concerns about Chinese dominance of the East Asian theatre. I also believe that it is a question of time before similar concerns surface in Russia as well. India should be mindful of this in maintaining and consolidating its already friendly, but sometimes, sketchy relations with Russia. The stronger India’s links are with these major powers, the more room India would have in its relations with China.

It would be apparent from my presentation that India and China harbour essentially adversarial perceptions of each other. This is determined by geography as well as by the growth trajectories of the two countries. China is the one power which impinges most directly on India’s geopolitical space. As the two countries expand their respective economic and military capabilities and their power radiates outwards from their frontiers, they will inevitably intrude into each other’s zone of interest, what has been called "over-lapping peripheries". It is not necessary that this adversarial relationship will inevitably generate tensions or, worse, another military conflict, but in order to avoid that India needs to fashion a strategy which is based on a constant familiarity with Chinese strategic calculus , the changes in this calculus as the regional and global landscape changes and which is, above all, informed by a deep understanding of Chinese culture, the psyche of its people and how these, too, are undergoing change in the process of modernisation. Equally we should endeavour to shape Chinese perceptions through building on the positives and strengthening collaboration on convergent interests, which are not insignificant. One must always be mindful of the prism through which China interprets the world around it and India’s place in that world. It is only through such a complex and continuing exercise that China’s India challenge can be dealt with.

The writer is a former Foreign
Secretary. The article has been
excerpted from the second annual
"K. Subrahmanyam Memorial
Lecture" he delivered in Delhi
on August 29, 2012.

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