Bharat mata ki jai. Prime Minister Narendra Modi lowered his pitch, making it hoarse/mysterious/enticing, working the crowd as he does so brilliantly at political rallies, from Mathura to Meenakshipuram. Except, this was in Shanghai, and a charged-up crowd of 5,000 China-based Indians roared back in excitement. What unfolded was unprecedented for China, India and the world. No foreign leader had ever addressed a political rally on Chinese soil; to add magic realism to the phenomenon, the debutant was a powerful, democratically-elected PM of a country with which China has a fraught engagement! Truth indeed is stranger than fiction.
Modi cultivated an air of breezy confidence through his recent China trip. He had come as the assertive leader of an ascendant India. He had recently shed India’s coyness with America, working openly with President Obama through two high profile and warm engagements. He had rejuvenated a concert of democratic alliances, from Japan to the UK to Canada and Australia; they had agreed, among other things, to give him uranium. Clearly, he was enjoying a ride that no Indian PM before him had experienced in China.
Since the drubbing in the 1962 war, the unfortunate reality is that Indian leaders have carried their wounded psyche with them to China. Until 1976, the two countries had cut off ambassadorial relations. Three years later, in 1979, foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to literally return from the airport, as China invaded Vietnam on the day he landed in Beijing. India was left red-faced, if not with a bloodied nose, again.
Rajiv Gandhi picked up the gauntlet
Rajiv Gandhi was the first Indian PM to visit China since 1954. It was 10.30 am, December 22, 1988. China’s ‘Paramount Leader’ Deng Xiaoping appeared at the Great Hall of China wearing a grey Mao coat. “I welcome you to China, my young friend,” Deng said, clutching Gandhi’s hand. “Is this your first visit to China?” “Yes,” replied Gandhi.
It was difficult to miss the touch of mild condescension in Deng’s tone and body language. The visit laid the basis for “peace and tranquillity” on the border, the phrase written into an agreement during PM Narasimha Rao’s visit to China five years later. There have been tense incidents since then, but no flare-ups; the last person to die on the border was in 1977.
The greys around the border issue
To begin with then, we must accept this is another legacy of the British colonial rule. China believes a vast area (120,000 sq km) of its border spread over three sectors—western (Ladakh), middle (Himalayan foothills) and eastern that India calls Arunachal Pradesh and China calls South Tibet—“historically” belongs to China. It alleges that the British took advantage of the disunity and chaos in China to draw the boundary (called the McMahon Line) in 1914 between Tibet, China and British India. While the agreement was initialled by the Chinese representative, it later refused to ratify the accord, claiming the British used subterfuge to transfer land to India, favouring a country which was fully under the British control (unlike China). India has always disputed this “historical” claim, saying it is neither factual nor valid.
JN Dixit was a desk officer in charge of India’s relations with China when the two countries went to war on October 20, 1962 (he went on to become India’s foreign secretary and national security advisor). The jury is somewhat out on who attacked whom. Be that as it may, Dixit believes Nehru erred in not striking a quid pro quo: “We could have told the Chinese that, in return for our accepting their resumption of authority over Tibet, they should confirm the delineation of the Sino-Indian boundary as inherited by them and us from British period.”
In contrast, Pakistan proved to be far more agile. PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had a “certain competitive strategic vision about strengthening Pakistan vis-a-vis India, by forging connections with China.” Bhutto was quick to cede large tracts from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to China, sealing a political and military (and nuclear) axis against India.
So, should Modi use his political capital to settle the border issue?
A lot has happened since the 1962 war, most of it conducive to a settlement with China. Peace has held on the border. Trade has boomed, though it is highly in China’s favour. But that is also an opportunity to attract Chinese investment in Indian infrastructure. This will improve our export competitiveness, while giving the Chinese better returns on their dollar reserves which are otherwise invested in US treasury bonds.
The business community could have been a champion of better relations, but the huge trade deficit makes it less enthusiastic. We cannot blame China entirely for this. Over the last few years we have let our economy falter. China’s GDP per person at $6,000 in 2012 is four times that of India’s at $1,500. We will continue to carp if we do not take energetic steps to revive high growth. And Modi understands this better than most; only an economically strong India can push China to do an equitable deal.
We also need to turn the mirror inwards. We would be less worried about China improving transport and communications linkages with the border areas, if we took similar measures. We have not invested enough in Arunachal Pradesh’s economic and infrastructure development. Officials of the forest and administrative services spend short stints—so there is a governance deficit.
We need a better understanding of China at the popular level. The Americans are teaching Mandarin in schools. China is setting up Confucius Institutes there. Why do we make it difficult for the Chinese to set them up in India?
The time is ripe for Modi to convince his country to take a leap of faith. Let’s do a reasonable give and take; we should settle for a draw rather than continue with jingoism. It shall have a multiplier impact. The Americans will be forced to give us even more respect because we will be stronger. China will see us as a competitor, a rival, but not an enemy; it will invest its balance sheet in India with fewer doubts. Pakistan will be neutralised. Far eastern countries will push for a larger engagement; Australia will get into an unfettered embrace. Japan will acknowledge us as an equal. Our space on the geo-economic globe will expand. And that’s what PM Modi seeks.
Raghav Bahl, the founder and former owner of the Network 18 group, is the author of Super Economies: America, India, China and the Future of the World