The Lost Lessons In India’s China Diplomacy

Self-Deception: India’s China Policies Arun Shourie HarperCollins 398 pp; Rs 599
Self-Deception: India’s China Policies
Arun Shourie
398 pp; Rs 599

Arun Shourie’s new book comes close on the heels of the recent diplomatic flurry following rising border tensions between India and China. Using the narrative of Indian diplomacy from 1950 until the 1962 war, Shourie makes a strong, well-researched argument against India’s accommodative posture towards China.

Through a meticulous record of Pandit Nehru’s letters, speeches and interviews, Shourie reconstructs Indian attitudes towards China from 1950-1962 and highlights three big errors that India made in its dealings with China. The first was the leadership’s failure to see plainly China’s stratagems and ambitions and instead be led by China’s rhetoric or India’s idealism. The second was the leadership’s tendency to deny or discredit information that painted a realpolitik view of the Chinese. The third was the leadership’s tendency to underplay events that did happen, sometimes to the extreme of concealing facts, to try and project matters as less serious than they seemed.

Shourie highlights that deception is the mainstay of Chinese strategic culture. Through the reversals faced by Nehru, he illustrates that the Chinese systematically violate all agreements, whether verbal or written, and it would be naïve to believe that greater understanding and negotiation would change this tendency. Striking examples are when Chou En-Lai denied agreement on the border, even after verbally assuring Nehru three times in 1956 that the Chinese accepted the McMahon line, and an analysis of how China has violated every term of the 2005 agreement on Guiding Principles and Political Parameters.

While many similar accounts have been written, the book’s beauty is in using the narrative form to relate historical developments to the present day, by raising questions throughout the account. Shourie argues that these three errors did not end in 1962, but continue till the present day: while border incursions have increased and become more serious, Indian leaders continue to underplay events, ignore facts, and lull themselves into believing that deeper economic integration will change Chinese calculations on the border issue, while China strengthens its military position in plain sight.

Shourie vindicates China by saying that none of the reversals India has faced are China’s fault. China is merely pursuing its national interest in the manner it sees fit. He states that China has developed ‘Comprehensive National Strength’ by sustained military and economic development which it translates into global influence. He puts forth a pattern to China’s territorial ambitions – to claim repeatedly, to evade a negotiated settlement until the dispute can get settled by the military, then grab and hold territory, and finally let India passively accept the status quo over time- which is what India has done on Aksai Chin.

All these factors tie together into Shourie’s main argument, that India is gaining nothing, but instead, jeopardizing her core national interests by being unreasonably accommodating towards China. He argues that such accommodation has not been effective in changing Chinese attitudes towards India. He cites evidence that China views India as a “nuisance” in her quest for Asian hegemony. While India likes to believe in her strategic autonomy, the Chinese see India as readily being a puppet state, first under the Soviet Union and now in the United States’ attempts to contain China. The promising trade relations, he says, are so imbalanced, they follow the exact pattern of imperialist trade from a century ago – India supplies raw material and China dumps three times the amount of manufactured goods. How will this develop Indian industry and manufacturing in the long run?

He says that all China needs to do is raise a fuss and India will bend over backwards to accommodate. He cites an incident with the Asian Development Bank, where due to Chinese protest, India not only cancelled a hard-won technical project, but also agreed to change the terms of all future loans from the Asian Development Bank to suit China. He also illustrates how the chasm between Indian and Chinese capabilities is not just striking, but ever-widening on all fronts, whether military, economic or social. In spite of the challenge, Shourie laments that India lacks the urgency, the political will and competence and the level of public debate needed to successfully close the gap. He says an opportunity has arisen, that China’s aggression has created a backlash worldwide that India could use to create a network of allies around different interests. However, he questions whether India is clear on her national interests and whether stakeholders, primarily the Indian defense establishment, have the seriousness to make the effort of building partnerships.

Shourie’s starkly realist reading of China could be countered by the liberal argument that China’s increasing integration with global norms and the global economy will constrain or transform Chinese behavior in the future. However, current diplomatic developments, post the April 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incursion, demonstrate the same three tendencies and strengthen Shourie’s argument. India’s readiness to abolish her own bunkers, sending three successive high-level trips to Beijing, and agreeing to a Chinese-drafted Border Defence Cooperation Agreement that grants no substantial gains, when all the while it was the Chinese who encroached into the Indian side of the border, all create a queasy sense of deja-vu. It might be time to revisit these unlearned lessons.

Tanvi Ratna is an analyst of Indian foreign policy. She is an editor at The Indian Republic and a member of the Citizens for Accountable Governance


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