“History” written by a totalitarian State is satisfyingly coherent, like a children’s fairy tale or a corporate brochure. The Chinese view of history performs the functions of both forms of public expression: it provides a moral, like a fairy tale; and markets a flattering version of itself, like a brochure.
An official history text also has its practical uses: It gives the Chinese side a ready reckoner when “history” suddenly breaks out, as it is apt to do in the real world. Like it did in Chumar, Ladakh, where 2,000 Indian and Chinese troops are confronting one another inside what India says is its side of the border, for more than 10 days. Indian Army chief General DS Suhag has cancelled a trip abroad to handle the situation.
At the time the Chinese incursions were reported, President Xi Jinping was parlaying with Narendra Modi in New Delhi after a symbolic reception in Ahmedabad followed by a walk on the banks of the Sabarmati. Xi told reporters that the border dispute was “a leftover historical issue”. The India-China border has not been formally demarcated in places, something that was carried over from the colonial era.
The border row, which spilled over into the week after Xi left, burst the balloon of expectation inflated mainly by the Chinese. Conservative estimates of Chinese investment in India to be announced during Xi’s visit ranged from $50 billion to $100 billion, or up to three times the amount promised by arch-rival Japan. When Xi left on 19 September, barely $20 billion had been promised.
The State-controlled Chinese media picked up the border story, adding some grave undertones of its own. Quoting an anonymous “observer specialising in South Asian studies”, the Global Times darkly noted that “tensions often ramp up near the border” prior to visits by Chinese leaders. “Last year, ahead of PM Li Keqiang’s visit, there was a three-week stand-off in the western part of the border,” the daily said, observing that this “may not be a coincidence”. It quoted the observer as saying that “some forces in India might want to exert pressure on China over the meeting’s agenda”.
If anything, the exact opposite is true of the India-China dialogue, beginning from the first key official trip after the 1962 border war. During the first post-war visit by an Indian foreign minister in 1979, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was humiliated and forced to cut his trip short when China suddenly declared war on Vietnam to “teach Vietnam a lesson”. China lost that war. In 1992, China also conducted a nuclear test during President R Venkataraman’s visit.
In the Global Times article, the anonymous expert is sceptical of the chances for a solution to the border dispute. Delicately revealing the “source” as a woman, the article quotes her as saying: “For China, while settling the dispute may alleviate concerns that India will side with Japan and the US, it still won’t be a strong enough incentive for concessions. It is not a border dispute alone as it is intertwined with the Tibet question.”
Coy journalistic posturing notwithstanding, something seems to have changed this time. But like with all things Chinese, it is hard to know for sure what is behind it. Only one thing is crystal clear: China is not embracing Modi’s India as wholeheartedly as it signalled it would. Maybe it is the “special relationship” with Japan — or Xi wants to draw closer but his military does not. After all, more than half of all Chinese believe war with Japan is inevitable.
During the visit itself, Xi reportedly told Modi that he knew nothing about the border incursion. Though this was highly unlikely given that the Chinese president is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, nothing else could have been reasonably expected under the circumstances. Besides, Xi assumed the military post a year ahead of his predecessor and is known to be closer to the military as the son of a revolutionary leader who fought with Mao Tse-tung.
What happened next is harder to fathom. On 22 September, Xi addressed a meeting of the chiefs of staff of the People’s Liberation Army to stress the need for their “loyalty”, which sounds like a reprimand for not following orders. “The headquarters of the PLA forces must have absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party of China, guarantee a smooth chain of command and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented,” Chinese agency Xinhua reported Xi as saying.
In what could be read as a highly unusual admission that the incursion was the PLA’s idea, Xi also admonished military commanders that they needed to have a “better understanding of international and domestic security situations as well as the latest military developments”. But like all things Chinese, it could be a smokescreen.
There was another naked display of the military’s hardening posture during Xi’s India visit. In an article quoted widely around the world, a professor at the PLA National Defence University wrote in the Communist Party-owned People’s Daily that maritime disputes could lead to the third world war and that China, “standing at the focal point”, must prepare for it.
The sweeping scope of the article provides a glimpse into thinking at the heart of the Chinese military, which has been modernising at a breathless pace for decades now. China has been flexing its muscle in the seas of the Asia-Pacific, causing severe concern among smaller countries in the region.
“But nowadays, we stress the importance of power in the sea. Judging from the contention of the global sea space, the Arctic Ocean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean have seen the fiercest rivalry. It is likely that there will be a third world war to fight for sea rights,” says PLA defence varsity professor Han Xudong.
He goes on to provide perhaps the framework under which China has been operating for the past two years under Xi, testing Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, even as the United States has been more than willing to cede its dominance of the Asia-Pacific.
“China’s military development should shift from maintaining the country’s rights on the land to maintaining its rights on the sea… China is standing at the focal point of rivalries. This requires China to develop its military power based on a global war. China is in the heartland of the Arctic, Pacific and the Indian Ocean,” he observes.
Most nations here have long depended on the US to protect the sea lanes through which a huge amount of goods traffic, especially in the Malacca Straits, which sees over 50 percent of the world’s oil pass through. China has built an advanced naval base on an island off its coast, from where it seeks to project power over the Malacca Straits.
Without a hint of irony, the professor goes on to add: “The development of China’s sea power touches the nerves of many countries. China needs to develop its military power to avoid being squeezed to a passive position.”
India’s relationship with China has always been fraught except for a brief period in the 1950s. In 1954, the Chinese doctrine of “Panchsheel principles of co-existence” — named after an Indian phrase “uttered by Buddha”, as Nehru proudly observed — formed the basis of the relationship.
At that time, India was in the Chinese corner, just liberated from the British yoke, a fellow sufferer in the “humiliation” by colonial powers. But it did not last because India embraced the “western system of democracy”, which China saw as alien and far removed from Asian qualities of thrift, respect for authority, etc. Though democracy seemed to suit India’s unruly spirit, the Chinese re-invented communism in their own image, to imbue it with “Asian characteristics”.
The break came with Tibet’s annexation. In 1959, India under Nehru tolerated China’s annexation of Tibet with remarkable composure, but granted asylum to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan people. In the Chinese version of history, this was a betrayal of India’s Asianness, for which it had to be “taught a lesson”.