Learning from the past, a matured India knows how to deal with China firmly
Come July 1, the Chinese Communist Party – CCP would be completing 100 years. Started at Shanghai in 1921 the Party had grown all-powerful under Mao in the initial two decades and again under President Xi in the last decade. One great achievement of the CCP in the last hundred years was that by constantly harping on a kind of history that kept the Han Chinese at the center, it has built a society of Han nationalists.
Until Mao Tse Tung was alive, his was the last word in the Party and the Government. When he became ill in the last few years, Mao resorted to ‘control through slips’, sending dictates through his relatives and confidants in the form of small notes. Deng Xiaoping who succeeded Mao, tried to separate the party and the state in an effort to build a modern Chinese state. But as the Deng era declined, the fortunes of the CCP dramatically rose again.
“Liang Ge Yibai Nian” – “Two Centenaries” – was coined as a concept by Jiang Zemin in 1997 paving the way for restoring supremacy of the Party once again. The first was about the CCP’s centenary in 2021, and the second was about the centenary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. “Two Centenaries” became the official Party line when it was placed in writing before the 18th Party Congress in 2012 – the year that catapulted Xi Jinping to the position of the General Secretary. In July 2014, Xi articulated the goals of Two Centenaries through phrases like the “Chinese Dream” and the “Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation”. Since then those phrases have also become a part of the Chinese political lexicon.
Party’s supremacy became complete when Xi got the CCP Charter amended in 2017 to include the statement – “Government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the Party leads them all.”
A Xiaokang society – ‘moderately well-off’ – was the target for the CCP centenary, and a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and modern Socialist country” for 2049. A Xiaokang society meant accelerated progress in all areas including military, space, cyber, economy and even climate protection.
This background is important to understand the present standoff between India and China. Extreme national pride guides CCP’s actions. It breeds paranoia too. An assertive India or an emerging bond between India and another superpower is a reason enough to rattle the CCP. In 1962, Khrushchev-Nehru friendship was an enough provocation, while in 2020 US-India bonding was seen as a threat. There could be many other reasons, but the common factor is CCP’s ultra-nationalist pride.
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It might be instructive to visit another standoff that occurred 35 years ago, in June 1986 between the two armies. The Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB) jawans, guarding a post south of the Sumdorang Chu river in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh during summers since 1984, found a major Chinese build up with semi-permanent structures when they returned after winters in June 1986.
In the Parliament the Rajiv Gandhi government was in denial mode citing ‘Perceptional differences.’ The political leadership was content with lodging a formal protest on June 26, 1986, which was promptly denied by Beijing. It was Gen. Krishnaswami Sundarji, the Army Chief, who had airlifted an Infantry brigade on October 18-20 to the Valley and posted it eyeball-to-eyeball with the Chinese, without waiting for political clearance. Called Operation Falcon, this movement came to the knowledge of the political leadership two weeks later. Rajiv Gandhi’s civilian administration was not too happy with General Sundarji’s ‘recklessness’. The General stood his ground and told Rajiv’s aide to “make alternate arrangements if you think you are not getting adequate professional advise”. He even went ahead and conducted a tabletop military exercise called Operation Chequerboard in the same area in mid-1987.
The Sumdorang Chu standoff lasted for several years, until both sides signed Peace and Tranquility Agreement in 1993 during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s Beijing visit. The civilian bureaucracy had hit back by refusing to notify Operation Falcon, thus denying any perks for the soldiers who had risked their lives. But Deng Xiaoping, who had initially asked his army to “teach India a lesson”, substantially mellowed down his rhetoric later. He even invited Gen. Sunderji to China, the permission for which was of course denied by the Indian Government.
Three decades down the line, the Indian Army remains eminently professional. It has learnt its lessons from various operations in between. But the important change noticeable was the support of the political leadership. From a 72-day standoff at Doklam near India-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction to the more-than-a-year-long standoff in Eastern Ladakh, the Indian political leadership has matured into making strategic capital out of the capability and professionalism of the Indian Army.
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There is no Deng in China anymore. Xi is a leader in Mao’s mold and the CCP under him is a highly nationalist entity. War was costly for India in 1987, but Deng realized that it would be costly for China too, which had just embarked on an ambitious economic revival. Three decades later, Chinese economy is almost five times the size of India’s after the Indian economy had contracted in the last one year due to Covid.
A nationalist CCP can afford a longer standoff. For India, it is a ‘Should’. Territorial integrity cannot be compromised. On this principle, both the political leadership and military professionalism are on the same page today. ‘Proactive diplomacy’ at the political level together with ‘strong ground posturing’ at the military level is what the result has been.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sumdorang Chu incident, the political leadership was willing to give up the Valley if the Chinese had also agreed to withdraw. In 1993, the political leadership had signed a peace agreement without defining the LAC. The current government has reversed both these legacies. After 11 rounds of border talks, it has clearly conveyed to the other side that they should back off to positions across what India regards as the LAC. After the initial setback at Galwan, the Indian Army has moved quickly and taken control of strategic heights forcing China to step back near Pangong Tso area.
Perseverance is key to handling the standoff in other areas. That the Indian side has been firm on its demands became clear when there was no joint statement after the 11th round of border talks on April 10. When Deng treated India as equal in his conversations with Rajiv Gandhi by describing the 21st Century as belonging to the two Asian giants, he was patronizing a defensive Indian leadership. But when the State Councilor and Foreign Minister of an aggressive CCP Government, Wang Yi called India to meet China “half-way” in early March this year, it indicated that India’s firmness was working.
The CCP and Xi seem to have hit a logjam as they cannot be seen backing out at this juncture, nor can they allow escalation. They learnt from history that mere economic superiority cannot guarantee military victories. The course for both countries could be to turn to the positive page from 1988, when it was decided that pursuing resolution for the border dispute can go hand in hand with pursuit of peace and civility.
(The article was originally published in the June 21 edition of Outlook Magazine. Views expressed are personal.)