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Better Understanding




V. R. Raghavan


It is never less than a challenge to attempt to understand the cultural factors which influence a nation’s conduct in the international arena. When that nation is China and the subject of introspection is its relations with India, such an endeavour can at best be fraught with far too many variables. The two have had the longest uninterrupted existence as nations. Their combined size and population makes them the largest geographical and human resource mass on the planet. India and China have had cultural, religious and trade links going back centuries in history. They also came into being as nation states almost simultaneously in this century, They also share a past of colonial and imperialist subjugation from which freedom had to be won with a major struggle, Paradoxically enough, the two countries fought a war with each other over disputed frontiers. That conflict episode, the continuing border dispute between the two countries and China’s rapid growth in military power, not unsurprisingly create anxieties about the future relationship. China’s aggressive foreign policy postures also do not encourage a benign view of it. There are enough strategic thinkers in India who reckon China to be the major future threat to India. This short essay attempts to focus on the military perspective of Sine-Indian relations.

The means adopted to secure freedom by China and India provide some indication of the approaches adopted by them to cope with the international order. They explain the methods the two nations brought to bear on their responses to the geo-political situations. The basis of relationships established by the two states bilaterally with other states were also founded in that historical context. China had won its freedom through an armed struggle of epic proportions. Its military was unlike any in history in its struggle against overwhelming odds and its commitment to an ideology. Its military leaders were living legends, but they were also simultaneously ideological and political leaders. Marxist-Leninist revolutionary thought provided the underpinnings to much of China’s post independence policy. The notion of military power as an instrument of internal and external policy, formed a not insubstantial part of the Chinese policy framework. This was not an entirely new element in Chinese political management. China had a long history of strong military involvement in the management of political issues. The Marxist theology provided a perfect patina for a widespread and traditional military content in China’s national life.

India chose the route of non-violence and of political struggle through constitutional means to wrest freedom from colonial rule. Its leaders brought to bear on the freedom movement a long tradition of negotiation and debate instead of armed struggle. There was no military content to the freedom movement other than stray incidents of bomb throwing and use of explosives. The better part of the struggle for independence was guided by the insistence on non-violent means and adherence to constitutional norms. As for the Indian military, its leaders were expressly advised by the political leadership to keep well out of the freedom struggle that was being waged. There was no military content in India’s highly successful mass mobilisation against the British rule.

In the post-independence period, China preferred to use military power extensively in pursuit of its geopolitical aims. A confrontationist and belligerent image of China was therefore inevitable. China’s choice of the military option in a series of cases confirmed the image of a militarist state willing to use its power to settle issues by force. Formosa (Taiwan), Korea, the conflicts on the Sino-Soviet borders, the war with India in 1962, China’s open espousal of the Pakistani cause during 1965 in what was a purely bilateral conflict, China’s actions in the South China Sea, its role in Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos make a very long list of contributive factors compounding the image. China’s assistance over decades to sub-national and ethnic groups with ideology funds, and weapons, retarded the progress of newly independent states in her neighbourhood. Its acquiring of nuclear weapons capability has evoked admiration but has not reduced concerns about its future employment, given China’s record in managing international relations. The image is not made any less adverse by the continuing growth and modernisation in China’s military capabilities during the last decade.

The Indian picture over the same period is a contrast in many ways. India was tireless in its support to China’s cause in the international arena from the very beginning. India’s attempts to grapple with the enormous task of nation building, of social and distributive justice, of security against external military and terrorist threats, of economic development through democratic processes, were monumental in size and in the investments required. These were not helped by China’s support through the decades of the 1960s and 1970s to insurgent groups. They were made positively worse by China’s assistance programme to Pakistan in nuclear and conventional weapons. It is ironic that China which willingly embraced the concept of Panchsheel in the 1950s with India and other newly independent states, discarded its principles so soon and so comprehensively.

Attempts have been made to view the contrasting positions, postures and processes used by China and India through the lens of cultural history. The ancient cultural contacts between the two nations were through a transfer of religious thoughts, Intrepid travellers of ancient times carried images of India to China. There is little to indicate that a reverse flow of images, religious beliefs and learned treatises occurred. There is also inadequate evidence of images about India and its thoughts and beliefs influencing the policy choices of the ruling elites in China. It is useful to remember that much of the India-China interaction took place through geographic areas in the western reaches of ancient India and which no longer form part of India. Trade between India and China formed a very small part of the totality of their relationship. In military terms, the two nations shared no commonalities in doctrine and organisational concepts. Perhaps the only shared military experience between India and China was the Mongol invasions of their territories.

The pre-eminent written texts on national policy and security in the two nations were the Arthashastra written by Kautilya in India, and Art of War or Bingfa by Sunzi (Sun Tzu) in China. The latter is more widely known in the western translations as “On War”. A comparison of the two provides some fascinating insights in the two nations’ approaches to state policy. The differences become apparent early in the titles given to the books. While Arthashastra literally means the science of wealth (or of economy, in modem parlance), Bingfa focuses on the ways of gaining victory in battles. Notwithstanding their titles there are commonalites. The former effectively emphasises the importance of military means in ensuring the safety and well being of the state. The latter even as an emphatically military treatise gives importance to the loyalty and well-being of the people, if wars are to be won. On the other hand, the former dwells at length on matters of state-craft, economic resources, political and other relations with other states, and the military component forms only a part of the whole gamut of chapters. The latter is emphatically militarist with a focus on conquests, victory in battles, the techniques of achieving victories through surprise, strategems and so on. In its philosophical foundation the Arthashastra is strong on defensive modes, e.g., forts, and safe borders, while the Bingfa is vehement on the need for offensive action.

The two justly famous texts were products of their times, The Arthashastra is attributed to about the middle of the second century AD, while the Bingfa is estimated to be from around 500 DC. Traditional thoughts run deep in civilisational responses. Consequently, they indicate through the approaches and emphasis of state policies, a deeper and psychological national preference. The Indian text leans heavily on the defensive while the Chinese emphasises on the offensive. As Kautilya saw it, the army was only one amongst seven major elements of the state’s power. He recommended alliances and coalitions as the means to stabilise the state’s security. Sunzi saw war as ‘a matter of vital importance to the state . ..“. He warned the ruler against allowing the state into fighting a protracted war.

Indian responses to internal and external policy stimuli were a continuation of the cultural traditions. The initiative on Non-Alignment, the choice of the UN as a forum to settle the Jammu and Kashmir issue even when it was winning the war, the restraint in the nuclear weapons field, the initiatives on MARC, are indicative of the underlying Indian belief in negotiation and tolerance as the essential element of state policy. The Chinese approach stands out in contrast. It is of victory by use of force in pursuit of its objectives, an unwillingness to tolerate dissent in internal policies, of using protracted wars in other countries through encouragement to dissident groups and the preference for demonstrated military strength in its neighbourhood. Arthashastra and Bingfa provide the clues from the past to the two nation’s policy preferences of the present., One might even say that China has been the true “Realist" state and India the “Idealist” in the use of power to further national interests.

At the turn of the millennium, the world is changing through information technology, and economic interdependence. India and China both realise the need to adapt to these tectonic changes, if they hope to develop as economically stable and politically lasting entities. The leadership in both states is aware of the need to ensure the social and economic well-being of their peoples. In that lies real security and stability, the two essential conditions for development. They realise that autonomous behaviour in internal and external relations is no longer feasible in international arena. The need to assure neighbours of their interests through confidence building measures, placing ancient disputes in correct perspective, reaching for consensus instead of conflict resolution by force are the need of the day. India and China both realise the need for military strength commensurate with their security and the anxieties of neighbours. The reality after the Cold War is of a world order based on equity amongst states and constructive engagement through trade and economic development. Even as some hegemonic and other similar mindsets are still to be seen, the future of inter-state relations is well set on the course of cooperation. China and India realise the need for cooperation and for moving away from old animosities through mutual agreements. They have resolved to find solutions to their disputes through negotiations. Indian initiatives in South Asia and Chinese efforts in finding solutions to its issues of contention with Russia, Japan, USA and in the Asia Pacific are evidence of their new awareness. In some ways China is adding a healthy dose of “Idealist” balance to its policies. India on the other hand is introducing an element of “Realist” pragmatism to its policies. They are in the process going beyond the culture constraints of the past. Kautilya and Sunzi would have both approved of such a reorientation.

In the military perspective, the best way to remove the prospect of war remains the removal of the bone of contention. There has never been a better time than the present to take cooperation between India and China to the levels they are capable of reaching. The need of the time is to formally and finally resolve the disputes between the two giant sized states. The conflicts of the past between China and India were not of nations but between states following different policies to secure themselves. Now that the two states are in a better environment of “Realist-Idealist” mix, specific measures can be looked at. The border dispute should now be formally and finally settled. This will need accommodation from both sides and that should not be an insurmountable problem given the new circumstances. The larger issue of weapons rivalry between the two states and through either of them into the region is another issue which requires urgent attention. If these two vexing issues are taken in hand, the way ahead in the 21st Century would be free from the compulsions of the past and pave the way to a stable future. If that is achieved, the military perspective which so dominated the India-China relations in the last 50 years would be balanced by the larger contexts of economy, trade, and international cooperation. China and India would then be partners in providing a lead through the principles of Panchsheel and in moving the world away from military conflicts. It would be a condition which both Kautilya and Sunzi would have approved.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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