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India, China and the pitfalls of personalised diplomacy

A new book on the early years of India-China ties explains India’s ‘head in the sand’ attitude to the border problem

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (centre) is greeted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (right) on his arrival in Delhi on 21 April, 1960.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (centre) is greeted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (right) on his arrival in Delhi on 21 April, 1960. (Getty Images)

For a country that represents a bigger threat to India than Pakistan, China remains severely under-understood in India except for a clubbish handful of China specialists in academia and in the Indian Foreign Service. The Indian political leadership does little to clear the fog, playing with the facts, disseminating half truths or even lies, and using the bad history with China to vilify rivals at home. The Indian establishment discourages independent academic enquiry on China, and the media, done in by its own structural problems, has little or no access to information and is happy to take dictation.

To this rather bleak landscape, Vijay Gokhale brings some fresh air. With near missionary zeal, Gokhale, who was India’s ambassador to China from January 2016 to October 2017, has written three books on China in quick succession since his retirement in 2020 as foreign secretary. The first, Tiananmen Square: The Making Of A Protest, is a deep dive into the Chinese Communist Party, the factions within and its decision-making processes, woven with a detailed eyewitness account of the protest—the author was posted in Beijing at the time. The second, The Long Game: How The Chinese Negotiate With India, as the title suggests, attempts to demystify China’s diplomacy with its biggest neighbour by unpacking six specific episodes, of which Gokhale was in the Indian side in four.

Crosswinds is the third and the latest in this series, and it slices the India-China apple in an entirely different way. In this book, Gokhale examines how, at the time of the emergence of communist China, Cold War dynamics and the divergent, competing views of two apparent allies—the US and the UK—shaped India’s own responses to the new country. He breaks down this story into four accessible parts by looking at four events in the 1950s.

Also read: India-Pakistan: An inside story with few details

What emerges is a deeply researched and engaging account of newly independent India’s struggle to remain neutral between the two Cold War blocs, its proximity to the British leadership, and its personality-driven foreign policy of that period, amid US-Britain rivalry and mutual deception over China. The Brits wanted to safeguard their commercial interests in communist China, and wished to take back, after the war ended in 1945, their colonies in South-East Asia that had been overrun by the Japanese. On the other hand, the US, which had a political and moral position against communism, wanted to prevent a red China from joining hands with the erstwhile USSR.

Between the two, India, led by the anti-colonial Jawaharlal Nehru, saw China as a partner in shaping a new order in Asia, and in 1949, was prepared to grant recognition to the new country—not in a hurry, as Nehru said, “but we are just not going to stand up as crusaders against it”. Unable to work out a common position with the Americans, the British wanted to use Nehru’s proximity to their own position on the recognition issue, and his tall stature in the post-colonial Asia and in the Commonwealth to ensure that their interests would be safeguarded.

The British would use the Indian ambassador in Beijing, K.M. Panikkar, and his proximity to Nehru, to influence the Indian decision-making on the question of recognition. All the while, the British were telling the Americans that Nehru was putting pressure on them to grant recognition. Gokhale rues how the Truman administration’s advice that Delhi must make recognition conditional on assurances that China would not step on Indian interests, was not heeded, even after a request from Nehru for an indication from the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that the communist regime was ready to settle matters of common interest by negotiation got no response. In the game of double bluff that the British played, India thus became the first non-socialist country to recognise the People’s Republic of China despite several voices of concern including Sardar Patel.

Gokhale describes Nehru’s decision to recognise China as strategically sound, but lacking tactical planning. “It became a procedural matter rather than a matter for negotiation in which bargaining would bring desirable outcomes beneficial to newly independent India’s national security,” he writes, pointing out that wider consultations might have led to a better thought-out process for recognition. It was discussed, Gokhale writes, and “decided upon within a closely held group of advisors around Nehru, in close consultation with Britain”.

In his analysis of the two Taiwan Strait crises in that decade—the first in 1954-55 and the second in 1958—Gokhale gives a blow-by-blow account of how India got involved in these as a “mediator”. Britain wanted to rope in the Indian Prime Minister to consolidate its own positions, while the US did not trust Nehru or his roving emissary, V.K. Krishna Menon. In both crises, the Indian intervention would amount to little in the final analysis as the main parties eventually established direct contact with each other. In these years, India did not pay as much attention as it should have to resolving the border question with China.

'Crosswinds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition Over China', by Vijay Gokhale. Penguin Random House India/Vintage Books, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
'Crosswinds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition Over China', by Vijay Gokhale. Penguin Random House India/Vintage Books, 256 pages, 699

During the first crisis, India prepared to launch a serious effort at mediation at the 1955 Bandung Conference. But a significant shift in US President Dwight Eisenhower’s thinking of the conflict led to direct talks between the parties in which India had no role.

In the second Taiwan crisis, Nehru’s absence—he was away on a long tour in Bhutan—saw Krishna Menon try and insert himself in talks being held at Warsaw to defuse the situation. Menon was greatly disappointed when upon his return, Nehru—by then not as sanguine about China and made aware of the bad vibes that Menon seemed to have given off and received in Washington, London and Beijing—discouraged him from playing any part.

“During this period, India appeared to be conducting two, totally unrelated foreign policies,” Gokhale writes. One by the government, through the ministry of external affairs, was non-interventionist based on the assessment that this second Taiwan crisis would blow over. And the other, an interventionist approach by Krishna Menon, for whom the world was on the brink of another world war and only India could prevent it.

The author has no empathy with Menon, Nehru’s de facto foreign minister (Nehru held the portfolio) and some would say his alter ego. Menon’s mediation effort, Gokhale writes, distracted attention from problems with China that had been building up and towards the end of the decade, became too sharp to ignore, among them the road in Aksai Chin that China had constructed.

Considering that India also attempted to end the Korean war and played a role in the months after the truce, the reader wonders why Gokhale left that out of this volume, especially as the current controversies over Nehru’s reported refusal of a seat in the UN Security Council pertains to this period.

At a time of heightened Taiwan tensions, the China-US rivalry, and India’s own problems with its biggest neighbour, Crosswinds provides a useful perspective to understand the present.

Gokhale steers clear of any reference to ongoing India-China issues, but at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is often lauded for his personalised style of diplomacy, one of the main takeaways of the book is that the preference for the personal over “process-driven” foreign policy can have far from perfect consequences. The book shows how it led to a 10-year “head in the sand” attitude to the existence of a border problem with China. Gokhale advises that India’s stakes in the peace and security of the Taiwan Strait are too high to sit out or ignore. He also drops a warning about AUKUS and Britain’s role in this security arrangement (between the US, UK and Australia announced in 2021), saying that “this time, however, we should not permit the British to insert themselves into the Indo-American discourse on the Indo-Pacific”. Gokhale writes accessibly, weaving together deftly his first hand knowledge of China with rich archival material. Like his other two books, this too is a slim volume, but it packs in a lot, and is eminently readable.

Nirupama Subramanian is an independent journalist.

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