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  Books   23 Mar 2024  Book Review | At waltz of Dragon, Elephant, Lion, Eagle, Nehru’s prescience

Book Review | At waltz of Dragon, Elephant, Lion, Eagle, Nehru’s prescience

Published : Mar 23, 2024, 1:38 pm IST
Updated : Mar 23, 2024, 1:38 pm IST

On the whole, the book offers us a reminder that the present may be equally difficult to weather as the storms over China gather afresh

Cover image of Crosswinds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition over China
 Cover image of Crosswinds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition over China

Close to 75 years after the appearance of Communist China right next to a two-year-old fledgling Indian Republic, the triangle of conflicting interests and insecurities over the “dragon nation”, where the United States, India and Europe had once collided, remains intact. Former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s (2018-2020) fourth book on China offers a fascinating retelling of how a young India had then navigated the choppy waters of big-power diplomacy.

While Great Britain, still avowedly an ally of the US, was surreptitiously trying to secure its commercial interests in a China rapidly being overrun by Mao Zedong’s Communists, American interests, with respect to the Cold War, were primarily strategic. India was somewhere in-between, but leaning towards the Chinese out of sympathy for a fellow oppressed people.

Today, as the conflict over India’s disputed border with China in the Himalayas and the far more global contest over the South China Sea simmers, one can spy a similar pattern. The US has singled out China and is trying to capture the global supply chain by isolating “the nation of the descendants of dragons”. Its European allies continue to pay lip service to American goals but have increased both their trade with and investment into the Asian powerhouse. But India again remains in the middle.

This is even as it is leaning towards the US this time, being part of the informal pact called the Quad. Our trade with Beijing also reached a “record high” of $136.2bn in 2023, (according to the Chinese charge d’affairs in Delhi). At the same time, India has taken pains to underline at every possible opportunity that the US-led Quad is not ranged “against China”. (However, that has been placed under doubt as the US and Australia, both members of the Quad, have also joined AUKUS, along with Great Britain, to possibly preserve Western interests in the Indo-Pacific.)

Gokhale points out that in April 1949, when the British warship, Amethyst, was shelled by Communists as it was sailing up the Yangtze river towards Nanking, the British sought to carry the Indian government with it and gain their support for the “powerful effect on public opinion throughout Asia”. This probably marked the beginning of a strange waltz where the Chinese dragon, American eagle, Indian elephant and the aging British lion were partners.

By the spring of 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s National Government was rapidly fading away. It was but a matter of time before the Kuomintang surrendered their very capital at Nanking to Mao’s victorious soldiers. Great Britain wanted to build bridges to protect its business interests in China and its enclave in Hong Kong, by recognising the new Communist regime as the de facto government but did not wish to annoy its American allies who were dead against the Maoists. India was advanced by the British as the local power that wants to parley with Chinese Communists which, they argued, would leave little room for it not to go ahead and cut a similar deal with Beijing. All the cards fell in place — India and Britain recognising Mao’s China and the Americans salvaging Chiang Kai-shek’s tattered KMT forces.

In the midst of all this, Gokhale reveals that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru very presciently wrote a memo about the possibility of the Chinese invasion of Tibet resulting in “the Chinese or Tibetan Communists (coming) right up on our Assam, Bhutan and Sikkim border”. However, China’s foreign minister Zhou Enlai managed to pull the wool over Indian ambassador K.M. Panikker’s eyes and convince him “that there were no differences between India and China and that he was anxious to safeguard in every way Indian interests in Tibet”.

Fast forward to the 1950s, when independent India and its charismatic leader Nehru remained important chess pieces as the “great game” in the Far East unfolded. As China-supported Viet Minh soldiers won in North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh in their fight against French colonial rule and occupying Japanese forces, the Americans contemplated engaging the Communists in Indo-China (read Southeast Asia) militarily even as they tried to hastily cobble together an anti-Communist front at a meeting in Manila. Nehru again was the “key to Asia” in the eyes of US leadership. His refusal to join the meeting in Manila or any new Cold War alliance was thus a cause for much bitterness in Washington.

The Indian Prime Minister also baulked at British advice that India recognise the South Vietnamese regime headed by Bao Dai set up by the French and correctly predicted that the Communist revolution against French colonial rule would go the China way.

Gokhale, who has earlier written three books on China, Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest, The Long Game and After Tiananmen, analyses the great power equation and India’s attempts at mediation in the two crises over the Taiwan Strait in 1954-55 and 1958, respectively. These were defused by a combination of belligerence and threat to use force by the US, and direct diplomacy. The Indian effort led by V.K. Krishna Menon, Nehru’s foreign minister, was largely unsuccessful.

On the whole, the book offers us a reminder that the present may be equally difficult to weather as the storms over China gather afresh. Even as the US and China lock horns over Taiwan once again and extend that rivalry over the Pacific, hitherto an “American pond”, India faces the Middle Kingdom in its familiar stomping grounds of the high Himalayas. The attempts to oust Indian influence in Sri Lanka and the Maldives by Beijing and the signing of treaties by littoral states giving China rights over ports in the Indian Ocean are also threats that India cannot ignore. India’s growing commercial and energy interests also mean that it has a vital stake in keeping the Taiwan Strait and the wider South China Sea free for international shipping.

As in the 1950s, one thing the Chinese would not be keen on would be to open two separate fronts — in the Himalayas and the Strait of Taiwan — and therein lies India’s key to stability and peace.

The writer is a senior journalist


Crosswinds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition over China

By Vijay Gokhale


pp. 235; Rs 699


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