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  Opinion   Columnists  07 Jan 2024  Sanjaya Baru | India & China: Of power, performance & posturing

Sanjaya Baru | India & China: Of power, performance & posturing

The writer is an economist, a former newspaper editor, a best-selling author, and former adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Published : Jan 8, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jan 8, 2024, 12:00 am IST

Neither succeeded in full measure, but very quickly came to terms with the “ground realities”

The fact is that despite the 1962 war, and the consequences of the Cold War, the leaderships of both China and India have sought to maintain stability in their relationship. (Image: Twitter)
 The fact is that despite the 1962 war, and the consequences of the Cold War, the leaderships of both China and India have sought to maintain stability in their relationship. (Image: Twitter)

A note written by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the country’s first home minister, in 1949 on the view India ought to take of China is once again in the news. It is fairly well known that Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru had adopted a different approach on some issues, but that Patel deferred to Nehru on such matters. Four points need to be remembered while analysing the difference in the approach of the two great leaders. First, that Patel felt free enough to pen down his views, differing with those of the Prime Minister, and recorded them for posterity. He was not intimidated by Nehru’s wider and deeper knowledge of world affairs and world history, a fact that Mahatma Gandhi himself had recognised.

Second, both leaders were dealing with a decolonising Asia in rapid transition. Both China and India and, indeed, much of Asia had entered a new world as new entities with new leaderships. In today’s more settled world, despite all the uncertainties that characterise the post-Cold War world, it is not often easy for younger generations to comprehend the uncertainties of that new post-colonial, post-war era. Everyone was experimenting. Everyone was “crossing the river by touching the stones”, to quote a famous Chinese folk saying.

Third, the dominant sentiment in India at the time in thinking about the world was the anti-colonial sentiment. Differences may have been there in the way Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel viewed the world and in the way that other nascent political groups did so.

However, everyone was united by a patriotism born in the crucible of the anti-colonial freedom struggle.

Finally, the post-colonial leaderships of both China and India were still very nervous about their hold over their newly-constituted nations and territories. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the Communist leadership in China was perhaps as nervous about its hold over its far- flung borders as India’s was. If Mao Zedong wanted to secure control over Tibet, Nehru and Patel too would have wanted to secure control over Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East Frontier Agency areas.
Neither succeeded in full measure, but very quickly came to terms with the “ground realities”.

To judge them today based on the perceptions gained over time, through lenses acquired, dispensed with and re-acquired over time, does not do justice to their intellectual acumen nor to their nationalism and commitment to building a truly “New India” -- an independent, new republic of many “nationalities”, ethnicities, linguistic groups and religious faiths. It is easy for many today to assert that India is in fact “Bharat”, that the present is but a natural inheritor of a distant past. However, in the 1940s and 1950s the republic was still being constituted as one nation.

In this process, many newly independent nations made many mistakes. Some like Korea and Vietnam came into being as free nations and were immediately split up. Others like India were first split up before being created. Many others were first imagined on paper and then constituted into nations on the ground. One must enter the mind of the political leadership of those times to understand their fears and aspirations. To adopt a superior attitude today in faulting the leadership of the past would be churlish.

The fact is that despite the 1962 war, and the consequences of the Cold War, the leaderships of both China and India have sought to maintain stability in their relationship. What “destabilised” the relationship, so to speak, was the sharply differential performance of both their economies between 1990 and 2010. China’s emergence as the second biggest economy and the world’s biggest trading power placed it in a category of its own. By 2010, China began viewing itself as a global power in the same league as the United States. India, it believed, was still a developing economy in the company of many other Asian and African economies.

It is interesting to note that in a recent comment on the bilateral relationship by China’s English-language publication, Global Times, a Chinese commentator has noted that the Narendra Modi government was now adopting a more pragmatic view of where China and India stood. By not allowing the border issue, with China occupying newly acquired territory along the so-called “Line of Actual Control” to further mar the relationship, Prime Minister Modi has yielded space and conceded ground.

Equally importantly, by repeatedly drawing attention to the difference in the size of the two economies and urging Indians to come to terms with this reality, the Modi government has changed the debate around the trade deficit. In a tongue-in-cheek remark, Zhang Jiadong, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at Fudan University, draws attention to a change in India’s approach to the huge trade deficit that it faces in its bilateral trade with China. Says Mr Zhang: “When discussing the trade imbalance between China and India, Indian representatives earlier used to primarily focus on China’s measures to reduce the trade imbalance. But now they are placing more emphasis on India’s export potential.”

In short, what Mr Zhang is saying is that rather than complain about China’s unfair trade practices and the “unlevel” trade playing field, as India did for close to two decades, including through Prime Minister Modi’s first term, it had now come around to accept the size differential between the two and it now views the trade deficit as a consequence of India’s “limited” export potential and weak performance. This is a neat swipe, and so far, we have not heard any protestations from the government’s spokespersons or the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.

In this remark on the approach to the trade imbalance lies the core of the Chinese view of India’s status. China merely wants India to come to terms with the power differential and “potential”. Interestingly, Mr Zhang seems to suggest that Narendra Modi may have finally come to terms with it. Both Patel and Nehru believed that China and India were equals, while neither Mao Zedong nor Zhou Enlai did so. Patel and Nehru adopted different perspectives on how to deal with this imbalance, in perceptions and performance, as have subsequent Indian leaders. This debate will go on till India ups its performance. Posturing will not do much.

Tags: sardar vallabhbhai patel, china-india relations, historical analysis, post-colonial era