Is China telling Modi something?

Published June 23, 2020
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

WHAT happened on the India-China border last week, and why did it happen? For the first time since he took office in May 2014, nearly all the national dailies were uniformly critical of the wishy-washy answers given so far by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What are the facts surrounding the brutal killing of 20 Indian troops by Chinese soldiers on the intervening night of June 14 and 15? Did the Chinese cross into Indian territory and Indian troops move to evict them?

The prime minister told the opposition initially that nobody had entered Indian land, nobody was inside Indian land and no outsider was occupying any Indian posts. But he said so only after claiming that Indian troops had taught the Chinese a lesson. Naturally, people were confused.

An amended version the following day said the prime minister had meant that the secure situation obtained only as a result of the troops’ bravery. Which should mean that the Chinese had crossed or did try to cross into Indian territory. Why would the Indians take them on? In which case the intruders must have come armed with the iron rods to assault the Indians.

Indian media described the Chinese as savage and barbaric. How did the Indians kill without the savagery ascribed to the other side?

But Indians also claim to have killed or wounded around 40 Chinese. What weapons did they use, since both sides scrupulously avoided firing? Indian media described the Chinese as savage and barbaric. How did the Indians kill without the savagery ascribed to the other side? And did the Chinese then simply walk away with 10 Indian soldiers, including three officers, from the Indian side to their side?

Be that as it may, why did the flare-up occur? Indians and Chinese troops have been crossing into each other’s land since 1962. Indians have been building landing strips near the Line of Actual Control since 1976 or before. Former diplomat Nirupama Rao was handling the China desk when the two countries signed the landmark agreement on maintaining peace and tranquillity on their borders in 1993. Veteran TV anchor Karan Thapar of TheWire news portal asked her what she made of the incident. Could there be a military flare-up as had happened with Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack?

“China is not Pakistan,” Rao stressed. “Facts are facts. We have to embrace that reality. But, yes. It is a direct message the Chinese are sending to Prime Minister Modi, personally, a kind of a taunt, I would say. They’ve thrown the gauntlet, as it were. They’re looking to see what our response will be.”

Rao’s explanation seems compelling, but what could have caused the Chinese disenchantment with Modi? After all, on Oct 11 and 12 last year, just seven months ago, the two countries were as chummy as they have ever been. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu and gushed about their future ties. India and China resolved to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations next year.

“These activities will demonstrate the historic connect between the two civilisations as well as their growing bilateral relationship over the years.”

A lack of understanding of the Chinese as well as India-China history is clearly at work. China has claimed the imperial boundaries encompassing China and Tibet since the Mongol invasion of both of themunited them.

“The Indian perception was of relatively recent vintage,” says Henry Kissinger in his absorbing book, On China. The Chinese never accepted the 1914 Tibet-British pact. They initialled the deal but didn’t sign it. Their representative in Calcutta, Lu Hsing-chi offered his reasons. “Our country is at present in an enfeebled condition; our external relations are involved and difficult and our finances embarrassed. Nevertheless, Tibet is of paramount importance to both [Sichuan and Yunnan, provinces in southwest China] and we must exert ourselves to the utmost during this conference.”

When Nehru pressed with his forward policy, Mao addressed his Central Military Commission with one of his epigrams: “A person sleeping in a comfortable bed is not easily roused by someone else’s snoring.” China had to wake up. Mao looked to his left and right before undertaking the assault. He had the assurances of the Soviet Union, which had opposed the attack on India, but gave in after anticipating Chinese support in the Caribbean stand-off between Khrushchev and Kennedy. That support ended as soon as the Cuban missile crisis ended.

To come back to Nirupama Rao’s point, there’s a precedence of the Chinese sending a message across to their foes, and I think she may have been having the 1962 build-up in mind. Mao, woken from his comfortable bed by Nehru, told his generals: “Lack of forbearance in small matters upsets great plans. We must pay attention to the situation.”

In early October 1962, Mao told his generals: “We fought a war with old Chiang [Kai-shek]. We fought a war with Japan, and with America. With none of these did we fear. And in each case we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don’t have fear. We cannot give ground; once we give ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province. … Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy emphasises reciprocity.”

What did Modi do to provoke China to suddenly send him the ‘courteous’ message? The answer may lie with his home minister, really, who needlessly bragged about taking Aksai Chin to the Indian parliament. Or itcould be Modi’s enthusiasm for the US-led anti-China quad. But what next? How will the Indians handle the warning from the incorrigible peacenik Sudheendra Kulkarni? “After thousands of lives lost with Pakistan, soldiers and civilians together, in so many years we couldn’t take an inch from them, how do you see India taking Aksai Chin back?”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2020



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