WERE the choice to be one between nationalism and internationalism many would have had no hesitation to support and own the latter for a host of sound reasons. However, the current defining stand-off shaping up between China and US-led allies tends to take away the choice of internationalism as an option. The battle here is between strident nationalism and an anachronistically robust colonialism.
Chinese nationalism is bad, to put the prevailing argument on its head, because it covets culturally and linguistically the Chinese inhabited island of Taiwan as historically its own. By the same bizarre logic, British colonialism is deemed to be agreeable for laying claim to and going to war over distant islands that should have struck more cultural and political kinship with their Argentinian neighbours than with the Anglo-Saxon occupiers residing 8,000 miles across the Atlantic. Argentinians called the cluster of islands Malvinas, the British preferred the name Falkland.
In a similar vein, another offshoot of colonial Britain’s control of distant and varied real estate is the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, which legally, historically speaking, belongs to Mauritius, but has been occupied since decades by the US military, a close UK ally, as one of its most crucial bases around the planet. Mauritius wants Diego Garcia back, and has even offered to let it be used by the current occupants on a 99-year lease. The US won’t hear of it. Countries like India have traditionally supported the island’s return to Mauritius. Now, given New Delhi’s newly minted anti-Chinese worldview and its embrace of the US-led Quad with Japan and Australia as other partners, it remains to be seen how it balances the yawning contradiction between diplomatic morality and domestic expediency.
What are the bald facts about Taiwan’s China claim? Cutting through its ownership under various Chinese dynasties, it was colonised by the Japanese before it was returned to China in 1945, only to become the base for the Kuomintang after Mao’s revolution. In 1979, the US switched its loyalty to the People’s Republic of China as part of intensified efforts to isolate the USSR, which was not different from the way it has wooed India in the post-Cold War era to counter China.
What lies ahead in the stand-off between the US-led alliance and a resurgent China is too early to tell.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been talking of China’s penchant for expansionism without naming the country, rightly or wrongly, but what did Margaret Thatcher call the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands? She called it ‘Operation Goa’. What was the implication in that for India? Simply, that India’s annexation of Goa under Nehru was as out of line as Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. India calls the 1961 event ‘Liberation of Goa’.
The dubious factors behind the Falklands war were not dissimilar to the reasons spurring American policy towards China, currently. Both Mrs Thatcher and Argentinian military ruler Leopoldo Galtieri were running up terribly poor grades on the popularity chart. In Britain, there were serious moves within the Conservative leadership to evict Mrs Thatcher. She was simply unpopular. Galtieri was similarly desperate to improve his ratings at home. By an error of judgment, the military conflict became a competition between the two contestants to improve their domestic popularity, which had otherwise slipped for both for entirely unrelated factors.
The US role in the Falklands conflict has been less discussed. It was the solidarity of the Five Eyes — the espionage club of five English-speaking countries — that prompted the US to give up on Argentina, an ally who it had helped set up a military establishment. Galtieri was a guest at the White House as one who had helped the US in Nicaragua. And then, quietly, he was abandoned.
According to a report by Michael Getler in the Washington Post, the US Navy was not opposed to lending Britain an aircraft carrier during the “1982 campaign to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina if the Royal Navy lost either of its two carriers”. This fact should interest policymakers in India and Pakistan, particularly the fact that the US can drop allies like a hot potato.
Pentagon officials decided to speak after The Economist broke the story. According to the magazine, the campaign “could not have been mounted, let alone won, without American help”.
According to the WP story, “Pentagon confirmed many of the details in the report, including the fact that the United States repositioned a spy satellite, using up scarce fuel and thus shortening the satellite’s life in space, from its Soviet-watching orbit in the northern hemisphere to a place over the South Atlantic where it could provide intelligence to the British fleet.”
Apparently, US intelligence, which did not rely merely on satellites, might have made “the key difference between winning and losing because the Argentine attacks on the Royal Navy would have been even more effective if the British had not had the information”. It is this information-sharing club of English-speaking countries that has been revived despite the political cost.
The somersault in foreign policy was not America’s preserve alone. Mrs Thatcher was initially planning to hand over Falklands to Argentina as part of her plan to pare down the military budget. “To Argentina’s military junta, the British government was patently eager to dispose of the Falklands,” wrote The Guardian. “When the plan was mauled in the Commons and talks stalled, the invitation to the Argentinian junta to imitate India’s seizure of Goa in 1961 was irresistible. The invasion was named Operation Goa.”
As Thatcher was perceived to have failed to defend the islands from a surprise attack by Argentina, she knew disaster was imminent. “She faced humiliation and possible resignation. Overnight she came into her own, changing from a Chamberlain to a Churchill.”
What lies ahead in the stand-off between the US-led alliance and a resurgent China is too early to tell. What is evident is that the shaping event is full of feigned morality while it is actually rooted in a sordid past, one that refuses to pass into history anytime soon. We know that sordid past as colonialism.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2021