Toxic neighbours

There’s a saying that good fences make for good neighbours, but whoever said it obviously took no account of India-China relations. The fence that separates these two countries couldn’t be hig

Published: 18th January 2012 05:19 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:16 PM   |  A+A-

There’s a saying that good fences make for good neighbours, but whoever said it obviously took no account of India-China relations. The fence that separates these two countries couldn’t be higher — in fact there isn’t a higher fence in the whole world — but even the planet’s highest mountains haven’t managed to dampen the rancour that marks relations between the two.

To be sure, it was not always like this.

Indeed, until India’s independence and China’s communist awakening (1949), there was scarcely a cloud on the horizon.

Throughout the previous centuries relations between the Middle Kingdom and the various Indian states and dynasties that rose and fell fitfully across the subcontinent were uniformly cordial, even if the empire’s attitude was somewhat patronising. Indian and Chinese traders had met and bartered goods in places as far apart as Cairo, Cochin (then) and Malacca for generations.

Moreover, India was also known and respected as the home of Siddha r tha and the place where he founded the religion of Buddhism. At that time, however, the Himalayas were truly an impassable barrier of cold, barren, stony, icy wastes where an army might wander forever without finding a way out. And the heart of the Middle King - dom always lay far in the east, from which position India was a land separated by f earsome desert and mountain. The overland journey was a daunting one and, as the empire always said, it had sufficient of everything and was in no need of anything from the outside world. India was therefore of little strategic interest, although the cultural aspect may have been a lot more important.

Things began to change with the advent of the British into India. The 19th century opium trade, led by the Gwai Lo (‘ghost man’ or ‘foreign devil’ as the white man was called), came out of India and its merchants were also part of it. That was the first serious cause of tension between the two, even though the main villain was Britain.

The Opium Wars that followed were an effort by the Manchus to throw off bo t h the British yoke, which was settling heavily on China, and to stop a trade that was destroying the social fabric. In the event, they were defeated and though never colonised had to make many concessions to the rising empire.

Then there was both imperial expansionism and the British obsession with secure borders in the north and northwest where the Russian empire was also pushing. As the British muscled in, the Chinese were muscled out of a region where their influence had been paramount for generations. The heavy-handed intrusion of this newcomer was seriously resented, but a weakened Chinese state could do little about it. Chinese memories, however, are long.

Everyone is aware of India’s border tensions with China, but few appreciate that they have a point. For one thing, China never recognised the famous McMahon Line that delineates the northeastern boundary between the two. No Chinese government ever signed the instrument. So the 1962 conflict did not come out of nowhere, even though the boundary question was not the only reason. As for its claims on Tibet, India does recognise it. One small example should illustrate why.

When the British gave the Dogra general Gulab Singh the kingdom of Kashmir as a price for his help in the Sikh wars of the mid-19th century, he turned his eyes north to the trans-Himalayan regions to create an empire. He turned to his greatest soldier, Zorawar Singh (1786-1841), who first invaded Ladakh and, after conquering it, Baltistan. He took it after a short battle. Then came the big test, Tibet, which Zorawar invaded in May 1841 defeating the small Tibetan force at Gartok on September 6. For a time it looked as if the Dogras would sweep all before them, but they had reckoned without the Chinese.

They were slow to move, but did so with great resolve, fighting in the winter of 1841 and defeating the Indian expedition and killing Zorawar Singh.

That was the end of the Indian (or Dogra) dream, but it is interesting to note that Indian claims on northern Kashmir rest on Zorawar’s exploits.

The crucial point is that Chinese intervention was both decisive and a corollary of their status in Tibet, implying that their claims of suzerainty are wellfounded.

So, too, could other claims be.

That probably means that the pressure on India will not ease, but how it is managed is a function of negotiation rather than confrontation. Of course, that still doesn’t explain the current tensions that culminated in those ugly scenes at a court in Yiwu, China, early this month.

There are bound to be many versions of the story, but there is little doubt that two Indians were kidnapped by local traders angry at a default in payments by their employer, Euro Global, or that they manhandled an Indian consular official outside the court. But it would be unwise to read too much into the incident. It wouldn’t be right to say that it denotes a general hostility towards all things Indian. There will be comparisons with the treatment of Americans and Britons, but the sad truth is that everywhere, even in India, Caucasians get preferential treatment.

Still, two things must be kept in mind.

China is the world’s largest manufacturer and the economy with the largest surplus. Its spectacular rise and growing influence across the world are being watched with awe and fear, especially in the West. The United States, one of its largest trading partners, is openly scouting for allies to check China’s growing military power. India, with its own rising economic and military profile, is a natural choice.

Indeed, the US has more than once invited new Delhi to join the camp, and India’s recent cosying up to countries such as Australia shows its intentions, given that the Prime Minister is an open fan of America.

That, unfortunately, reignites all the old Chinese paranoia about encirclement and enfeeblement, and leads to a settled conviction that it is being targeted because of its independent policies and for the fact that it is upsetting the balance of power. The encirclement theory is highly exaggerated but it’s not baseless. In any case, for the West, China is the long-term adversary and it is already starting to prepare. India, whom the Chinese might see as a pawn, thus gets the rough edge of the tongue at every possible opportunity.

In this scenario, relations between the Asian giants can’t ever be free of suspicion as their interests are bound to clash, but they need not reach a point of no-return.

Both countries need each other and, more importantly, Asia does not need two of its largest, fastest growing economies to be at each others’ throats. That could be a catastrophe worse than the Boxing Day tsunami.

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