There has been collective sense of despair and anguish felt by Indians with the brutal actions by China during the recent border conflict. China has been a frenemy for Indians as most of us have only heard about the 1962 war but since then there were no ongoing major conflicts or rivalry comparable to situation with Pakistan.
A significant section of Indians believed that one of the main triggers for 1962 war was India’s decision to protect the Dalai Lama and indirectly support Tibet’s movement irritating China. Also, there was a heavy propaganda orchestrated by right wing groups against former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saying that he had mismanaged the China relationship and went to war without any level of readiness or strategy.
Although several of historians talked about the betrayal of China even during 1962, the subsequent generations of people never really had firsthand experience of China’s tactics and were keen to forget the past and move forward. As the decades progressed, Indians started to appreciate Chinese products, technology advancement and their entrepreneurial capabilities. Chinese exports and investments in Indian industries and startups have seen a significant rise in recent years and there has been a general trend of bonhomie slowly building between both countries.
Indians wholeheartedly welcomed and celebrated the Chinese president’s recent visit to Mahabalipuram in South India for an informal summit with Modi. It was felt that both India and China will move beyond border disputes and enter into new era of collaborative growth. But China’s secretive and unapologetic behavior during the Coronavirus crisis and then the cruel killing of our soldiers have totally reset Indians’ perception about China.
If we analyze the personalities and relationship between Modi and Xi Jinping, it is surprising that both these leaders have let the situation to come to this stage in spite of them having regular informal summits and demonstrating good equation. Many are still wondering why these two leaders did not pick up the phone and talk to each other so that the situation did not go out of control.
There seems to be fundamental flaws in their working relationship and there was never any level of trust truly built between both these leaders. Modi has genuinely invested significant effort and time to improve the relationship with China. There could be multiple reasons for him to adopt this path. Modi always positioned himself against Congress stalwarts Nehru and Indira Gandhi and wanted to demonstrate that he has corrected historical mistakes done by them.
There are two perceived mistakes of Nehru as always projected by the BJP which include: 1. Article 370 and 2. Rivalry with China. Modi feels he has fixed the first issue by abrogation of Article 370 and his next focus is to resolve disputes with China. He also would have thought that by becoming friendly with China, he can ensure that China will stop supporting Pakistan, resulting in their isolation.
But the Galwan conflict has really tested his nerve and put him in the same spot as Nehru. Modi seems to have initially delayed taking assertive decisions to prevent Chinese aggression so as not to jeopardize his efforts to rebuild the relationship. But eventually he has to order our military to retaliate, leading to clashes and deaths. So, inadvertently, he ended up almost repeating the steps taken by Nehru when he faced a similar situation in 1962.
Nehru trusted Mao Zedong and “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” became a very popular catchphrase for their relationship, but Mao backstabbed Nehru by intruding deep inside India. Nehru initially tried to handle it diplomatically but after its failure, he had to go for armed conflict with China. It is ironical that history got repeated after about 60 years, and Modi needs to now carefully craft the future strategy to ensure that India’s security and prosperity are protected.
Following are some key suggestions for Modi’s government consideration.
- Stop Blaming Nehru: Modi would have now realized the circumstances under which Nehru might have taken his decisions on China. It is high time that he and the BJP stop blaming Nehru for all the issues, instead should focus on owning and solving them.
- De-Escalate and Contain: India should ensure that the tense situation at the border is de-escalated and at the same time should ensure that Chinese intrusion attempts are smartly thwarted. Modi should not take any adventurous steps such as crossing the LAC, etc., to avoid giving an opportunity to China to exploit the situation. China is eagerly looking for ways to distract the world from investigating it on the Coronavirus crisis and India should not fall into this trap.
- Prioritize China threat over Pakistan: Modi and India will have to now prioritize dealing with China over Pakistan. While Pakistan continues to be thorn in the flesh, however, the impact of the Chinese threat on India’s security and economy is much bigger.
- Modernize our Military capabilities: Modi needs to urgently take steps to modernize our military to match with Chinese capabilities. We should always negotiate from a position of strength while dealing with a bully such as China.
- Leverage the Opportunity to Remove Dependency on China and Spur Growth: Indian business leaders and entrepreneurs should leverage the current situation and replace Chinese products and businesses in India. They should build alternate technologies to substitute Chinese companies such as Alibaba and Tencent, who have made billions of investments in Indian companies. This strategy will be a true adoption of “Athma Nirbhar Bharat” or “Self Reliant India” being advocated by Modi.
The current challenging situation is a watershed moment for Modi’s administration, and he will have to carefully navigate the course. The positive aspect is that the entire country is solidly behind him irrespective of their political leanings, which should give enough confidence in taking the right decisions in the interest of our nation.
(The writer has a master’s degree from IISc, Bangalore, and is currently based in the U.S. working for an IT consulting company.)