It is an unequal fight. An expansionist autocracy is confronting a peace-loving democracy. The battleground, so to say, is the highest mountainous terrain in the world where “not a blade of grass grows”, in the famous, or infamous words of the late Prime Minister of India. The democracy is subjected to rude jolts from time to time by way of periodic incursions from across the ‘line of actual control’. The latest intrusion from across the border and the resultant stand-off has been provoked by the autocracy, as always, without any cause.

The current stand-off between India and China has been engineered by the latter at a time when India is fighting another battle ~ the worst pandemic in modern history, apparently exported by the Chinese. Besides, India had been facing its lowest economic growth in the last decade, where a creeping economic slow-down had blighted several sectors. From India’s standpoint, the timing could not have been worse. Adding to our woes, the neighbour to the west had been intensifying its proxy war in Kashmir. The timing of the Chinese intrusion into Indian territory and the killing of our unarmed soldiers can be fathomed from the history of independent India. The last time China attacked India and fought a brief border war was in 1962. It was entirely unprovoked, and had something to do with its internal problems. Mao tse Tung, the founder (1949) of the Chinese Communist party was in power, and his promised Utopia had turned into an indescribable tragedy. In an ancient agrarian-settled civilization, agriculture had in just a decade turned upside down under Communist rule. Between 1959 and 1961, an estimated 27 to 30 million Chinese had starved to death.

India, in contrast had nurtured and strengthened its young democracy and attained a steady though modest economic growth. It was a ‘founding father’ of the global Non-aligned Movement and came to be viewed as some kind of a role model for newly-independent nations of Asia and Africa, emerging from decades of colonial bondage. As both India and China had become full-fledged nations in the late 1940s, a comparison was inevitable.

Two giant Asian powers had appeared on the scene, but with sharply contrasting political systems ~ functioning democracy and faltering communism. It was, apparently, too demeaning for the Chinese Communists to stomach, having promised to deliver a workers’ paradise. For 2,000 years, the Chinese have viewed themselves as the Middle Kingdom in Asia, with smaller countries on the periphery ‘paying court’, literally and figuratively to ruling Chinese Emperors. Mao, who for the first time in its history knit together a modern China by eliminating traditionally fractious warlords and potentates, fancied himself in such a role ~ ‘Chairman for life’ ~ a modern day ‘Emperor’ of sorts. In a move apparently designed to divert attention of his starving millions, he launched an unprovoked war with India over a boundary dispute. An essentially pacifist democracy and the ‘leader’ of the Non-aligned Movement was humiliated in the battlefield before the whole world.

In the intervening decades, the Chinese have consistently refused to settle the boundary dispute with India. Consequently, India had to divert huge resources away from its development effort and modernize its armed forces. Today, it is maintaining one of the largest standing armies in the world. To rapidly modernize its armed forces and equip them with the latest weapons in case it has to again defend itself against the wayward Chinese communists, India has become the world’s largest importer of military hardware. After the 1960s, India could manage what has been termed as a “Hindu rate of economic growth” ~ just 3-4 per cent. China, a centrally controlled command economy meanwhile leapfrogged to a growth rate of 8-9 per cent, outpacing India, and overtaking it. It did enter into a number of ‘peace agreements’ with India to ease tensions, but deliberately kept the border pot simmering, by refusing to demarcate the boundary and sign a peace treaty. The historically unmarked border has been unilaterally defined by them as ‘line of actual control’ ~ whatever that means ~ which has the potential for dispute any time it may choose. All along, it has been deceiving India by indefinitely delaying a border settlement, by repeating that the issue be kept on the backburner while the two countries concentrate on economic growth.

In the second decade of the present century, India turned the tables on China. It outpaced it in terms of economic growth, thereby threatening its growing economic hegemony in Asia. In the recent World Economic Summit at Davos, India was lauded as the “fastest growing democracy in the world.” This surely could not have been music to China’s ears. Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State and an astute strategist had foreseen that smaller nations of Asia would seek a counterweight to an increasingly hegemonic China. In China’s reckoning, a counterweight had emerged on the scene.

To go back to history, the timing of the present stand-off appears to be a rewind of 1962. Coupled with their receding rate of economic growth are the multiple internal troubles being faced by the Chinese communists. Recent severe floods have affected large areas in China, Taiwan has openly repudiated the ‘one China policy’, there is widespread disaffection in Xinjiang, Hong Kong is on the boil, unrest is spreading in Inner Mongolia, Tibet is far from “pacified” and treatment of Uighur Muslims is giving it a bad name. Mao may be dead, but Maoism is alive and kicking, literally and figuratively. Xi Jinping has, in the manner of Napoleon crowned himself a veritable Emperor of China, a successor to Mao.

No one should have any doubt that China poses an existential threat to a prospering India. According to Dr Kissinger again, China fancies itself as the dominant economic and military power in Asia. A robust counterweight like India is anathema to the Chinese way of thinking. For 2000 years, it has positioned itself as the Middle Kingdom. In this respect, it is different from the earlier Soviet communist regime which was equally expansionist and autocratic. But Russia has been a European power throughout history and was a part of Europe where a ‘balance of power’ was maintained throughout the 19th and most of the 20tth century.

Kissinger says: “Theorists of the balance of power often leave the impression that it is the natural form of international relations. In fact, balance- of-power systems have existed only rarely in human history. The Western Hemisphere has never known one, nor has the territory of contemporary China for over 2000 years. Empires have no need for a balance of power.” Historically, the concept of ‘balance of power’ is alien to the Chinese way of thinking. “Before the nineteenth century, China never had a neighbour contesting its pre-eminence and never imagined that such a state could arise. The notion of sovereign equality of states did not exist in China.”

The question arises, what is to be done? Ironically, the solution comes from Sun Tzu, the sixth century BC Chinese thinker. ‘Know thyself and know thy enemy, and thou shall win a hundred battles undefeated.’ The first imperative, therefore, is to evaluate ourselves objectively, and do honest introspection about our actions and policies since 1962. Both diplomatic and military efforts are needed to ensure that 1962 is never repeated. Only then can we survive the Dragon’s fire.

Today, our military is strong but diplomacy continues to be defensive and weak. In the 1962 war, as also during the recent Galwan clash, our troops displayed such battlefield valour that it can be said that they are second to none in the world. But diplomatically, we have been shy of standing up to Chinese bullying. Take the case of Taiwan. A time has come when we must act in concert with leaders of the most friendly and like-minded democracies which openly share our concern about the growing Chinese threat to Asia, and to Asia-Pacific. Fortuitously, Trump in US, Morrison in Australia, Abe in Japan and Macron in France can be brought on board to stand up together and recognize Taiwan. It is time to junk the ‘one China policy.’

New Zealand is another likeminded liberal democracy, so far outside our strategic vision where we have not reached out fully. It was earlier a part of a military alliance ~ ANZUS, with US and Australia. Formed after Second World War as a military alliance against Imperial Japan, it soon transformed into an anti-Communist alliance to meet the fresh challenge of aggressive Soviet communism. Unfortunately, the Alliance fell into disuse over a technical dispute.

We should take the initiative to revive ANZUS, this time with India as the fourth partner. QUAD-II is waiting to be born, this time in the Pacific. That China is fast expanding its footprint, or shall we say naval ‘bootprint’ in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese could threaten the northern flank of both New Zealand and Australia, in the event of a naval confrontation.

A most glaring failure of our diplomacy is to present to the world at large the sordid facts about Chinese perfidy in annexation of East Turkestan, the historic land of Uighur Muslims. It is being widely reported today that this “minority” is being maltreated by the Chinese communists, and around one million are incarcerated. The term “minority” is a misnomer, as East Turkestan was never a part of Imperial China but conquered by them in the last century. By definition alone, a minority is a part of the whole group. It is a doubtful proposition in international law if the Turki population of an annexed country can be described by the Han Chinese as a “minority”, deceptively implying thereby that it is an “internal” issue.

India, and indeed the free world owe a debt of gratitude to eminent scholar and MP, Prafull Goradia for bringing forth the sly manner in which China gobbled up the country of Uighurs soon after Mao came to power in1949. It was a case of classic communist perfidy, the way Stalin annexed Poland after World War II. Mao invited the leaders of Turkestan government to Beijing to ‘discuss a confederation’ between the two countries. Two communist members of the Uighur government stayed back. The other non-communist members of the Government were flying back from Beijing when the plane conveniently “crashed”. The two communist members back home promptly “voted” for “union” with Communist China!

(To be concluded)

The writer is a retired IAS officer