Book review: China’s realpolitik lesson to India - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 21 June 2021

Book review: China’s realpolitik lesson to India

By Ajai Shukla


Title:  Nehru, Tibet and China

By:   Avtar Singh Bhasin

Penguin Random House India, 2021

403 pages

Rs 699/-

There are few authors and historians better placed than Avtar Singh Bhasin to recount a history of India-China relations, starting from the early 20th century. There are many good works on the subject, but Mr Bhasin has a unique perspective, having served 30 years as the head of the Historical Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. After he retired in 1993, he joined the Indian Council of Historical Research, and then the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. In a treasure trove for South Asia scholars, Mr Bhasin has translated his intimate knowledge of the Ministry of External Affairs’ records and archives into publishing three five-volume series on India’s relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, and a ten-volume series on India-Pakistan relations. Leading into this book, he also compiled in 2018 a five-volume study titled “India-China Relations: 1947-2000. Between 2002 and 2013, he published for the Ministry of External Affairs an annual series titled “India’s Foreign Relations.” This cornucopia of primary source material has provided a strong base for Mr Bhasin’s well-judged assertions and conclusions. 


The author seeks to answer a simple question: As both India and China emerged in their current avatars at the end of the 1940s, what went wrong in relations between them and why? In his preface to this book, Mr Bhasin explicitly outlines the question: “The India-China war in 1962 happened more than half a century ago. However, people are largely still ignorant of what brought us so much of ignominy… To untangle the Gordian knot that India-China relations have become, the people of India need to know what actually went wrong in that short span of a decade and a half of India, post-independence.”


Like other analysts and authors, Mr Bhasin apportions a large share of the blame to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was “infatuated with the Chinese” ever since he came into contact with them at the “Conference against Imperialism” in Brussels, in 1927. Nehru, who was foreign minister throughout his prime ministership, warmly welcomed the emergence of communist China and went out of his way to “forge the concept of Asian solidarity.” However, the People’s Republic of China unsentimentally pursued the objective of great power.


As would be the case in any account of modern-day relations between India, China and Tibet, Mr Bhasin starts with the Great Game, Francis Younghusband’s expedition to Lhasa in 1904 and the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention that left China in full control of Tibet. The fast-moving events of that time – the rampaging Sichuanese warlord Chao Er-feng, the collapse of the Qing dynasty, and the emergence of the Kuomintang, provide Mr Bhasin with an interesting backdrop as he describes the events of the Simla Convention and Britain’s failure to wrap up the territorial bargain it had imposed on Tibet and China.


One of the book’s most interesting revelations is Mr Bhasin’s account of the Tibetan government’s backtracking on the frontier agreed to in the Simla Convention. Far from accepting the McMahon Line as the India-Tibet border, Lhasa wrote to New Delhi on October 16, 1947, asking for the return of extensive tracts of territory that “had been gradually included in India in the past.” Lhasa wanted the return of “Sikkim, Bhutan, Darjeeling, Ladakh and others ‘on this side of the River Ganges… up to the boundary of Yarkhim’.” Nehru told Zhou Enlai in 1959 that if India were to concede to Tibet’s demands (by now, Tibet had become a part of China) the India-Tibet border would literally be on the River Ganga. In March 1948, Tibet repeated its demand for the return of territories by India. While Communist China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 overtook this narrative, Beijing cites Lhasa’s demands in Sino-Indian border talks even today, forcing an embarrassed Dalai Lama to repudiate the demands and declare that Tawang was a part of India.


Mr Bhasin also presents an interesting account of the negotiations that led to India becoming the first non-communist Asian country to recognise the new government in Beijing. While Nehru continued to woo the Communists, Beijing was hard-nosed in its dealings with New Delhi. The author puts that down to not just conflicting interests between the two newly independent countries, but also the very different circumstances in which they came to power. “The new Chinese leaders were seasoned soldiers, Marshals and Generals. They were an impatient and determined lot, anxious to get over the past and restore the glory of old China. The Indian leaders had no such pretensions. Their basic differences created misunderstandings when approaching issues that confronted them at the very beginning of their new careers in the government.”

Mr Bhasin recounts in detail the deterioration of the Sino-India relationship and its spiral towards war in 1962. He concludes that the Chinese attack was unrelated to territorial or boundary issues but rather, as Liu Shaoqi asserted, “to demolish India’s arrogance and illusion of grandeur.” He quotes Zhao Enlai’s explanation in 1972 to President Richard Nixon of why China waged war on India: “He (Nehru) was so discourteous; he wouldn’t even do us the courtesy of replying, so we had no choice but to drive him out. So we had gone to war, justifiably in 1962, to teach India a lesson.”


Mr Bhasin’s readable book provides answers to most questions that a lay reader would have about Sino-Indian relations from independence to the 1962 war and its aftermath. For the scholar, there is dual footnoting throughout the book, with reference to the Nehru Papers as well as the author’s earlier five-volume study. This book should find a place on any bookshelf dealing with Sino-Indian relations.

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