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Home > 2024 > An X-Ray of Britain’s scheming and India’s follies on China | M.R. Narayan (...)

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 7 February 17, 2024

An X-Ray of Britain’s scheming and India’s follies on China | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 17 February 2024, by M R Narayan Swamy




Cross Winds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition over China;
by Vijay Gokhale

Vintage/Penguin Random House

Pages: xvii + 235; Price: Rs 699
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0670099910
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0670099917
Former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s scholarly study is a pointer that Jawaharlal Nehru may not have been the biggest villain of India’s disastrous policy on China after all.
Based on startling archival material, Gokhale’s findings not only concur with the generally known negative role played by Nehru’s Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon but also expose, perhaps for the first time, Britain’s behind-the-scene duplicitous role that added to Nehru’s flawed understanding of his own worth vis-à-vis the new Communist neighbour.
Gokhale makes no attempt to cover up Nehru’s lack of strategic vision, especially with regard to Mao’s China. The Indian leader’s policy was not accompanied by actionable policy with well-defined goals and objectives as well as pre-identified resources and capacities to reach them. His diplomacy was driven less by systemic consultation than by individual preference.
So much so, until June 1954, almost five years since Mao took power in Beijing, there was no direct political contact between Indian and Chinese leaders but this did not prevent Nehru from viewing the Chinese Communists from a more than friendly prism. In other words, for all his exposure to the world of diplomacy, Nehru’s China policy was not built on direct understandings but on untested assumptions. As we know, this led to the disastrous war with China and Nehru’s personal humiliation in 1962, leading to his demise two years later.
Gokhale reveals that a crafty player quietly toyed with an unsuspecting Nehru and his team, causing enormous damage.
Thanks to Nehru’s Cold War thinking and the lack of chemistry between the US and newly independent India, Britain chose to manipulate India’s thinking vis-à-vis China. India was constantly egged to look at American policy through the British lens. Britain practised deception in virtually all the crisis in the decade from 1949. It misrepresented the Indian position to the Americans and withheld crucial information from India or only partially presented the facts. This further fuelled distrust between the US and India.
Newly free India’s proximity to British leaders was understandable given the colonial past. But over-reliance on British judgement led Nehru to unquestioningly accept its advice without weighing up if these were relevant to or aligned with India’s national interests. While zealously pursuing its own interests on China, British leaders used their influence on India to sway the US policymaking, in the process widening the chasm between Washington and New Delhi. Britain stropped utilizing India as a key instrument of its China policy in 1959, by when escalating Sino-Indian row over the border made it realize it did not need New Delhi any more.
In the process, clouded by the Cold War assessment of Washington, Nehru rejected even sensible advice from the US. As early as October 10, 1949, a mere 10 days into Mao’s takeover of Beijing, an American aide-memoire urged India to verify Communist China’s intentions before giving it the legitimacy it craved for. India was advised to satisfy if the new China would respect and honour its international obligations, and whether it could give convincing evidence that an Indian recognition would lead to a marked improvement in Indian ability to protect its interests. The sage counsel was reiterated when Nehru visited Washington. Similar advice, incidentally, also came from Vallabhbhai Patel, Nehru’s deputy, and C. Rajagopalachari. Even Secretary General Shankar Bajpai, India’s chief diplomat, feared that early recognition might jeopardize New Delhi’s position on Kashmir in the UN Security Council as the ousted Chiang Kai-shek’s regime still held the China seat.
Had India heeded American advice, it might have confirmed the existence of a potential boundary problem an invaluable decade earlier. In which case, India’s understanding of Communist China’s intentions would have been, hopefully, radically different. Nehru would certainly not have laboured under the delusion that the communist regime was only interested in axing treaties signed between Chiang Kai-shek and the US, and that Mao’s China would play a positive and beneficial role in Asia.
Krishna Menon’s penchant for solo diplomacy at the cost keeping the Indian foreign ministry in the dark and on one occasion trying to bypass even Nehru added to the policy mess. Menon’s role during the Geneva talks on the early Indochina crisis involving the French was vehemently disliked by the US. While Menon’s work and Nehru’s ceasefire proposal did play a role in Geneva, there was no basis for Menon to claim that World War III had been staved off due to Indian efforts. Nehru and Menon indulged in needless mutual admiration.
Similarly, India’s position on the later Korean question irritated the Americans. By now, Nehru had come to think that he enjoyed excellent personal relations with Chinese leaders, and even advocated the return of Formosa (Taiwan) to China. Menon, while telling Americans that India was “absolutely confident” that Beijing had no expansionist ambitions, again got into the act of playing an international peacemaker – and Zhou Enlai exploited the Indian’s ego. While Zhou’s intension was to use Menon until he could establish direct ties with the US, the Americans were plainly disgusted with Menon. President Dwight Eisenhower called Menon “a menace and a bore”. Even the British were sore. Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan accused Menon of “messing things up”. India’s envoy to the US, Gaganvihari Lal Mehta, too complained to Nehru about his Man Friday. Yet, Menon dominated policymaking almost until war erupted with China.
It is possible that but for Britain’s mischief and a grandiose Menon, Nehru may not have slipped so badly on China. As early as December 1948, Nehru warned his chief ministers that a communist victory in China would have far-reaching consequences and the situation needed to be watched with great care. Even before Mao stormed Beijing, Nehru was loudly wondering what impact a communist regime would have on Tibet and Xinjiang with which India shared frontiers. Nehru even told his top officials that while India will recognize communist China, threats to Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh or the McMahon Line area will be resisted with all our force. But Gokhale laments that India did not find it fit to convey this position to the new regime in Beijing. The rest, as they say, is history. It was only around 1958 that Nehru began to wake up to the dangers from China.
A lot has changed since the 1950s and 60s. India is no longer under the illusion that China desires friendship with India. Nor does India see the US as an external hegemon. Gokhale warns that with tensions over Taiwan reaching dangerous proportions now between the US and China, the latter now a virtual superpower, India cannot bury its head in the sand from the crisis in the western Pacific. But he warns that India must remain wary of Britain, which still has the military capacity to back its geopolitical role in the Indian Ocean. It cannot be discounted that the US might outsource the management of the Indian Ocean to the British. “This time, however, we should not permit the British to insert themselves into the Indo-American discourse on the Indo-Pacific.” He advocates a broad-based and intensive dialogue with the US to be a cornerstone of India’s foreign policy.
It is this advice which makes one wonder if Gokhale’s conclusion based on the happenings of an earlier era is as sound as it seems – if one sees the way the US has acted so recklessly around the world in recent times and its own blow-hot-blow cold attitude towards China. After all, it was Washington’s flawed reading, from the time of Bill Clinton in particular, that has given China the solid economic clout it now uses brazenly – like the US did earlier and still attempts but with less success — to try rewrite the global rules of the game. Can the US be indeed trusted to keep India’s interests at heart?

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