New Delhi: China is indeed India’s real adversary which Atal Behari Vajpayee’s letter to Bill Clinton justifying the Pokhran II test correctly spotted but wrongly highlighted to a foreign power. Was -- and is -- nuclear power the appropriate means to balance relations with China? Since India is a nuclear power, the question is faintly academic. But if it were posed before the fact, the response would still bias towards the affirmative. Nuclear weapons may or not bring prestige but they are a definite currency of power. In any case India has been a nuclear power since 1974 which makes the issue even more academic. Pokhran II merely reiterated and formalized the status.

Nevertheless, Pokhran II exacerbated the Sino-Indian geopolitical competition in a manner that the 1974 test did not. 1974 is close in years to the 1962 war while 1998 is farther and the present circumstance of acute India-China rivalry is farthest. Did the nature of Sino-Indian strategic contest change between then (1962, 1974) and now (1998, the present)? In a certain sense, perhaps yes. The 1962 war did not arise from pure strategic competition between India and China. While traces of that were present, for example, in the bids of both countries to woo the post-colonial Afro-Asian states, and in India’s solo peacemaking role in the Korean War well above its geopolitical weight, the 1962 war had more proximate reasons, however. There were internal troubles for Mao Zedong with the failure of the Great Leap Forward which needed a suitably weak external enemy to divert attention. This is common with dictatorships. India provided the opening by giving asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959. It was a purely humanitarian gesture and Jawaharlal Nehru could not have done less. Expanding on that opportunity, China seized territory in Ladakh but kept the conflict in the northeast sector rather more punitive in nature with invading forces returning to status quo ante positions.

But if China thought the 1962 war was punitive and perhaps even largely tactical in nature, the defeated nation was scarred in its sovereign psyche and saw the conflict in strategic terms. War has more than one side because defeat and victory are not the same. Even so, 1974 went past as a negligible milestone in Sino-Indian rivalry, and perhaps the real turning point in relations came with the steady and irreversible weakening of the Soviet Union towards the end stages of the Cold War. Even then Sino-Indian rivalry surfaced indirectly through the Chinese proxy, Pakistan, which having tasted blood and victory in Afghanistan, upped the ante in Jammu and Kashmir. Since China holds a portion of Jammu and Kashmir on its own and a part ceded by Pakistan, it could never be even-handed in the Indo-Pak dispute over the state. Any settlement between India and Pakistan which results in loss of territory to China would be flatly rejected by it.

Still, all these factors did not contribute substantially to burgeoning India-China rivalry as we see today. The decisive shift actually occurred with the 1991 reforms. Since China had embarked on its own reforms by then under Deng Xiaoping, it detected a future threat from India. China is intimately aware of the nature of Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Russia in which it constituted the third neglected and underrated leg of the triangle. At the height of the Cold War with zooming ideological fervour, the Soviet economy accounted for over two-fifths of the US one and subsequently declined. Containment, economic collapse, the arms race and imperial overstretch all fused together at once to bring down the Soviet Union. Cold Warriors like Francis Fukuyama became triumphalist about the victory of Western liberal democracy and even argued for the end of history.

China could not have been sanguine with such views. The shocks radiating from the Soviet meltdown had reached China early in the form of the Tiananmen Square protests which were brutally put down. There was a liberal democracy next-door to China. A war had been fought with it in 1962. In 1991, reforms had started causing the proverbial Indian tusker to rise from slumber. All this combined to form a geopolitical and geo-economic threat that China could not ignore. Unfortunately, India did not read through Chinese motivations perspicaciously. Vajpayee’s apprehensions committed in a letter to Clinton did not adequately reflect in internal policy. Balancing China required a basket of measures which included nuclear power and geo-economic growth. India’s geo-economics requires a different discussion. As for nuclear power, India has not optimized its deterrence capabilities in respect of China, often confusing Pakistan for China in its strategic aims.

To be continued...

Also read “Testing time - 1”, “2” and “3” here, here and here.