Left at the Crossroads: The last tango in Delhi

So this is what happened in mid-December in Delhi. Grandfather Wen came with 300 Chinese businessmen, sealed $16 billion worth of trade deals, praised Mahatma Gandhi, quoted the sacred texts of Hinduism, drew parallels between Chinese calligraphy and Yoga and declared forcefully that “the dragon and the elephant should tango.”

So this is what happened in mid-December in Delhi. Grandfather Wen came with 300 Chinese businessmen, sealed $16 billion worth of trade deals, praised Mahatma Gandhi, quoted the sacred texts of Hinduism, drew parallels between Chinese calligraphy and Yoga and declared forcefully that “the dragon and the elephant should tango.”

Delighted to be called “Grandpa” by Indian students, as he is by millions of children in his own country, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao then flew to Islamabad to speak of nuclear cooperation, military assistance and investments in infrastructure.

Chinese direct investment in Pakistan is sev

en times greater than the meager $221 million Beijing invests in India. Delhi wants more of it, and both India and China also aspire to increase their already thriving bilateral trade. Wen Jiabao enthusiastically promoted a target of $100 billion for 2015. But when asked about the thorny territorial disputes between the two Asian giants, the wise grandfather shifted to no commitment mode and said that it could take generations.

Commenting the same issue in 1959, an Indian lawyer had told Nehru that “it is difficult in any country to make concessions once the public has been told the territory under dispute forms part of the national homeland.” Even truer when what is in play is not only national pride, but national insecurities. The contested borders run in the vicinity of regions known for their problematic identity and rebellious propensities: Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang for China, Kashmir and the turbulent tribal Northeast for India.

Still obsessed by nineteenth century humiliations at the hands of “foreign devils,” the Chinese seem to underestimate the trauma experienced by the Indians over a feud that resulted in a brief war in 1962. When they refuse to show their border maps to Indian diplomats and surreptitiously question the territorial status quo in the Himalayas, they revive painful memories.

The 1962 conflict was initiated by what some called a “cartographic war against India.” In July 1958, a magazine from Beijing, China Pictorial, printed a map that showed large parts of the North East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh) and Ladakh as Chinese territory. The Indian Foreign Office protested, and an increasingly bitter correspondence between Nehru and Chou En-lai ensued.

The Indian Prime Minister argued that natural geographical features, local tradition and various treaties signed during the previous hundred years legitimized the present boundaries. For the Chinese, those treaties were a colonial imposition. India could not claim the ill-gotten legacy of British imperialism and the Himalayan frontier had only been temporarily accepted but not recognized by Beijing as a sign of good will between two emerging Third World nations.

The flight of the Dalai Lama to India in March 1959 greatly angered the Chinese. Nehru explicitly told him that India could not start a war with China for Tibet’s freedom and that he shouldn’t let Western powers exploit his country’s fate in their cold war with the Soviet Union and its allies. But Beijing was outraged by the sole fact that an audience had been granted to the Tibetan leader. The Chinese communists also had some trouble understanding the workings of a parliamentary democracy. Each demonstration in favor of Tibet in the streets of Delhi or Mumbai was considered as part of a sinister plot and a major offense to Chinese dignity and sovereignty. 

Soon, not only letters but bullets were sporadically exchanged. When an open war started in October 1962, India couldn’t resist its enemy’s enormous superiority in arms, communications, logistics and planning.

The main sentiment in India, writes historian Ramachandra Guha, “was a sense of betrayal, of being taken for a ride by an unscrupulous neighbor whom they had naively chosen to trust and to support” in the heydays of Indian fervor for non-alignment and Third World solidarity.

In Nehru’s words, “the basic reason for the Sino-Indian dispute was that they were both ‘new nations’ under dynamic nationalistic leaderships, and in a sense, were ‘meeting’ at their frontier as modern nations for the first time in history” without the buffer zones that isolated them in the past. China and India are now also meeting at the invisible and shifting borders of economic globalization. Will the old mistrust be compounded by a new rivalry?

In 1960, Chou En-lai had spent one week in Delhi, dedicating more than 20 hours to intense conversations with Nehru. To no avail. The joint communiqué released in the wake of Wen Jiabao’s stay welcomes the opening of a telephone hotline between the Chinese premier and the Indian prime minister and endorses systematic consultations on bilateral issues, including a more regular exchange of visits between heads of government and foreign ministers.

Certainly encouraging. But more will be needed than diplomatic tango if the two emerging powers don’t want to go down the same road again, from “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” (Indian-Chinese brotherhood in Hindi) to a bitter “Hindi-Chini Bye-Bye.”

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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).


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