Monday, July 21, 2014

In Brazil a new India met a new China. Will there be a new pragmatism leading to peace on the border?

What a pity there was no independent reporting from Brazil about our Prime Minister's meeting with China's President. We can comfort ourselves by assuming that it was a subtle diplomatic ploy to impress China. After all, China's leaders have always communicated to their people exclusively through Xinhua, the official news agency. Now Narendra Modi has communicated to us exclusively through PTI. At last we are equal to China.

But let's set that aside. Let's set aside, too, cockles-warmers like India becoming the first President of the new BRICS bank. The great reality that surfaced in Brazil is that Modi has a historical opportunity to end the boundary problem with China. Two factors point to this. First, China respects strong leaders and it knows that Modi is so strong that not a mouse will move in Delhi without his say-so. Secondly, the border problem can never be solved without India repudiating some of Jawaharlal Nehru's actions; the Congress governments could not possibly do this while Modi probably can.

In the past emotionalism seized our Parliament, the media and public opinion to such an extent that the country as a whole lost its sense of direction. We never faced the fact that, historically, there was no agreed border pact between India and China. In the West the Aksaichin-Ladakh area was so barren ("not a blade of grass grows there", as Nehru famously put it) that no one in India knew that China had built a road across it. In the more contentious eastern sector, India swore by the McMahon Line, which was a line drawn by a British officer and then approved at a meeting in 1914 by British-Indian and Tibetan governments; China was not a participant.

The position Chinese Prime Minister Chou en-lai initially adopted was a reasonable one. Where negotiations were required to confirm a presumed boundary, he said, negotiations must be held so that a new treaty could be signed between equals in place of one imposed by old imperial overlords. In the case of the McMahon Line, according to published reports, Chou even told Nehru that China would not use the negotiations to change the boundary line. We failed to take advantage of that golden opportunity. When Chou visited Delhi in 1960 Home Minister Gobind Vallabh Pant spoke to him patronisingly, Finance Minister Morarji Desai insultingly. Nehru could not even keep India's dealings with China on a dignified level. When China moved to absorb Tibet as a piece of its sovereign territory, Nehru agreed without bargaining for an overall boundary agreement.

Post-Chou China adopted a more belligerent tone. In recent years it has been noticeably confrontationist in its approach to Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Along the Himalayas there have been regular "incidents" in the border posts. Much of this is attributed to hawkish military leaders at policy-making levels.

China will never yield in its ambition to be the unchallenged regional power in Asia and then the unchallenged world superpower. To that extent it will always be a difficult customer, no matter who is at the helm, emperors or communists. But the Chinese are also history's most pragmatic people. They are natural businessmen, at ease running massive shipping corporations or tiny kirana stores. Like Gujaratis.

This is where two minds can meet. If Narendra Modi is strong in India, Xi Jinping is China's most powerful leader since Deng Hsiao-ping, combining in himself several posts including military overlordship. Both are decision-makers. Both are good at the game of politics. So Modi will quickly recognise why, even as Xinhua was reporting the Modi-Xi meeting at length and with warmth, China's border patrol in Ladakh staged an intrusion trick or two. Once he learns how to call this standard bluff, the rest will be easy.

Xi's words in Brazil suggest that he has already developed the view that cooperation with a friendly India will benefit China economically and diplomatically while posing no threat to it politically or militarily. "If the two countries speak in one voice," said Xi, "the whole world will attentively listen". It should be easy for Modi to show that if the two countries speak in one voice, business will boom for both. But, unlike Xi, Modi will have to carry the people with him. Government leaders in India have never told the people the real story of the border mess. If Modi continues that style of functioning, he will not score the way Xi might. Brazil reporting notwithstanding, we are not equal to China, thank heavens.