Dealing with Dragon: Why India must shed the ‘Panipat syndrome’ while talking to China

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Former foreign secretary and China expert Shaym Saran, in his recently-released book How China Sees India and the World, recounts an old Chinese story, ‘The Ruse of the Empty City’. It’s about Zhuge Liang, a general of the Shu kingdom, as his fortress city of Xicheng is besieged by a much superior army of the Wei kingdom. Finding it difficult to hold on to the fort, Zhuge does the unthinkable: He gets all the city gates opened and asks his soldiers to disguise themselves as ordinary householders and go about their daily lives in full view of the advancing Wei army. Zhuge himself sits atop a city gate, playing ‘qin’, a Chinese string instrument. Confused, the Wei forces dare not enter the gates, suspecting some sort of ambush awaiting them. They, instead, make a hurried withdrawal.

The story is a cautionary tale of the way China thinks and acts: It may not mean what it publicly proclaims, and may actually be doing what it vehemently denies in the public. In this anecdotal backdrop, as India and China on Monday disengaged their frontline troops from a standoff point to rear locations at the Gogra-Hotsprings area in eastern Ladakh, the Narendra Modi government can pat its back for not giving in to the Chinese pressures — but the battle is far from being over yet. In other areas, especially Demchok and Depsang, the standoff continues.

China’s Gogra-Hotsprings move must be seen as a tactical retreat by Xi Jinping, who wants the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet in Uzbekistan to be a success, which cannot be possible without the presence and support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This may explain why the Dragon has decided to swallow the not-so-bitter disengagement pill at the Gogra-Hotsprings area, while keeping its forces standing in Demchok and Depsang. One can gauge the Chinese mindset from the fact that the two sides had reached the Gogra-Hotsprings agreement during the last round of talks on 17 July. China sat on this agreement for more than three weeks before going public. Obviously it was watching India closely, reading each of its moves, and waiting to take advantage of any resultant loopholes in the process.

India must be prepared for the long haul; Beijing wants Delhi to show impatience and urgency. If and when the Elephant shows any sign of anxiety and edginess, the Dragon will go for the kill, as in the past. Till now, to the Modi government’s credit, India has been unambiguously firm in its stand that the status quo ante must be restored to normalise the relationship and China has to take the initiative given its LAC (Line of Actual Control) misadventure in eastern Ladakh.

Historically, since 1947, the Chinese have not been used to dealing with this kind of measured Indian diplomacy. Also, the Modi government — again a sagacious move — has this time allowed the military generals to do the talking, which has been the real difference on the table. For, Indian diplomats in general are prone to making the talks move forward, even when there is no real gain for India involved. They are yet to appreciate the fact that sometimes not doing anything can be the best form of diplomacy — just like to make a decision not to make a decision was often the best decision by PV Narasimha Rao!

The Chinese have so far seen Indian diplomacy to be stop-gap, piecemeal, pretentiously idealistic and often prone to personalised interventions, especially from the top. A kind of diplomacy that made India unilaterally recognise the communist government in China in 1949 — at a time when the West led by the United States had serious reservations about it — without even getting the boundary dispute with Beijing resolved. KM Panikkar, in his memoirs, reveals how Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and C Rajagopalachari had urged Nehru to go slow on the matter. But Nehru was desperate to be on the “right side of history”! He wanted to beat the West in recognising communist China, so that Mao stopped seeing him as a “lackey” of Western imperialism!

In the process, India missed an opportunity to negotiate the boundary dispute with China when the latter was globally isolated and internally weak. Former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale writes in his seminal book, The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India (2021), “Recognition of a new regime by the world at large is the highest form of international legitimacy. It, thus, gives considerable leverage to the recognising state to secure its own interests vis-à-vis the new regime.”

Nehru’s India committed the same mistake in hurriedly accepting Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, again without pushing the Dragon to resolve the boundary dispute. In fact, Claude Arpi’s deeply researched book, Will Tibet Ever Find Her Soul Again?, scathingly accuses Nehru of actually assisting China in “liberating” Tibet. Among the many imprudent acts was the Nehru dispensation’s decision to supply rice for the invading PLA troops in Tibet in the early 1950s.

So gung-ho was Nehru about the “Hindi-Chini, Bhai-Bhai” narrative that in 1953, when Consul General Sumal Sinha cautioned the Government of India about the sinister Chinese designs on the North East, the then prime minister responded disdainfully: “It appears that Mr Sinha does not appreciate our policy fully. He should be enlightened.”

Jawaharlal Nehru

Today, as China is seen to be giving some concessions at the dawn of the SCO meet, India must remember not to lower its guard. For, the fundamentals of Chinese diplomacy vis-à-vis India remain largely unchanged since the 1950s. In fact, since the arrival of Xi Jinping in 2012, China has turned into the 21st century version of Mao’s Middle Kingdom. China today is in the grip of Mao 2.0. Unauthorised imprisonment and state repression (seen in as mundane an issue as Covid control) and censorship were always there in the Middle Kingdom, but never on the scale they are being misused today. Even foreign correspondents are facing the brunt of the state, with a spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress publicly accusing them in 2014 of “trying to overrun our system of government”.

In his latest book, China After Mao, released this very month, Frank Dikotter gives the picture of an anxious and insecure “superpower” looking at the world with renewed suspicion. “In this new ideological Cold War, censorship increased. Animal Farm and 1984, both written by George Orwell, were banned, while even Winnie the Pooh, rumoured to resemble Xi Jinping, had to go underground. The children’s cartoon ‘Peppa Pig’ was deleted from television and books, deemed the subversive symbol of a dangerous foreign ideology,” he writes.

This reminds one of Mao’s China, with all its insecurities and fears intact, and not Deng’s China which quietly went about making a niche for itself among world powers. The problem is in the very nature of the Chinese state. If the enigma of the Chinese state has confounded the world, it has also over the decades made the Dragon unsure about its real self. It has so mixed up actual reality with the stimulated one that today it is unsure which one of the two is true.

China is today the victim of its own mirage. James Palmer puts it quite succinctly, “Nobody knows anything about China: Including the Chinese government.” Dikotter takes this idea forward as he writes, “Every piece of information is unreliable, partial or distorted. We do not know the true size of the economy, since no local government will report accurate numbers, and we do not know the extent of bad loans, since the banks conceal these. Every good researcher has the Socratic paradox in mind: I know what I don’t know. But where China is concerned, we don’t even know what we don’t know.”

In that way, Xi’s China is on a stickier wicket than Mao’s, for the latter at least understood the state of Chinese affairs; it would just create an air of invincibility among outsiders. Nehru, for one, fell for this as he refused to use the Air Force during the 1962 war despite India having superior air power then. The problem with Xi’s China is that it doesn’t even know how weak or strong it is — it has very little idea on how deep the economic rot has eaten up China’s roots. As per a report, for instance, between 2010 and 2020, while the Chinese growth doubled, its debt tripled, standing at 280 percent of the output. To compensate for the economic downturn, Emperor Xi has taken recourse to more aggressive nationalism. This may explain the growing Chinese assertiveness on its borders, whether with India or Taiwan — the latter stands a real threat, provided the democratic world shows that rare sign of unity and camaraderie.

All this makes the task of the Indian government tricky — and arduous. As Prime Minister Modi is likely to meet Xi on the sidelines of the SCO, he needs to carry forward the good work his government has done so far: To let the Chinese clean up the mess they have created on India’s borders. There would be temptation to look for a way out of the LAC standoff, and career diplomats would be ever-ready to advise him that way, he should stick to the ‘plan’ and let the ‘Emperor’ do the talking. Modi should know that Xi is more desperate to come out of the Himalayan quagmire. The more the standoff continues, the weaker he would appear domestically as well as internationally.

The Modi government, meanwhile, can do more on setting up think tanks with the express objecting of knowing the “enemy” well. China is the riddle that India will have to deal with through most of the 21st century. Yet, India knows very little about China and its thinking. Most scholars who masquerade as China experts, especially in the field of academia, are Sinophiles, who admire Chinese system and culture, often in awe of them and many a times compromised by Chinese favours! A conversation — mentioned by Shyam Saran in How China Sees India and the World — between Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger in 1972 would explain the need for knowing one’s enemy well.

Zhou: India is a highly suspicious country. It is quite a big country, sometimes it puts on airs of a big country, but sometimes it has an inferiority complex.

Kissinger: It has been governed by foreigners through most of its history.

Zhou: Yes, that might be one of the historical factors.

Zhou: Nehru invited me to a tea party in his garden among the guests were two people in costume. There were two Tibetan lamas and suddenly there appeared a female lama. Do you know who she was?

Kissinger: Madame Binh?

Zhou: Madame Gandhi (laughter). She was dressed up entirely in a Tibetan costume. That was something that Nehru was capable of doing… I was speechless (when) confronted with such a situation. It was impossible for me to say anything.

While Nehru got his daughter to wear a Tibetan dress thinking it would impress the Chinese guest, for Zhou, it was yet another proof that India coveted Tibet. India may have gotten another chance despite a series of Nehruvian blunders, but the stakes are much higher now. And any goof-up this time may see the end of India’s global aspirations. Modi’s India may have some inkling of the Dragon’s real face, but much still needs to be unearthed and explored to institutionalise a China policy that bypasses political bias and partisanship.

For all we know, at the SCO meet later this week, Xi Jinping, like the proverbial Zhuge Liang, may well be playing the ‘Bhai-Bhai’ tune through his ‘qin’, but that will just be a ruse to hide his sinister agenda. As External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar himself suggests in his 2020 book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, the country needs to shed its reactive attitude — he calls it the Panipat syndrome — that allows invading forces to enter the Indian heartland for decisive battles. New India needs an active, and not a reactive, diplomacy. More so while dealing with the Dragon.

The author is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18. He tweets from @Utpal_Kumar1. Views expressed are personal.

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Dealing with Dragon: Why India must shed the ‘Panipat syndrome’ while talking to China
Dealing with Dragon: Why India must shed the ‘Panipat syndrome’ while talking to China
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