Those who speak do not know, those who know are silent,
I heard this saying from the old gentleman.
If the old gentleman was one who knew the way,
Why did he feel able to write five thousand words?
– Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Bai Juyi in Reading Laozi
In the parliamentary elections of the largest democracy in the world, international relations have seldom been on the agenda of political contestations. Despite heated debates over operational details, there is a consensus among non-left parties in New Delhi that the Nehru Creed, which assumes the role of successor state of British Empire in Southasia, has to continue as the bedrock of Indian foreign policy. This is an assumption that confers secondary status to other states born out of British India. No wonder, then, that Bhutan is the most trustworthy friend India has in the region; and that too because South Block is entrusted with the responsibility of directing foreign affairs of the royal government in Thimphu. But mention China, and eyes light up with expectations from Kathmandu to Colombo – in every capital city of the Subcontinent except New Delhi.
Apart from contested versions of histories of anti-colonial struggles and independence movements, differing perceptions over security, sovereignty and self-respect sometimes come in the way of India’s relations with its neighbours. Former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that a week was a long time in politics; and indeed, one only needs to look at constantly evolving alliances in New Delhi to realise how confusing are the signals it sends out into the neighbourhood. Empires, however, are run on the assumption that they are going to be around forever. For its part, China has successfully maintained its imperial countenance despite seismic changes in its polity.
Even though the fundamentals of Indian foreign policy have remained the same since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, the strategy to take forward overall goals keeps oscillating from one extreme to another. It did not take much for the Indian establishment to assume the leadership of newly independent states in the 1950s; switch to the US camp for fear of the communists in the 1960s; dump Western democracies for the Soviet Union in the 1970s; and then fall into the embrace of the Pentagon and the Washington Consensus in the 1990s, as soon as the Second World had fallen apart.
In contrast to the Indian acrobatics in international relations, China gives off the air of an independent empire that has always had the world falling at its feet. Nikita Khrushchev could not browbeat Beijing. Richard Nixon had to learn ping pong in order to play along with the competitors of the USSR in Asia. And Barack Obama knows better than to annoy the country with nearly USD two trillion in foreign currency reserves in these uncertain times. The reason Indian diplomats hate to be equated with the mandarins of the Middle Kingdom is because they invariably fair poorly in comparison.
Beijing has been spectacularly successful in projecting the image of a saviour. Even though the Chinese need Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad and Kathmandu as much as these Southasian capitals need Beijing at international forums, there is a widely shared view in the region that the regime in Beijing can be a rescuer in times of need. But time and again, this assumption has proven to be mere wishful thinking. But that hardly matters. As in politics, perception is reality in diplomacy; and the Southasian elite believe that courting China is an essential element of resisting Indian hegemony in the region.
Buoyed by the rising tide of bilateral trade, the chattering classes of Dhaka love to boast of the relationship that Bangladesh has built with Beijing over the years. China is the largest supplier of arms and armaments to the Bangladeshi military, recently surpassing India as the biggest trading partner. Hints have been dropped that conglomerates from the People’s Republic of China may reward the port cities of Bangladesh with manufacturing facilities to serve the burgeoning Southasian market. Riding on the wave of favourable public opinion, the Chinese are also promising nuclear power plants and a land link through the Burmese jungles.
Miffed with Indians over various issues, Dhaka diplomats love to boast of the warmth of the Chinese embrace. The fact that Beijing used its first veto in the UN Security Council, in 1972, to oppose the membership of Bangladesh is conveniently forgotten. But it will perhaps be remembered if any future government is audacious enough to weigh the costs and benefits of a tie-up with the Chinese – and the price of antagonising a closer Southasian neighbour may be large.
Indians have inadvertently legitimised China’s complicity with the military regime of Burma by trying to travel the same route for short-term economic gains. But should democratic movement gather momentum in Rangoon, the Chinese will be there to recognise the civilian government, as they did in Kathmandu in 2007. After the fall from grace of the Shah dynasty, Ambassador Zhen Xianglin became the first foreign envoy to present his credentials to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.
Nepal’s enthralment with the Sons of Heaven dates back to the glorious days of the emperors of the north, who purportedly sent saints and soldiers on goodwill missions to the blessed land of the Buddha. Even after the drubbing they received at the hands of the Chinese in 1792, the ruling class of Nepal has not been able to forsake its fascination with angelic dragons. Annoyed with the constant meddling of British Residents in the internal affairs of the country, Maharaja Chandra Shamsher once told a loyal courtier that, had only the Chinese been in Lhasa, his predicaments would have lessened to a certain degree. But when Chandra’s grandson had to give way for a Shah restoration after the withdrawal of the British from the Subcontinent, there was nothing Beijing could do to prop up the tottering regime.
King Mahendra, ruler during the tumultuous 1955-72 Cold War years, went out of the way to woo Beijing, and practically signed on the dotted lines to end border disputes with the northern neighbour. But with the buffer of the religious kingdom in Tibet gone, he had to face the full force of the militarist regime of the Celestial Empire – the Chinese invited themselves into Nepal to crush Khampa rebels from Tibet, and coerced Mahendra into accepting the construction of an all-weather road linking Kathmandu with Lhasa and beyond.
As an absolute ruler during 1972-90, King Birendra tried in vain to enforce a policy of equidistance in Nepal’s relationship with its two neighbours. But he ultimately had to accept the geopolitical reality that New Delhi was closer to Kathmandu than distant Beijing. The denouement, however, came during King Gyanendra’s reign (2001-06), when the last Shah rued bitterly that the Chinese were “fair-weather friends” at best. Today, the Maoist government in Kathmandu is trying to reinvented Birendra’s equidistance and Gyanendra’s equi-proximity theories of foreign policy. It remains to be seen just how far the self-declared acolytes of the Great Helmsman can travel to grow out of the shadows of their former benefactors in New Delhi.
In Islamabad, every demagogue, dictator and democratic leader since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has tried to balance Western influence with the weight of the Chinese. But the Karakoram Highway, Gwadar Port and the Chasma II nuclear power plants have failed to free Pakistan from American designs for West and Central Asia. Sri Lanka too tried to court the Chinese when the Western governments decided to leave the problems of the island at the doorsteps of New Delhi. Ironically, the strategy has offered better business opportunities to Beijing without commensurate gains for Colombo.
With the babus in South Block finally realising the folly of considering themselves China’s equals in international affairs, the shadow games between New Delhi and Beijing may soon come to an end. In response to this recognition, the Chinese may refrain from meddling directly in the backyards of New Delhi. Once again, an insistent empire has prevailed over the contingency diplomacy of an emerging democracy.
During the 1950s, Mao Tse-tung took it as an affront that Nehru considered China to be an absolute equal on the world stage. In the Chinese perception, India had been an open field for invaders and marauders when the empire in Beijing maintained its supremacy down the ages. Independence was gifted by the British to Indians, while the Chinese literally drove out the Japanese occupiers. Such comparisons used to infuriate Indians. But no longer. Now, New Delhi has accepted that if it can play second fiddle to the US in the Indian Ocean, cooperating with the Chinese elsewhere in the world can do no harm. Perhaps the dragon may finally loosen its grip over Southasia, and let the elephant dance.