The recent clashes in Galwan between India and China are a stark reminder of how complicated the relationship between the Elephant and the Dragon is. Why does the relationship need to be so complex?
A multitude of experts has weighed in on the issue. Some of them say that China is diverting attention from its own domestic troubles; others say that China wishes to clearly establish its Asian dominance and is thus prodding of India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Australia in a multitude of ways; yet another group believes that India is equally responsible for the mess it finds itself in because of the lack of a consistent China policy over decades.
The problem is that India sees the relationship’s history only through the prism of 1950 and thereafter. That was the year in which the People’s Liberation Army took over Tibet (subsequently Aksai Chin too) and the relationship began deteriorating.
The two countries then went to war in 1962 and India was hopelessly unprepared. The war lasted just a month but 1,383 Indian soldiers and 722 Chinese soldiers died. Thousands were wounded. Around 3,900 Indian soldiers were captured and taken prisoner by the Chinese.
The 1962 war was followed by several other border skirmishes including the 1967 clash at Nathu La (which India decisively won), the 1987 face-off in Sumdorong Chu, the 2017 battle for Doklam and the most recent one this year in Galwan. Quite naturally, the mere mention of China gets India’s hackles up.
But China sees its foreign relationships in the context of a much older and wider prism. Three thousand years ago, the Zhou monarchs believed their empire occupied the middle of the earth. Hence, China was called Zhongguo (or "Middle Kingdom"), a glorious empire surrounded by barbarians. The subjugation of the barbarians was a duty. Other kings would necessarily have to submit to Chinese hegemony for this construct to work. An alliance between China and India, by definition, would be one of master and vassal under the Middle Kingdom approach.
China’s foreign policy and military maneuvres are not only based on their Middle Kingdom approach but are also influenced by Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Sun Tzu says that all warfare is based on deception. When able, we should seem unable. When we are in action, we must seem inactive. When near, we should seem far. When far, the enemy should think we are near. While China has not forgotten its history and its ancient wisdom, alas, India has.
If China can look to Sun Tzu, India has Kautilya, whose strategic and economic views are no less profound. Kautilya says if the ends can be achieved by non-military methods, even by methods of intrigue, duplicity and fraud, armed conflict is not advised. Any activity which harms the progress of the enemy engaged in similar undertakings is also to be considered progress. But most importantly, Kautilya’s Arthashastra emphatically says that the prosperous one becomes the victorious one. Why did we pay no heed to this fundamental truth?
India’s prism needs to change. India’s linkages with China go back centuries. It was a Pallava prince, Bodhidharma who took south Indian martial arts such as Kalaripayattu and Silambam to Shaolin, thus resulting in a new technique called Kung Fu. Similarly, Buddhism travelled from India to the White Horse Temple in Luoyang and then spread not only within China but also to the rest of the world. Chanakya’s Arthashastra talks of Chinese silk that was imported into India and was highly valued.
The traveller Xuanzang was not only enthralled by his stint at the world-famous Nalanda university but also ecstatic to taste sugar candies that he had never experienced before. Through the British, China gave us tea. While the Himalayas gave us natural protection, our economic strength also played a vital role. Why didn’t we fight wars with China for most of history?
In 1960, the Chinese GDP (at 2010 constant dollars) was $128.3 billion. India’s GDP in that year was $148.8 billion, significantly higher than that of China. But China overtook India in 1978 when its GDP was $293.6 billion in comparison to India’s $293.2. Effectively the two countries had almost equal GDP in 1978.
But after that, the gap between India and China only kept worsening. By 2019, China's GDP was 4.78 times that of India. Successive governments in India thought that they could fight Chinese aggression through military or diplomatic means, completely ignoring the fact that economic imbalance would be our undoing.
I have always believed that India is a land of thinkers but we slip up terribly on execution. This is fundamentally what separates us from our Asian neighbours such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia that pulled themselves out of destruction or poverty by simply following the Nike philosophy of "just do it".
I truly thought that this recent Covid-19 pandemic was the perfect opportunity for the Elephant to face the Dragon. India has taken bold decisions when faced with a crisis. The pandemic was the perfect crisis to spur bold and transformative thinking that could allow us to leapfrog and set the balance right. But we are still plagued by incremental thinking. Unfortunately, it’s the equivalent of attempting to cure cancer with Paracetamol.
Everything that India needs to do is already known to us. We do not need fancy consultants to tell us. We simply need people to get it done. Cut bureaucracy down to the bone; make tax compliance simple and easy; use out-of-the-box solutions for education and healthcare; cut the pendency of litigation; modernize police machinery; push harder on agriculture reform (announced recently); boost urban infrastructure; untangle the plethora of rules and regulations that hold back entrepreneurship; make ministers accountable for 2-3 key deliverables during their tenure.
It is usually believed that elephants cannot run. But science has recently determined that elephants use a trick called “Groucho” to reach speeds of 25 kilometers per hour. Even though their four feet never leave the ground simultaneously (a key characteristic of running), elephants manage to bounce around their centre of mass much like the exaggerated walk of Groucho Marx. It’s time for the Indian elephant to ditch Karl Marx for Groucho Marx.
The truth is that the real dragons that we need to fight are not only beyond our borders but also very much within.
Ashwin Sanghi ranks among India’s highest-selling English fiction authors. He has written several bestsellers including Chanakya’s Chant and The Krishna Key. Most recently he has written The Vault of Vishnu that explores the ancient relationship between India and China.