BY JAYANTA GHOSAL
In 2006, when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister, the Nathu La pass was reopened for trade between India and China. The event was organized by the Chief Minister of Sikkim. China withdrew their claim from Sikkim when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. The inclusion of Sikkim in the Indian map was a significant political development. Since then, China had asked for the trade route through Nathu La pass to be reopened. West Bengal’s then Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya did not turn up for the event though he was invited to do so and Sikkim’s Chief Minister was asked by the Centre to be present at the function.
At the time, relations between Manmohan Singh and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya were pretty good. For Bhattacharya’s vision for economic and industrial progress he was described as ‘India’s reformist Deng Xiaoping’, not just in India but by the foreign media as well. Manmohan Singh referred to Bhattacharya as one of the finest chief ministers of the country. For the Prime Minister to give this sort of certificate to a non-Congress chief minister was not an everyday matter.
It was against this backdrop that Manmohan Singh had requested Bhattacharya to be present at the Sikkim event. But the West Bengal Chief Minister declined the invitation. He met Manmohan Singh in Delhi and politely conveyed his inability to attend. He said, “Please forgive me, I am not able to put up with the opening of the Nathu La pass for China to import. I am very much aware of the fact how much we can export from India to China.”
Bhattacharya told me, “See I am a Communist from India. Whatever it may be, it is not my job to plant China’s flag on our land. What if I don’t become a Communist of that sort? By dumping their products on us, they’ll ruin North Bengal and I am expected to excitedly go to Sikkim!”
Although he didn’t turn up, there was pressure to send a West Bengal minister as a representative for the ceremony. But, as far as I can recall, the state government did not send any representative for the Nathu La pass reopening.
After listening to Bhattacharya, Manmohan Singh had told him, “Your reasoning is indisputable. Don’t worry. The opening of Nathu La pass is a symbolic step; this has been done to maintain diplomatic relations between the two countries. But I’ve made arrangements for strict security. I won’t let China indulge in dumping from there.” Bhattacharya had faith in Manmohan Singh.
Another incident: During this time, top government officials were discussing the issue of privatization and renovation of various ports. Chinese companies had approached the Indian government to get these contracts. The Chinese government had also started lobbying on behalf of the Chinese companies. In China, private companies are actually controlled by the government.
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra was National Security Adviser and Lal Krishna Advani was Deputy Prime Minister. Whatever differences they might have had on other issues, on China’s economic aggression both of them shared the same opinions. By placing the question of National Security before the Cabinet Committee on Security, any such allotment to Chinese firms had been stopped. Another member of the committee, Defence Minister George Fernandez, was also an open critic of China.
During the Vajpayee era, the Chinese did not get any favours. Later, when Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister, China took up the initiative afresh. Relations were quite good between then CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat and the Chinese ambassador to India. The friendship between China’s Communist party and India’s Communist party is no secret.
So the same ambassador invited Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Prakash Karat for dinner. Both received the invitation letter for dinner with the Chinese government emblem on it. Karat informed Bhattacharya that it was essential to accept the invitation. It would be rude if they did not attend. Dinner was dinner, and there was no scope for any formal discussion on any agenda or political planning; there would just be an exchange of ideas. Bhattacharya agreed to go. In a white ambassador of the central government, both went to the Chinese embassy.
During the conversation over dinner, the Chinese ambassador requested Bhattacharya to speak with Manmohan Singh regarding the allocation of contracts for ports to Chinese companies. He said the Chinese would be able to do the task well and this would result in better relations between the two countries.
Since the relationship of Bhattacharya and Manmohan Singh was good, the Chinese tried to use the West Bengal Chief minister to help get the green light for the Chinese companies. Bhattacharya told the ambassador to his face, “Comrade, national security is not under state government. This affair is the centre’s. And most importantly, security is a constitutional matter. As a Chief Minister, how cannot I poke my nose in it?”
Hence, even though there was faith in Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalisation and thinking on industrialization, Bhattacharya did not support China’s entry into India. Today, after so many years, I recalled all these old memories. But China, to date, has not altered its expansionist outlook.
Since 1949 and the establishment of the Communist regime in China, its diplomatic efforts have been focused on entering India. From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping there took place an immense transformation in China’s politics and economy. But, even during the Deng era, China did not change its policy on India — although Deng gave more importance to China’s expansion and presence in the Indian market than attacks on its borders. In plain words, China has had the same belligerence regarding its presence in the Indian market from that time till this day. This has been described by many experts as ‘The China Syndrome’.
The tension between India and China currently because of Aksai Chin and then after the Ladakh incident has become more significant and relevant. In 2012, Indian intelligence reported that China might attack India. Based on that, the Indian army increased its presence on the borders. The Chinese then stated that India was using the line “China will attack India” as a pretext to increase its army’s presence on the border. Even if there was no attack, the distrust between the two sides persisted.
When Barack Obama was US president, he tried to improve the strategic relationship with China. During such time, for the development of the Northeast areas, especially Arunachal Pradesh, India asked for a loan from the Asian Development Bank. But since China was unwilling to accept Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India, they raised an objection. Meanwhile, there was a belief in diplomatic circles, that Obama had a soft corner for China. For the record, the Asian Development Bank did not agree to provide the loan to India.
China informed America’s Pacific fleet commander that it was necessary to accept the Indian Ocean as an area under China’s influence. China said India’s thinking was that since the name was Indian Ocean, the entire area is under its control. China had also objected to the India–US nuclear agreement. In the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), China’s objection was registered. After that, in November 2008, in the light of the terrorist strike in Mumbai, Indian intelligence had the notion that alongside Pakistan even China had a role to play. For this reason, China could mount an attack on India’s borders — this was being suspected by Indian intelligence for a long time. In 2009, the visit of India’s Prime Minister to Arunachal Pradesh had angered China. And then the Chinese army made an intrusion through the Arunachal borders.
India and Japan are allies in politics. What angered China was how India was trying to bring the balance of power against it. The China which Nehru once pushed to make it a member of the Security Council, the same China was fiercely opposing China and Japan’s membership of the Security Council.
In 2007, some Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports regarding India and China were declassified. The name given was ‘Family Jewels’. Here it was stated that in 1962, the way Jawaharlal Nehru had highlighted India’s case in the world as a successful Prime Minister, it was top of China’s agenda to make fun of Nehru’s image. It was stated in the CIA report, “The Chinese aim was not only to demolish Nehru’s rising stature in the developing world but also to make sure that India’s rise as challenger to Chinese primacy in the region was nipped in the bud.” In this report it was also stated that China used the ploy that Indian Communists would sermonize that Nehru was actually America’s friend.
Today, after so many years, I feel that history repeating itself is natural. After Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, there was no doubt the he tried to raise India’s stature before the world. Even though he was friendly with China, he was not moved by the romance of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ (Indians and Chinese are brothers) nor has he always agreed with China. All this time, although China did not wage war with India with regular intrusions, they tried to stem India’s rise under Modi’s leadership in front of the world.
China did not get success in this attempt but there is no certainty that it will not attack India again. But, this time the Indian Army is geared up to give a worthy reply. India does not suffer from an inferiority complex.
(Jayanta Ghosal is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)