Why China's Strategy To Isolate India After Vajpayee Government's Nuclear Tests Failed

by Vijay Gokhale - Aug 1, 2021 02:40 PM +05:30 IST
Why China's Strategy To Isolate India After Vajpayee Government's Nuclear Tests FailedCover of the book 'The Long Game' by Vijay Gokhale
  • The problem was that the Chinese Communist Party and government did not have a proper measure of India, says the author and former Foreign Secretary of India, in his new book on bilateral relations between Asia's two biggest nations.

The Long Game: How The Chinese Negotiate With India. Vijay Gokhale. Penguin. Rs. 551 (Hardcover). 200 Pages.

So far as the Chinese handling of India was concerned, it was based on two assumptions. First, that the economic sanctions would make things increasingly difficult for India and force them to the negotiating table.

Second, that by directing the ‘spearhead’ against the BJP, they could use domestic opposition to the nuclear tests to weaken the Indian leadership’s hand.

Having pushed their ‘asks’ through a collective decision of the UN Security Council in June 1998, and established their locus standi in South Asia via the Clinton–Jiang Zemin Joint Statement of 27 June 1998, the Chinese presumed that the Indians would likely buckle to the demands, and the US would stand firm.

It was on these presumptions that they crafted their policy of building pressure on India. The policy was one of deliberate ‘cooling and isolation’ in terms of contacts. China insisted that they were the aggrieved party and had been slandered by India.

They used the Chinese proverb ‘whoever has tied the knot on the tiger’s neck must untie it’ (jie ling xi ling), to suggest that it was for India to make unilateral reparations by, metaphorically, untying the knot they had tied.

This was the Chinese way of laying down pre-conditions for India to fulfil before the restoration of normality in the bilateral relationship. As if on cue, the legion of Chinese ‘academics’ came out to justify the ‘party line’, including veteran India-watchers Ye Zhengjia and Wang Hongwei, both scholars of 1960s vintage, who harped on the Indian perfidy in dragging China’s name into the matter and thus creating a new obstacle for the development of India–China relations.

Given the paucity of direct access in China to decision-makers by foreign diplomats, most embassies carefully parsed academic writings from key Chinese think tanks affiliated to the Party and the government.

The Chinese, therefore, knew that Indians would get the message that China expected them to kowtow, and to make amends for falsely accusing the Chinese of being a ‘threat’, if the bilateral relationship was to return to the normal track.

The problem was that the Chinese Communist Party and government did not have a proper measure of India. Chinese scholarship on India had languished after 1989, when China turned its academic focus to the West and other more profitable markets. After the end of the Cold War, India fell further down in the foreign policy priorities of China.

As a result, by the late 1990s, the majority of Chinese experts on India were of 1960s vintage, and, therefore, out of touch with new developments in India.

There was no proper assessment of the positive impact of the 1991 economic reforms on the Indian economy and the new resilience it had gained since then.

The general impression of India among Chinese scholars was that of a country with a hobbled economy and a divided society. The economic crisis of 1990, the Mandal agitation, the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir all fed into this Chinese narrative.

Their expectations that the Indian economy would collapse under the weight of international sanctions was, therefore, misplaced.

Similarly, the Chinese Communist leadership had little understanding of the new political leadership in India. The International Department of the Chinese Communist Party was created for precisely the purpose of building a parallel channel of communication with world leaders, but the Chinese had grown comfortable in dealing only with certain political families in South Asia.

They did not make a proper effort to reach out to other political forces in India, and they also made the error of transposing their impressions of how the Congress Party conducted its foreign policy on to subsequent non-Congress governments.

As a consequence, they had no real political understanding of the BJP or its thinking. A lopsided impression of India, captured in a cartoon in the China Daily of 21 April 1999, nearly a year after the nuclear tests, showed the BJP falling flat on their backs and looking disoriented after launching a nuclear bomb, as if to suggest that Vajpayee and his government did not know what they were doing.

The disproportionate dependence of the Chinese on the Left parties in India, with whom the Chinese embassy in New Delhi maintained regular liaison, also influenced their thinking.

The Chinese may have thought that the Left had not been as enthusiastic as the rest of the political spectrum about the nuclear tests. The Chinese possibly presumed that the internal political differences might be utilised to influence the direction of India’s policy towards China in the post-May 1998 situation.

Since their understanding about India was not up to date, the Chinese policy of ‘cooling and isolation’ could not achieve the desired outcomes. As a result, the Chinese were unable to exploit domestic differences while, at the international level, the ring-fence that the Chinese had tried to create through a unified P-5 stand and the UNSC Resolution 1172 also began to rupture as Indian diplomacy started to work.

Vijay Gokhale is former Foreign Secretary, India. He served as ambassador of India to the People’s Republic of China from January 2016 to October 2017.
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