India-China conflict: A Renegade’s Reading

Fourth part: Indo-China, Soviet-China and China-Vietnam-Cambodia border clashes: ideological cousins fought over national pride and geo-strategic interests helping the US-led West

Mao’s conquest of Tibet and Xinjiang happened during the high days of Sino-Soviet camaraderie. But the relation between communist giants nosedived after the Indo-China border war in 1962 as Soviets blamed Chinese leadership for it. Moscow had long considered Nehru’s India as an essential ally to Moscow-led Socialist Bloc and accused Mao’s China of opportunism during the Cuban missile base crisis between the USA and USSR around the same time in the year. But Soviets found the Indo-China war a threat to their geo-strategic interests and a reminder of Sino-Russian tension over territorial disputes in Mongolia, Manchuria and Siberia at their Asian backyards after the defeat of Japan in WWII. As American historian and political theorist Paul Kennedy has later observed in his acclaimed book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Fontana Press, 1989), the Himalayan war was the decisive moment for Sino-Soviet rupture which will be sharpened more over their conflicting geo-strategic interests and military priorities leading to border clashes between the two nuclear-powered communist countries in late sixties.

Let us examine another perspective from within the then ‘socialist camp’. Che Guevara, the iconic revolutionary, then minister of Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, met both Mao and Nehru and Soviet leaders in the late fifties. He sensed the chill between the two Asian leaders prior to the border war. Jon Lee Anderson in his seminal work, Che, (Grove Press, New York, 1997) narrated how Nehru avoided ‘Mr. Commandante’s repeated questions on China and Mao during a ‘sumptuous luncheon’ in New Delhi in 1959 despite the Indian leader’s ‘amiable familiarity of a patriarchal grandfather’ and his ‘noble interest in the struggles and vicissitudes of the Cuban people’. The guerilla-turned minister who would later return to Jungles and hills in Congo and Bolivia had reasons to be sarcastic as Nehru did not embark on radical land reforms to free the peasants from landlordism as he had promised and communists of all hues were asking for.

Che was also keen on understanding the ‘Asiatic socialism’ of China, albeit ‘a bit despotic’ while being increasingly critical about Soviet party-state. He met Mao and grew identical ideas on ‘New (socialist) Man’ prior to the CPC chairman’s ‘Bombard the Headquarters’ campaign against ‘capitalist roaders’ within his party that heralded his Cultural Revolution in 1966. Nevertheless, Che was denied Mao’s ‘hallowed presence’ in 1965 as one of his comrades in the Cuban delegation did some ‘shouting’ and was ‘talking too much’ in a meeting with Chou Enlai and other leaders. The CPC wanted Fidel’s Cuba ‘to be more clearly identifiable as pro-Chinese’ vis-à-vis Soviets which neither Fidel nor Che could afford on military-political reasons, given the existential threats from neighboring USA.

Why did Socialist states fight each other?

It will be ahistorical to say that Ideological rifts have been mere smokescreen for material disputes between the ruling classes of countries and States in the name of their nations. But it will be an equally harmful caricature of history to shy away from calling a spade a spade. My earlier takes of renegade reading in the origin of Indo-China border conflict were about Mao and Nehru’s pursuance of the imperial legacies of their countries despite their anti-colonial and socialist, internationalist ideologies. It was provoked by queer mix of their nationalist prides and material, geo-strategic interests of their modern but ‘civilizational states’. The Dynamics of mutually overlapping nation-state ideologies and material interests and how they shape each other is not the subject of this review. Suffice to say that it was neither specific to any region and ideology nor it would be in the foreseeable future.

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An old villager in Gandhi cap garlanding Che Guevara during the Cuban team’s visit to a Community Project Area in Pilana Block near Delhi in 1959 I Courtesy: The Better India

The tumultuous Sino-Soviet relation too was governed by ideological as well realpolitik clashes between the two giant communist states since the 1960s. They were engaged in border clashes in pursuance of territorial claims-counterclaims by Qing (Chiang) and Tsarist empires even after Mao’s party came to control Beijing. Contrary to popular notion in the left circle in India, Sino-Soviet relations survived Nikita Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin at the watershed 20th congress of Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) in 1956. The new Soviet leader visited China even after that. But the rift became bitter over the mutual border disputes as well as the Indo-China border war.

Soviets had attained parity with Americans in nuclear weapons within a few years of US atomic bombing in Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Many left-liberal democrats and pacifists feared the arrival of days of ultimate destruction but communists welcomed it as the deterrent to the one-sided Doom by the capitalist world, pending the universal nuclear disarmament proposed by the Soviets. However, when Red China too achieved it in 1964, not all the socialist world did enjoy nuclear multi-polarity as Moscow was no less threatened than Washington DC. Although, Soviets had helped their Chinese comrades to build up the Lop Nur nuclear test base in 1959 in Xinjiang, Soviet experts were withdrawn from China the next year. Both their geo-strategic and ideological divergences were acute in 1964.

China went ahead with its hydrogen bomb project in 1967. It not only triggered full-fledged Sino-Soviet border clashes but also risked mutual nuclear annihilation in 1969-70. As Paul Kennedy observed in his book, The US bloc was happy with the growing Sino-Soviet rupture as Moscow had to deploy fifty divisions of its armed forces at China border even at height of Cold War with the West. Troubles with Chinese in Korean peninsula and Indo-China notwithstanding, Americans would not have sat tight had the Kremlin decided to destroy Beijing’s nuclear bomb infrastructure, he said. After all, an enemy’s enemy is always a friend irrespective of its color, goes the ancient wisdom.

Soviet tanks in red Hungary in 1956 and later Czechoslovakia in 1968 had divided communists, particularly, in the West. In the meantime, my generation in the East were taught to believe that ideological rifts between revolutionary Maoism and Khrushchevite Soviet revisionism on the question of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the US imperialism and its native ‘lackeys’, both dictators and democrats of various hues would be the life and death question for us. The resultant fratricide among communists in India and some other Asian countries that spilled over to early seventies was unparalleled. It reminded the tragic fights between communists and anarchists during Spanish Civil War that had also contributed to the further rise of Hitler and Mussolini.

Killing Fields of Indo-China

I still believed that Mao’s revolutionary impulses at home and across the ‘third world’ were genuine. But I could not stomach his decision to sleep with his earlier global ‘enemy number one’ America in 1972 and its replacement with ‘Soviet social imperialism’. My further disillusionment came after Vietnam-Cambodia and China-Vietnam border disputes that snowballed in full-scale wars in late seventies even if Mao was dead in 1976. But the tension among former allies in Indo-China evidently had grown during his twilight years after free Vietnam sided with Moscow.

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Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Ho Chi Minh had laid the foundation for India-Vietnam relations I Courtesy: en.nhandan.org.vn

To my disbelief, I later found that nationalists-turned communists who fought French and American imperialists together for 30 years also had conflicting territorial claims in the frontiers of their liberated lands, based either on the conquests by ancient Chinese-Annamese- Khmer kings- emperors or boundaries reshaped by Western powers later. Vietnamese led by Ho Chi Minh initially accused Mao’s China of trying to extend their empire into Indo-China like the rival Chiang-Kai-Shek regime and later pursuing a policy of Korea-like military-political stalemate to prevent unification of north and South Vietnam. According to Hanoi, it was part of Chinese moves for strategic Détente with America much before Nixon’s visit in Beijing in 1972. On the other hand, the pro-Beijing Khemer Rouge regime under Pol Pot blamed Vietnam for trying to impose an Indo-China federation on Cambodia and Laos to be the local big brother.

This led to ethnic cleansing of people of Vietnamese origin in the infamous Cambodian killing fields triggering border clashes and later full scale wars, first between Khmers and Vietnamese and then between China and Vietnam in the winter of 1978-79. The latter, just liberated from the US military after 30 years of bloody war, occupied Cambodia for 10 years and ruled it by proxy. Beijing stood by Pol Pot while Moscow supported Hanoi while Washington DC used the Khmer Rouge to contain Vietnam. The US continued jockeying the horses among its former enemies as suited its interests later on. Readers interested in that sordid saga of mutual slaughter of Asian communist-nationalists in details may consult A history of South-East Asia, by DGE Hall, (Macmillan, 1981) and After Tamerlane, the Rise & Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000  by John Darwin (Penguin Books, 2007) as well as publications from regional communist- nationalist parties of the period.

After the Soviet invasions in East Europe, these ethno-national wars close to home finally killed my belief in the rhetoric that ‘no socialist country attacks other’. Nevertheless, it is still a painful irony for our generation to see American Seventh Fleet now being deployed to safeguard Vietnam from China. Vietnamese party documents now hardly mention the role of Mao’s China in its liberation from the US.

Narrow Nationalism won over postcolonial Internationalism

I have already observed that Nehru was self-delusive in harboring a dream of rekindling an Indian influence zone in south-east Asia mainland and Indonesia-Malaysia peninsula across the strategic Malacca Strait in the Pacific-Indian Oceans region. His dream-scheme was partly nourished by the nostalgia for ancient Hindu-Buddhist trade and cultural influences in the region since the days of Chola-Pallava-Pandya maritime powers of south India coasts as well as land contacts through eastern Himalayas. His policies on Himalayan highlanders including Kashmir and Ladakh also followed pre-British and colonial patterns by and large. But he lacked both ideological conviction and military power of Mao’s China in pursuing India’s ancient legacy.

Mao was more chauvinistic in its military incorporation of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. It was aimed at ‘Chinese national unification and restoration of its territories’ won by last Chinese emperors of Qing dynasty and succeeded by the first republic of 1911. In continuance of the policies of rival ‘nationalist’ Kuomintang regime of Chiang-Kai-Shek, Mao also insisted on asserting Chinese civilizational soft and hard power on the old ‘tributary and dependent states’ in trans-border Red River and Mekong, Irrawaddy and Salween basins in south-east Asia. It too was based on claims created by shifting sand of borders in earlier centuries as well as on the current strength of Chinese Diaspora in the region.

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Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev in New York in 1960 I Courtesy: National Herald

Unfortunately, both of his moves became handy for West-backed national elite regimes in larger south-east Asia to whip up fears and rage about China in the fifties and sixties. Beijing was accused of further territorial ambitions by exporting revolution or regime changes with the help of Chinese settlers in the whole region. Chinese immigrants in Malaysia and Indonesia as well as Thailand suffered most. Regional communists, particularly those aligned to the Chinese party, endured genocides irrespective of whether they had waged insurgency or followed peaceful paths.

Today’s regional rivalries between China and its neighbors including Japan, Vietnam and Philippine around South China Sea today, both for onshore and offshore oil and gas exploitation and strategic sea-lane defenses, now painfully reminds the victory of nationalist realpolitik over lofty ideals of unity of the ‘wretched of the earth’ whom the idealist and internationalist Lefts- the heroes of our generation like Che and Franz Fanon– wanted to be together. Surely, our postcolonial rulers wanted to be the new drivers of the engine of global history, replacing the self-proclaimed ‘Shadow of God’s of medieval and early modern world after Timur to Vasco Ad Gama.

The hope for a new world was genuine As John Darwin has observed, postcolonial leaders across Asia from Kamal Pasha to Nasser, Nehru, Ho Chi Minh and Mao had grasped ‘the significance of Europe’s technological lead, and the social-cultural innovations that helped to sustain it’. Also, ‘they were attracted to the versions of modernity, while framed in the West, were bitterly hostile to its liberal capitalist values and imperial claims’. But these liberators later became demigods, weaved personality cults around their blotted egos and sought popular legitimacy in narrow nationalism as their failures piled up.

This reminds me of Rabindranath Tagore’s cautions to Eastern societies during WWI and early WWII. Underlining the need to learn from Europe’s positive and negative contributions to human civilization, the philosopher-poet in his lectures on Nationalism (available from multiple publishers) had displeased Japanese audience when he criticized the growing militarism of the land of the rising sun in 1916-17. “What is dangerous for Japan is not the imitation of the outer features of the West, but the acceptance of the motive force of the Western nationalism as her own.” Criticizing the emulation of the Western credo of ‘survival of the Fittest’, he warned the ‘nations who sedulously cultivate moral blindness as the cult of patriotism’ of a sordid end. ‘The spirit of Western nationalism’, he pointed out, teaches people ‘from boyhood to foster hatreds and ambitions by all kinds of means—by the manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races and the culture of unfavorable sentiments towards them…”

After the defeat of Japanese imperialism closer home in WWII, we hoped that China and India would emerge as the hub of non-militarist, non-expansionist variety of Asian multiculturalism within and beyond territorial boundaries in contrast to Western nation-state’s straightjacket nationalism that led to rise of Fascism and Nazism. Our ethno-religious-linguistic diversity which is steeped in our pluralist- syncretic traditions and our memory of colonial subjugation will remind us not to oppress others like the hegemonic West as Tagore had hoped. But that hope was gradually believed after the spirit of postcolonial peoples’ unity at Bandung conference in 1955 with the ‘struggles for succession between the rival claimants’ to the ‘title deeds’ of ancient eastern or modern Western empires.

Altogether, it led to the great miscarriage of the hopes of millions of Asians and their brethren across postcolonial world. Youth of my generation became gullible to the national and global elite power games despite shedding rivers of blood, sweat and tears in fulfilling their dreams of a ‘sea of humanity at the confluence of Mekong –Mississippi- Volga- Yangtze and Ganges’. Our children, both in big China and India today, are global in their material aspirations but most myopically local in their worldview, thanks to systemic inculcation of jingoist, hate and fear-mongering ‘patriotic education’ and political propaganda.

Biswajit Roy

is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

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