A Missed Opportunity: Why 1970 Was the Best Year for a Breakthrough in India-China Ties

Had Indira Gandhi handled the crisis in Bangladesh in the true spirit of non-alignment without tilting towards one superpower, China may not have forged a strong alliance with Pakistan.

This is the second article in a two-part series on the events preceding the 1971 India-Pakistan war and US President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China. You can read part one here

Historical evidence suggests that 1970 was the best year for India to achieve a breakthrough in relations with China. Not that it would have been easy, but the conditions — internal, regional and global — were conducive to a bold initiative from India.

The Sino-Soviet rift in 1969, coupled with the fact that communist China’s rapprochement with the US was yet to happen, had opened a rare window of opportunity for India.

China was keen to break out of its isolation. Indeed, Mao’s slogan at the time was: “We must have friends everywhere in the world.” Kissinger’s great accomplishment was that he skilfully exploited this opportunity for his own country’s benefit. Sadly, Indira’s India failed.

Internally, China was in turmoil because of the Cultural Revolution, which had begun in 1966. Ultra-leftists, who had Mao’s backing, were creating chaos in the country. However, Mao had not fully succumbed to this ideological dogmatism in foreign policy, as could be seen from his readiness to make peace with “imperialist” America. This was also evident from Mao’s message to Indira Gandhi — “We cannot keep on quarrelling like this” — even though his own party’s propaganda branded India as “capitalist” and feudal”.

(A revealing aside: China was also one of the very few countries in the world that completely boycotted commemoration of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary in 1969. This doctrinaire aspect of Mao’s legacy has long since been discarded by China’s communist leaders. For example, in a major speech, titled ‘In Joint Pursuit of a Dream of National Renewal’, delivered during his very first visit to India in September 2014, President Xi Jinping paid glowing tribute to the Father of the Nation. He said: “Mahatma Gandhi once observed that China and India are fellow travelers sharing weal and woe in a common journey.”)

While these contradictions in Mao’s China were undeniable, Indian policy-makers attached too much importance to its anti-India propaganda, which often had anti-Indira overtones. They were also excessively influenced by China’s ideological support to the infantilist Naxal movement at the time, and its leaders’ ludicrous slogan “Chairman Mao is our chairman”.

A more farsighted design and adroit management of our foreign policy towards China, something Kissinger succeeded in, could have given India an opening to China in 1970, which could have been further consolidated in later years. Of course, in doing so, India would have had to skilfully balance its relations with both the US and USSR. But that was not impossible to achieve.

Also read: Mao’s ‘Smile’, Nixon’s ‘Frown’: What Modi Can Learn From Indira’s Mistakes in Befriending China

Where India failed was in correctly assessing the roots and nature of the Cultural Revolution, which was an outcome of deep ideological contradictions within the Chinese communist party. There was a large body of opinion even among its top leaders that was opposed to Mao’s dogmatic espousal of class-struggle — a basic concept in Marxism — as the driver of China’s development. Zhou Enlai himself held this opinion, even though he never opposed Mao. Others like Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Zhongxun (Xi Jinping’s father) advocated market-oriented economic reforms, and paid a heavy price for it.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cultural Revolution propaganda poster. It depicts Mao Zedong, above a group of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Moreover, these reformist leaders were in favour of friendly relations with India. Sadly, neither India’s political and diplomatic establishment, nor the civil society in general, nurtured strong contacts with this reformist section of the communist party, which was bound to triumph — and ultimately did triumph — after Mao’s demise (1975) and the collapse of the Cultural Revolution (1976).

The importance of this point can be better understood by looking at how Deng Xiaoping, who emerged as the paramount leader in the post-Mao era, reiterated Zhou Enlai’s compromise deal of territorial swap to end the boundary dispute. He did so twice. He offered it in his talks with India’s visiting foreign minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in 1979. He repeated it in 1982 when G Parthasarathi, India’s ambassador in Beijing, called on him. And the same was further reiterated by Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang to ambassador A.P. Venkateswaran in 1983.

All this shows a certain consistency in China’s desire to find a mutually acceptable end to the boundary dispute. Yet, there was also a consistency in Indian prime ministers’ inability to give firm and constructive responses to Chinese proposals. Indira Gandhi failed to achieve a breakthrough in her first term (1966-1977). Even engaging China in a meaningful dialogue on the boundary dispute was beyond Morarji Desai, who was heading a wobbly government that collapsed in its very second year. And when Indira Gandhi returned to power (1980-1984), she, not being as strong as she was in her first term, failed to seize the opportunities that had opened up in the Deng Xiaoping era.

But let us go back to examine why she failed to achieve any progress with China even during her glory years, and also why Mao’s China did not re-extend the olive branch to India after 1971.

Indo-Soviet Treaty was Indira Gandhi’s mistake, not a success

Perhaps the most important reason for the “no reply” from Zhou Enlai to Indira Gandhi’s letters was her decision to sign the “peace, friendship and cooperation” treaty with the Soviet Union in August 1971. China’s relations with its northern communist-ruled neighbour had badly soured by then. Therefore, Chinese leaders viewed this treaty as being directed against China, and they were not entirely wrong in this perception.

Also read: Backstory: Reading Between the Headlines in Times of Almost-War

In his paper, The Soviet Union’s Partnership with India, Vojtech Mastny, one of America’s leading Kremlinologists, tells us that, in 1969, USSR’s President Leonid Brezhnev had “linked the prospective Soviet-Indian treaty with a master plan for a collective security system in Asia, intended to contain China” and that “the USSR kept pushing for a pact with India against the “unpredictable enemy from the North’.” Moscow even warned India “that China’s “Smiles Diplomacy” was a ruse to make its territorial gains permanent through “gradual normalisation’.”

Indira Gandhi did not view it in anti-China terms. For her it was a security shield against Pakistan. Nevertheless, it greatly jeopardised her own plans for India-China rapprochement.

This begets an important question, which is rarely discussed by Indira Gandhi’s admirers: Did India really need the Indo-Soviet treaty? They view it as one of her great foreign policy successes since it is believed to have helped in the liberation of Bangladesh. In hindsight, it is clear that its negatives outweighed its gains for India.

Abdus Samad Azad, the first foreign minister of Bangladesh, with Indira Gandhi in New Delhi in 1972. Photo: YouTube/AP

As I shall shortly explain, this question becomes salient in the context of the Modi government’s desire to develop a security alliance with the US (along with two other members of the so-called ‘Quadrilateral’ — Japan and Australia) to contain China.

The crux of the Indo-Soviet treaty was Article IX, which stated: “In the event of either being subjected to an attack or a threat thereof, the High Contracting Parties shall immediately enter into mutual consultations in order to remove such threat and to take appropriate effective measures to ensure peace and the security of their countries.” In other words, the Soviet Union would come to India’s aid in the event of a war.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Realistically speaking, from where could India have faced a war threat in 1970 and early 1971? From the US? No. From China? No. From Pakistan? Yes. But did India really need any foreign power to fight by its side in the event of a war with Pakistan? No.

Post-1947, Pakistan’s break-up into two separate nations was a foregone conclusion. The nation Jinnah created was a geographical abnormality. Since neither the country’s military rulers nor West Pakistan’s political parties treated East Pakistan’s Bengali-speaking people as their equal, the independence movement led by Shaikh Mujibur Rehman was bound to succeed sooner or later.

Therefore, couldn’t Indira Gandhi have dealt with the crisis in Pakistan in a completely different way, without inking a security pact with the Soviet Union, which alienated India from both the US and, more importantly, China at the same time?

Had Indira Gandhi handled the crisis precipitated by the Pakistan army’s atrocities in East Pakistan in the true spirit of non-alignment, without tilting towards one superpower or the other, she could have achieved three strategic goals of vital importance to both India and the region. One, Bangaldesh would have come into being anyway, but India could have still retained some leverage with both the US and China. Two, Pakistan would not have turned as hostile towards India as it did. The rulers in Islamabad would not have so vigorously embraced the self-hurting policy of promoting Islamisation at home and terrorism targeting India, which made resolution of the Kashmir issue far more difficult than it earlier was.

Also read: ‘Two Steps Forward, One Step Back’: The Chequered Story of India and China’s Border Tensions

Three, China would not have forged such a strong alliance with Pakistan. It would have maintained a certain equidistant approach towards both India and Pakistan. The resultant accretion of mutual trust between India and China would have helped our two countries move towards a resolution of the boundary dispute.

It is worth recalling here that Mao’s China attached far greater importance to its ties with India throughout the 1950s. Indeed, it had cold-shouldered Pakistan’s proposal for boundary talks for a year because of its closeness to USA. (Pakistan had become the only Asian member of the US-led SEATO and CENTO treaty organisations aimed at containing the spread of communism.) Beijing inked the boundary agreement with Pakistan in 1963, only after its relations with New Delhi had nosedived.

How Indira Gandhi missed another chance to settle the boundary dispute in 1983

If Indira Gandhi missed the historic opportunity to respond to “Mao’s Smile” in 1970 by re-establishing ambassadorial relations with China, she missed another golden chance in her second term in South Block to actually settle the boundary dispute. Here is what happened, as revealed by Shyam Saran, our former foreign secretary, in his book How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century (2018).

We have earlier referred to a proposal (“package deal” to resolve the boundary dispute through mutual compromise) made by Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang to our ambassador A.P. Venkateswaran in 1983. This was in fact a reiteration of what Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping had earlier conveyed to India. The Chinese leadership (read: the all-powerful Deng) was keen on inviting Indira Gandhi “in her capacity as India’s leader and also as chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement” to visit Beijing to discuss the proposal. Saran writes that the Chinese side was even willing to consider a revised proposal put forward by Venkateswaran [the “package deal” plus China conceding some additional territory to India in the western sector] if “the Indian prime minister would be ready to visit Beijing”.

Venkateswaran conveyed this – through Saran, who was serving as a senior diplomat in the Indian embassy in Beijing – to G Parthasarathi, a key foreign policy adviser to Indira Gandhi. Saran writes:

“I met Parthasarathi at his residence in Delhi, armed with detailed maps to show what was being contemplated. I conveyed Venkateswaran’s view, which matched my own, that if the proposal [the “package deal” plus China conceding some extra land in Aksai Chin] was accepted by the Chinese, this would be the best deal we could hope to get.”

However, Saran adds, “Parthasarathi was not convinced. He was in any case opposed to the idea of Mrs Gandhi visiting Beijing. He kept referring to Chinese hostility towards Nehru and claimed that Mrs Gandhi still nursed bitter memories on that score. When I gently suggested that he should at least put this proposition before her he refused.” (As we have seen in the first part of this article, Indira Gandhi wanted to normalise India’s relations with China precisely because she was keen to leave those “bitter memories” behind.)

Venkateswaran himself later conveyed this to Indira Gandhi. But “she wanted to wait until after the general elections in 1985 before responding. Unfortunately, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards on 31 October 1984.”

Also read: How Nehru’s ‘Asianism’ Still Casts a Shadow on India-China Rivalry

What a sad déjà vu? India had missed an opportunity to settle the Kashmir issue with Pakistan in 1964, when Nehru sent Shaikh Abdullah to have talks with General Ayub Khan. The talks were positive, but Nehru died suddenly before Abdullah could return to New Delhi.

Six lessons Modi should learn from Indira Gandhi’s mistakes

The foregoing analysis of Indira Gandhi’s inability to achieve a breakthrough with India’s largest and most important neighbour China, and thus redress her father’s biggest failure of his prime ministership, has direct relevance for the current tense state of Sino-Indian relations. After all, why have the armies of the two countries had a violent face-off at the LAC in eastern Ladakh? Rather, why have so many violations of the LAC taken place since the war in 1962? Even more pertinently, why did the 1962 war happen at all? Couldn’t it have been prevented?

The answer to these questions lies in the fact that India and China have failed to reach an amicable, mutually acceptable and final agreement to end the boundary dispute. When a serious disease is not cured, mere palliatives to treat its recurrent symptoms will not work.

Sadly for India, Modi is nowhere near resolving the two big disputes with our neighbours that he inherited from the past — the boundary dispute with China and the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. This, despite the solid majority he enjoys in parliament and notwithstanding his reputation (in the eyes of his supporters) as the “strongest prime minister” India has had so far. Unless he wants history to record that he completed his prime ministership without resolving India’s dispute with China (and also the one with Pakistan), he must learn from Indira Gandhi’s three mistakes.

One: India must not depend on any external power – in Modi’s case, the US – as a security partner in a bid to increase its own power against China. Any such attempt through the so-called US-led ‘Quadrilateral Security Alliance’ is the surest way to antagonise China and further prolong the boundary dispute, which, in turn, will give rise to more violent standoffs along the LAC. No foreign power will come and fight alongside India in the event of a war with China.

Two: Every major power keeps its own interests at the centre of its foreign policy. Therefore, any asymmetry or excessive dependence in a relationship generates its own pressures to acquiesce. As the experience of the Indo-Soviet Treaty showed, the Soviet leadership at the time wanted partnership with India not because they shared Indira Gandhi’s objective of breaking up Pakistan, but because they wanted a large nation like India to be on their side against the US and China. Indeed, there is enough evidence to show that, during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, they stopped the victorious Indian army from advancing towards Lahore. They might have even prevailed upon Indira Gandhi not to insist on a final settlement of the Kashmir dispute in her talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto in Shimla in 1972.

Also read: There is a Global Dimension to the India-China Confrontation in Ladakh

Three: India should always retain her right and independence to voice her stand on regional or global issues based on what is right or wrong. Any unequal relationship, especially one with a security dimension, will weaken our freedom to do so, and diminish our stature in the international community. Again, from the experience of the Indo-Soviet treaty, we know how, and why, India failed to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978. Apart from proving to be seriously detrimental to the Soviet Union itself — indeed, the unwinnable decade-long war in Afghanistan hastened the demise of the communist rule in Moscow and disintegration of the USSR — it led to so many consequences extremely harmful to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the region as a whole.

If Modi chooses to join any kind of anti-China security partnership with the US, India’s voice will surely be muted in the event of wrongs committed by Washington. (As is well known, the US is in the habit of committing wrongs again and again.)

President Ford and daughter Susan watch as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger shakes hands with Chairman Mao Zedong. Photo: Gerald R. Ford Library/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Four: India should certainly develop closer and multi-dimensional relations with the US (just as China had done after the Mao-Nixon decision to establish diplomatic ties), but there should be no anti-China objective in them. Indeed, if Indira Gandhi had kept India equidistant from the US, the USSR and China, our country — indeed, all of South Asia — would have been in a far better state now in terms of both socio-economic development and security.

A friendly but equidistant relationship with the US, Russia and China (which, unlike in Indira Gandhi’s time, is now a major economic and technological power) will help India reap benefits from each relationship, while simultaneously contributing to others’ — and global — development and security.

Five: As mentioned earlier, Indira Gandhi could have better contributed to the birth of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation without permanently antagonising Pakistan. Sadly, many Indians at the time viewed the partition of Pakistan in 1971 as a revenge on Pakistan for having partitioned India in 1947. Therefore, the last thing Modi should do is follow the so-called “Doval Doctrine” of aiding Pakistan’s further break-up by supporting the “liberation” of Baluchistan.

Six: Indira Gandhi made the mistake of not having close advisors either in her cabinet or in the PMO and MEA who strongly shared her desire to befriend China. As we have seen in the first part of this article, she had conveyed her desire in no uncertain terms to Brajesh Mishra in 1968: “We are in a box in our relations with China. I want to get out of that box.” Mishra was too junior in the diplomatic hierarchy then to influence the thinking or the priorities of the PMO and MEA.

Modi is not only repeating these mistakes, but has also made his own contributions to them. Indira Gandhi’s cabinet had some stalwart ministers like C. Subramanyam, Yashwantrao Chavan, Jagjivan Ram, M.C. Chagla and Sardar Swaran Singh, who, at least on some occasions and on some issues, gave their own independent advice. She also had a powerful principal secretary in P.N. Haksar, who, notwithstanding his lack of interest in pursuing her thinking on China in 1970, often showed the courage of telling her (even in writing) where he disagreed with her.

Modi has surrounded himself with yes men — or those who want to sabotage any prospect of India and China agreeing to a compromise-based permanent solution to the boundary dispute. These are the very persons who want India to join hands with America in the “contain China” misadventure.

In view of repeated non-responses or negative responses from India, the Chinese have also hardened their position on the boundary question. To make things worse, jingoism is rapidly rising in China. Even though ultra-nationalist sentiments in Chinese societies are directed at the US (also Japan), these could turn increasingly against India if both countries make the mistake of allowing the undefined Line of Actual Control to flare up recurrently, with mass casualties on both sides. If Modi and Xi Jinping fail to resolve the Galwan Valley crisis peacefully, both could see a rapid erosion in their power.

Also read: ‘Chinese Behaviour Has Been Very Different From Anything in the Past’: Former NSA Shivshankar Menon

War clouds are hovering over the Himalayas. Failure to drive them away would only mean a monumental failure on the part of our two great nations to be guided by the wisdom of our civilisations. This wisdom has consistently proclaimed the unity of humankind, emphasised peaceful co-existence among all the nations and communities around the globe, urged a non-confrontational path to resolving disputes, and mandated mutual cooperation for the security and wellbeing of all the people on the planet.

None has articulated this wisdom better than Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote in 1942: “As a friend of China, I long for the day when a free India and a free China will cooperate together in friendship and brotherhood for their own good and for the good of Asia and world.”

Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age and tweets @SudheenKulkarni.