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How China Wrested the Mantle of Asia's Top Military and Industrial Power From India

Updated on June 14, 2020
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A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.


Much water has flown down the river since 1947. This year is a watershed in the history of Asia as it marked the end of the British Empire and the emergence of India as an independent nation. To the credit of the British, they left behind an edifice for India to achieve great power status.

They had expanded the Indian state to a much greater area than ever before. They Incorporated Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of India. They established Tibet as a buffer state and China was caged with the 1913 Simla agreement. They left behind a battle-hardened army of almost 500,000 soldiers which arguably at that time was the finest fighting machine in Asia. Japan had been destroyed by two atomic bombs and carpet bombing by the United States Airforce while China was enmeshed in a civil war which was like a life-and-death struggle between the Communists and the Kuomintang.

The Indian leadership which took over the country was not attuned to Geopolitical leadership and domination. Most of the leaders from the Congress party, which had spearheaded the agitation against British rule had spent their entire life either fasting as a political weapon or doing satyagraha and mass civil disobedience movements. When catapulted to power these leaders led by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru could not shake off the subservient attitude of nearly 900 years of Indian history. The Muslims had ruled the country for 700 years followed by the British for 200 years. For these leaders the bigger issue was imperialism and they failed to realize that imperialism was dead and gone in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. The Indian leadership thought that if they were peaceful and treated everybody in a friendly manner the other countries would respect India and everything would be fine.

China had a tortuous history and for the last 150 years had been exploited to a great extent by the European powers and Japan. This led to the rise of the Communist Party in China which now began to wage a war against the American supported Nationalist party. After the end of World War II, a civil war commenced in China that lasted for three years and during this period China was severely ravaged.

The communists under Mao Tse Tung won the Civil War and established a communist regime. They came to power in 1949 with a one-point plan to restore the glory of ancient China. In its heyday China was known as the "Middle Kingdom" the center of the world and Mao wished to restore China to that status. He had a geopolitical concept of the world and realized that political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. He adopted an aggressive policy and unlike India's pacifist approach he was both ruthless and single-minded.

This was the basic difference between China and India. The Chinese leadership had the vision to dominate the world and Asia while there was no such ambition in the Indian leadership. This difference in outlook led to India losing the leadership of Asia and just becoming an ordinary power.

1962 War and China's Rise

In 1962, the Chinese Army under the orders of the Central Committee of the Communist Party launched an attack on India. Relations between India and China had been tense for almost a decade as in 1955 India came to know that the Chinese had occupied 30,000 mi.² of the territory called the Aksai Chin. I will not discuss how this happened here but suffice it to say despite coming to know that China had occupied this territory way back in 1955 Pandit Nehru the Indian leader made no attempt to bolster the Indian Army and position troops on the border with China. The Indian border was very lightly policed and the soldiers not acclimatized to mountain warfare at high altitude. The army also lacked modern weapons but the bigger problem was a complete lack of will to face China.

The airforce was not used. On the contrary, as brought out by Air Marshal Borbora in a TV interview the political leadership asked the air force to destroy their planes at Tezpur airbase and make good their escape. After 20 days fighting the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew from all the area which they had occupied. This was partly due to the intervention of John Kennedy President of the United States who ordered an airlift of arms to India on a request from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

From 1962 to 2014 the northern border with China has remained generally peaceful. However on a number of occasions the Chinese would intrude into Indian territory and after staying there for a few days would go back. Their aim was to show the flag and the Indians government made no attempt to oppose them. The Indians still maintained small numbers of troops on the border so as not to antagonize China. In addition, there was very little buildup of infrastructure on the border in terms of road and rail for quick movement of troops. This pleased China which now began to feel as the number-one power in Asia.

From 1989 onwards Chinese economy also took a space flight to the moon and began to grow exponentially. As things stand the Chinese economy is almost $14-$15 trillion compared to India's 2.6. The per capita income also of an average Chinese is five times of India. The Chinese also built a massive infrastructure in Tibet as well as a railway line to Lhasa. Much of the rise of China was due to the billions of dollars in investment and FDI poured in by the western powers particularly the USA.

The advent of Narendra Modi as the prime minister of India is the first fly in the ointment for the Chinese eye. Modi entered into a strategic relationship with the United States and for the first time, India began to buy American arms. He also sanctioned long-pending projects for infrastructure development in the border regions. He further changed the equation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir by abolishing article 370 and at the same time dividing the state into two union territories.

The Chinese did not like the change in the status of Ladakh which became a union territory and they came out with a theory that as India had changed the status of Ladakh the four border agreements with India were void. This has led to repeated violations of the line of actual control.

Perhaps Narendra Modi did not anticipate the Chinese reaction as he assumed like Nehru that personal diplomacy would see India through. He met President Xi 9 times over the last few years but no tangible result has emerged.

China is repeatedly intruding into Indian territory and again the old story of waiting for the Chinese and hoping they'll go away is being repeated.

China's rise

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was much thinking in China as to what went wrong for the USSR that it collapsed like a pack of cards. The Chinese realized two things. Firstly, the Soviet policy ushered in by Gorbochov of Gassnost was the major reason. The second was the economic development of Russia that had stalled with too much concentration of economic activity at the hand of the state.

The Chinese leadership took steps to rectify these problems and in 1989 they ordered a crackdown on student agitators asking for democracy in the famous Tiananmen Square. It is estimated that 3000 to 5000 students were shot dead and even tanks were used. The Communist Party made it plain that it would be the only party that will rule China and no dissent will be tolerated.

The Chinese also in a daredevil move did away with socialist doctrine and opted for a market economy. In a way, they accepted the capitalist economic theory and amalgamated it with the Communist doctrine.

The West led by the United States was completely fooled by the Chinese who invited FDI( Foreign Direct Investment)from the West. Thinking that China would now be a responsible member of the world polity of nations the West poured in billions of dollars of FDI into China including the transfer of technology. Western companies were of the view that they would have a very good time selling their goods in the vast Chinese market.

The Chinese are very adept people and they not only copied whatever was being made in China under license but also used the spy technology to get plans of technology which otherwise they didn't have. They also did reverse engineering and were able to duplicate sophisticated planes, guns, and other equipment.

In three decades the Chinese jumped to the second position in the world economy with the GDP of almost $14 trillion. They overtook countries like Japan and Germany and began to offer goods at 1/3 of the price made in those countries.

As Nehru had said in his 'Discovery of India' - a strong China is always an expansionist China. This had its result and a strong China now began to exert its self all over the globe. Its actions on the Indian border are part of its grand scenario. It has also claimed the entire South China Sea as its own backyard and had threatened Taiwan with an invasion.

The Chinese want to do away with the humiliation of 150 years when they were at the receiving end from the western powers and had to give them special privileges like ceding Hong Kong and other places.

The Chinese leadership led by President Xi has now decided that the time has come that China should be the number one power in the world.

The West grievously underestimated China and now they are nonplussed as to how to react to China.

In all this, the Indian elephant has moved very slowly mainly because of inherent contradictions and the founding fathers having opted for democracy. The net result of this was that the Indian economy did go up but it nowhere matched China. Moreover, the Indians created the image of a pacifist nation and nobody was prepared to take India seriously. We can see that even Nepal now has laid claim to Indian territory and has amended its constitution accordingly with a new map of Nepal.

China understands that the only power that can stand up to it, is India because it maintains a formidable army and air force. The Chinese have ringed India with enemy countries like Pakistan and now Nepal. The Indian leadership which lacked strategic comprehension of world politics failed to match China. With a 14 trillion economy and the world's biggest army, even Japan is wary of China as the Japanese militarily have nothing compared to what China has.

Last word

The United States has realized that China cannot be trusted after the spread of the Wuhan virus. We do not know whether it was a Chinese plan or it inadvertently escaped from a laboratory. Whatever it is, China didn't play fair and square with the result that other than China, the industrialized world and India have suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties.

India has also realized that China cannot be trusted as the Chinese agree for one thing but then start needling at another place. The world will have to decide how to face China and I do feel that the only country that can upset the applecart of Chinese is India. If the Indian leadership can jettison the old concept of the 'meek and mild Hindu' and put pressure on China perhaps the Dragon can be caged.

China has many Achilles heels particularly in Tibet, Hong Kong. Sinkiang, and Taiwan. If the West and India play their cards adroitly I see no reason how an implosion inside China may not take place leading to a break-up of the communist state. If that does not happen and the world loses its resolve. then be ready for rule by the yellow peril.


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