Ever since Zhou Enlai resented Jawaharlal Nehru’s role of a chaperone at the 1955 Bandung conference in Indonesia, China has tried to demonstrate that it has inherited the mantle of the Middle Kingdom in Asia which places it well above India and others in the neighbourhood.
As such, it is for Beijing to set the standards of relationship. What is more, it wants to do so not by flaunting its high civilizational status but by behaving as a street bully which is even manifested in the rudeness of its officials noted by Queen Elizabeth II.
The reason for such uncouth conduct is perhaps that even after Mao Zedong proclaimed in 1949 that China has “stood up”, the country’s image resembled a deformed monster like Quasimodo for years who could not quite be admitted to the polite society of the international community.
India, however, had a place of honour in the diplomatic parlours right from its independence in 1947 because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s reputation of being a philosopher-king.
Mao in contrast was something of a country bumpkin. Only Zhou among the Chinese rulers had a sophisticated image. So did Liu Xiaoqi.
But their worldly ways mattered little against the background of the continuous turmoil in China during the blooming of the “hundred flowers” and the cultural revolution.
Quasimodo, therefore, was feared and disliked till Deng Xiaoping restored a semblance of order. But, despite the end of the Mao era, China is still feared and disliked because of its muscle-flexing which underlines an inferiority complex probably because it believes that totalitarianism and dismal human rights record mar its image.
Of all the countries, however, it is India which seems to bother China the most. Hence, its propping up of Pakistan even if the latter incubates terrorism, as Narendra Modi has said, and strenuous blocking of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
China also wants to keep the border issue alive by occasional intrusions into Ladakh and even Arunachal Pradesh on the plea of the haziness of the line of control. It is worth noting that Beijing has had no hesitation in accepting the McMahon Line of 1914 as marking the border between China and Myanmar, but not between China and India.
There is a signal in this absence of logic of China’s fear that despite India’s apparent military weakness vis-à-vis China, it is not a pushover. In fact, the border skirmish of 1962 has made India overcome its earlier romantic notion of a near-permanent friendship between the two Asian nations and bolster its defence preparedness.
From this standpoint, China’s incursions in 1962 were a tactical mistake. To what extent it achieved its avowed purpose of teaching India a lesson is unclear because China made no territorial gains although it may have acquired a psychological advantage even if it is now a diminishing asset.
In addition, China’s constant needling has led to India to move much closer to the US than ever before. Under Manmohan Singh and Modi, India has almost completely shed the kind of reflexive anti-Americanism which was a feature of its foreign policy under Nehru and Indira Gandhi with a focus on non-alignment.
The perception of the Chinese threat has also brought India closer to Japan and Vietnam in its neighbourhood and to Australia some distance away.
None of this would have happened if China had toned down its self-image of the Middle Kingdom as unrealizable in the modern world where the hegemony of the medieval times cannot be practised.
While nuclear weapons have made wars impractical, one-party governance and imperfect democracies, as in Pakistan, have boosted the stature of successful democracies like India with its accommodative multicultural norms which enable it to absorb with hardly any social tension those fleeting repression like the Tibetans.
For China, all these factors – democracy, social pluralism, India’s ever-increasing circle of admiring friends – are like a splash of cold water on the face on a wintry day, which acts as a reminder that it remains an outsider in the comity of nations despite its military prowess.
The outsider label is enhanced by India’s natural affinity to the Western world via English and its Indo-European heritage which emphasizes the closeness of Sanskrit and Latin.
China is also probably unable to understand how a “functioning anarchy” like India, to use John Kenneth Galbraith’s description, has not only survived (despite Winston Churchill’s dire prediction that “power will go into the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters”), but can be said to have prospered.
Indeed, the “cacophonous cauldron”, as former British high commission to Delhi, Sir David Gore-Booth, called it, is today a beacon of stability and economic growth in a region where the Pak-Af region remains a centre of terrorism and Nepal and Bangladesh are yet to settle down as democracies. Only Sri Lanka has managed to recover from its internal insurgency.
China, too, is yet to come to terms with its own restive Buddhist and Muslim populations in Tibet and Xinjiang if only because its draconian traditions frown upon the non-Han people. There is reason, therefore, for the resentment which Zhou Enlai felt in 1955 persists.