Former Soviet Union Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev pictured in 1963. Photo: AFP

The two great communist nations of the 20th century were expected to be staunch allies but escalating disagreements between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and China’s Chairman Mao Zedong resulted in the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War. But the key role in causing the split to contain the Soviet Union was played by the United States and India was a crucial part of the grand strategy, in the view of Atul Bhardwaj.

How the relationship between India and the US evolved between 1942 and 1962 and the road to the Indo-China War of 1962 are the central themes of Bhardwaj’s latest book India-America Relations (1942-62): Rooted in the Liberal International Order, published by Routledge.

Bhardwaj, an honorable research fellow at the Department of International Politics at the University of London, examines the role of the US in shaping the international position of post-colonial India in this book excerpt:

The term “Titoism” became famous after Joseph Stalin and Josip Broz Tito denounced each other’s communist parties and parted ways in 1948. From then on Tito, a professed communist, got closer to the US and other Western powers.

The Americans expected Mao to be their Tito in China. The term was so much in vogue that it was mentioned in an article published in the Times of India, an English daily, on the subject of the Sino-Russian tussle over Xinjiang, located in Northwest China, in 1949. The article said that Moscow was keen to exercise control over affairs of Xinjiang “for economic and strategic reasons, not least of all because Mao might still decide to do a Tito.”

Initially, Britain with its territorial interests in China thought of mediating between the US and China. APJ Taylor even proposed that Britain should be “America’s Tito” to strengthen an effective “third force” in a bi-polar world. However, this proposition did not fit into the American grand strategy, which would have required an acrimonious Anglo-American relationship to win China’s trust.

The NATO alliance could not afford this display of Anglo-American rupture. The job of mediation and feigning neutrality fell in Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s lap. It was something that Nehru and VK Krishna Menon were more than willing to perform as it matched their worldview and gave them the leeway to popularize the idea of “non-alignment.” They did not want India to align with any bloc or alliance led by the US and the Soviet Union at that time.

Alternatively, it could be argued that Britain did assume the role of “American Tito” and an “honest broker” in Asia but rather than self-performing the task, it outsourced the job to India. Much like India, Britain too differed with the American policy of not giving recognition to China, at a time when a “special partnership with the US was important for it to feel that it [Britain] had not lost everything.”

Ever since the communist victory in China, the Soviets feared Mao would follow Tito in promoting anti-Sovietism. After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev decided to pre-empt Mao’s move by getting closer to the West. Khrushchev made a departure from “past principles” (e.g. the repudiation of the inevitability of war and the abandonment of the concept of capitalist encirclement).

In July 1955, Soviet leader Khrushchev sat together with US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet at the Geneva conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy that encouraged cooperation among nuclear scientists from both the blocs.

If Khrushchev and Premier Nikolai Bulganin visited India towards the end of 1955, they also went to Britain in April 1956. Khrushchev “signed cultural agreements with Norway and Belgium in 1956, and England and France in 1957.” Khrushchev started sending positive signals to the US, and in 1957, Washington responded by sending delegations to the Soviet Union. On January 27, 1958, the Zarubin-Lacy agreement was signed between the Soviet Union and the US. The “Agreement” ‘entailed exchanges in multiple fields, such as science, technology, agriculture, radio and television, film, government, publication, tourism, and exhibitions’.

In 1959, Khrushchev took the unconventional diplomatic step of landing on American soil to ease Cold War tensions. The Soviet move to rekindle its relations with America may have been guided by a desire to exploit the “division between the aggressive and pacifist bourgeois state in capitalist countries.” However, the Soviets ended up accelerating the prospects of a Sino-Soviet split, the mainstay of American “containment” strategy. America had successfully initiated a game of one-upmanship between China and the Soviet Union.

The Chinese were not happy with Khrushchev’s ideological deviations because they felt that US peace gestures were not sincere. After completing his US tour, Khrushchev arrived in Beijing on September 30 to participate in the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. During his speech, Khrushchev warned against taking on the capitalist system by force of arms.

The Chinese differed with Khrushchev’s disarmament initiatives because according to their strategic assessment, the US monopoly financial groups that earned huge profits from the arms industry would never allow the disarmament process to succeed. Moreover, the Chinese felt that the “Soviet search for detente was disorienting the masses and undermining their resolve to carry on an unrelenting struggle for the defeat of world imperialism.”

The prospects of a Sino-Soviet split was aggravated when Moscow took a “neutral stance after a shooting incident on the Sino-Indian border on August 25, 1959.” They added fuel to the fire by offering India aid and military assistance. When Tito advised the Soviets to adopt a “pacifying” role in the India-China dispute, the People’s Daily blamed “the Tito clique” for exposing themselves “as a group of renegades betraying socialism, hating socialist China and sowing dissensions among the socialist countries.” When Tito had visited India in January 1959, The People’s Daily had similarly accused him of trying to “peddle wares that suit the need of imperialism.”

Nehru was aware of the American grand strategy of causing a Sino-Soviet schism. In early 1953, a letter by US diplomat Chester Bowles to the US president and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said that the “basic objective of our (US) foreign policy should be to bring a rift between the Soviet Union and Communist China.” Bowles had spoken about this objective to Nehru, who was convinced that this was necessary to avoid a third World War. “Nehru was the protagonist of the view that China is Asian first and Communist next. He held the belief that if the non-socialist countries extend contact with China, she might become more independent of the Soviet Union.”

Speaking about the possibility of a split among the communist giants, Bowles reported at the Psychological Board Meeting held on 12 June 1952 that the Indian delegation was convinced that the “emergence of an independent China, not necessarily pro-West China” was needed to change Russia’s confrontationist approach to America. Nehru was of the opinion that “anything that tends to push or play into Russian minds by pushing China is a mistake.”

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