Workers give the finishing touches to the world's tallest statue dedicated to Indian independence leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam near Vadodara in western India's Gujarat state on October 18, 2018. Photo: AFP / Sam Panthaky

One of Karl Marx’ most quoted statements is “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Although Marx stated this to depict mid-19th-century France’s domestic politics in his rather slim volume of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, it resonates in international politics, particularly India’s China policy – doubly so.

First is the tragedy, because India lost its war with China in 1962. Despite China’s “resolute support” to India on the ground of the people’s struggle against “colonialism and imperialism” in taking back Goa from the Portuguese in late 1961, India, in the excitement of its success in Goa, fought against China less than 10 months later. It faced a humiliating defeat.

Then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru misread India’s alliance with the USSR by over-relying on his then pro-Soviet strategic aide V K Krishna Menon. Many Indians consider India’s defeat in the Sino-Indian war in 1962 a more prominent national humiliation than the approximately two centuries of British colonial subjugation.

Second is the farce seen this year. After the loss of 20 Indian Army servicemen, including the commanding officer, in Galwan Valley, Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi negotiated with Beijing, as the Chinese wanted to disengage in Ladakh on July 5.

Despite China’s prior offers of peaceful and mutual growth of the two “great civilizations,” Modi chose an alliance with the US by over-relying on his pro-US strategist, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic while China was under global pressure on alleged mishandling of the initial outbreak.

Although Modi committed the same mistake as Nehru, he went one step further in respect to China. Modi’s view on China resembles not Nehru’s but the latter’s home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, whom Modi calls the “greatest nationalist.”

Nehru’s mistake was to attack China by overestimating the USSR’s support amid the Cuban missile crisis. Although Nehru used to call China “expansive” in his confidential letters, he never called China “imperialist” or “expansionist” in public. He also never accepted Tibet as China’s territory.

Strangely, Atal Bihari Vajpayee recognized Tibet as the sovereign territory of China in 2003. China then started the process of recognizing Sikkim, a tiny Himalayan state that India annexed in 1975, as Indian sovereign territory. Vajpayee was the first prime minister from the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) that Modi now leads.

About a month after China “peacefully liberated” Tibet in October 1950, Patel sent a long letter to Nehru. He wrote: “Recent and bitter history also tells us that communism is no shield against imperialism and that the Communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include important parts of Assam….

“Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the Western Powers. The former has a cloak of ideology, which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lies concealed racial, national or historical claims.”

However, Nehru paid no serious attention to Patel’s paranoia.

After 70 years, Modi paid close attention to Patel’s letter to Nehru. Modi considers Patel his ideal and an ideologue of India’s “territorial nationalism.” Modi took the opportunity to capitalize on Patel’s “territorial nationalism” and “national unity” as the raison d’être ideology of the BJP.

By inaugurating a world’s tallest statue, of Patel, at the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Modi’s home state of Gujarat in October 2018, he wanted to message that he upholds Patel’s legacy of territorial nationalism.

Ironically, the 182-meter statue of the “greatest nationalist” was constructed in China by the Jiangxi Tongqing Metal Handicrafts Company. The ability to construct such a large statue was unavailable in India.

The spirits of Patel’s letter to Nehru on Tibet resonated in Modi’s army-commander-like speech on July 3 at Leh. Modi said, “The age of vistarvad [expansionism] is over; this is the age of vikasvad [development]. History is witness that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.” Modi further complicated the situation by calling China “expansionist.”

Responding to Modi’s “expansionist” jab, the spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Delhi tweeted, “China has demarcated [boundaries] with 12 of its 14 neighboring countries through peaceful negotiations, turning land borders into bonds of friendly cooperation. It’s groundless to view China as ‘expansionist,’ exaggerate and fabricate its disputes with neighbors.”

The source of Modi’s choice to call China “expansionist” was Patel’s letter to Nehru. However, history suggests that except during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, China always opposed “imperialism” and “expansionism.”

One of the main reasons behind the Sino-Soviet split in 1960 was the USSR’s “social imperialism” that Mao Zedong called out. Mao wrote an article in People’s Daily on July 14, 1964, under the title “On Khrushchov’s Phoney Communism” to criticize the USSR’s “social imperialism.” Mao built a foundation for the Chinese anti-imperialist and anti-expansionist policy.

Later, on April 10, 1974, speaking at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly, Deng Xiaoping underscored China’s anti-imperialist, anti-hegemonic and anti-expansionist stance.

Deng said: “China will never change her color and will always stand by the oppressed peoples and oppressed nations. If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression, and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

The late Chinese vice-premier and foreign minister Qian Qichen outlined further the basis of Chinese foreign policy in his speech at a special session of the General Assembly on its 50th anniversary on September 27, 1995. He said: “In international relations, to bully the small, oppress the poor, override the weak, impose own social systems and ideologies and values on others … all run counter to the spirit of the UN Charter.”

Words of the Chinese leaders reflect China’s actions. China shares a border with 14 countries, namely Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Vietnam. It has a border dispute with two of those countries, Bhutan and India. China’s dispute with Bhutan is a de facto border dispute with India.

China has peacefully resolved border issues with its neighboring countries. In some cases, China abandoned its claims and in a show of responsibility. For instance, in 1960, it gave up its claim over Mount Everest when the prime minister of Nepal at the time, Bishweswar Prasad Koirala, visited China and held a talk with Mao.

Koirala, in his autobiography Atmabritanta, writes that then-Chinese premier Zhou En-lai stayed for an additional day beyond his formal schedule of the state visit to Nepal to conclude the Sino-Nepal border dispute in 1960.

China also gave additional territory to Nepal while making a realignment of the border. The former director general of the Department of Survey of Nepal, Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, said, “Both sides exchanged villages in 15 Sino-Nepal bordering districts, with Nepal ceding 1,836 square kilometers of territory, and China was giving Nepal 2,140 square kilometers. The end result was that Nepal got an additional 304 square kilometers more.”

Many Nepali people see China as a true friend of their country because of its goodwill and mutual respect.

Besides, China has neither imposed its political and economic system, values, or ideology on any other country nor attempted any regime change. For example, China never supported Indian Maoist political parties directly. It didn’t support Nepalese Maoists either.

For its part, India always supports the “the West” in efforts for regime changes in the name of “export of democracy” and “expansion of freedom.” Meanwhile China has been fulfilling its commitment to mutual respect and peaceful co-existence as per Mao’s vision, and advanced by Deng Xiaoping and defined by Qian Qichen.

In contrast, India has tried to impose its values and political ideology, for instance, to declare Nepal a Hindu country while drafting its constitution in 2015. After Nepal refused Modi’s ideological pressure and adopted a secular constitution, India imposed an economic blockade against Nepal. 

If we look back to history, China has not annexed any country since Tibet in 1950. However, India added Goa in 1961 and Sikkim in 1975. India meddles in the internal affairs of its neighborhood. India operates a version of the Monroe Doctrine in South Asia. So no countries in South Asia support India in the Ladakh standoff because of its pro-Western China policy.

Modi’s allegation that China is “expansionist” is nothing more than a jab at China that looks like a farce.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.