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The Fine Line Between Deception And Diplomacy Is China’s Strongest Weapon

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In this extract from How India Sees the World, India’s foremost China expert Shyam Saran decodes the secrets behind how the Chinese think and presents a sweeping history of the relationship – and border dispute – between India and China.

Deception as an instrument of statecraft is common to several cultures. In India, one will find its use being advocated in the Arthashastra and, later, in the Nitisara. There are innumerable examples of this in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana too. The Mughals used it to subdue their rivals. The British relied on it to extend their empire. But in China, deception is accorded a value more significant than in other cultures.

In the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there is a famous story called ‘Ruse of the Empty City’. Zhuge Liang, the famous general of the kingdom of Shu, was in danger of being besieged and overcome in the fortress city of Xicheng by the army of the rival Wei kingdom. His own forces were a good distance away and unable to raise the siege of Xicheng. Zhuge Liang ordered all the city gates to be opened. His soldiers were asked to dress as ordinary householders going about their daily chores. He himself went to the top of one of the city gates and sat there playing the Qin, a Chinese string instrument. The Wei general, Sima Yi, confronted with this strange spectacle and suspecting that he would run into an ambush if he entered the fortress, withdrew. Deception saved the day for Zhuge Liang. The story is celebrated as an example of how a stronger adversary can be pulled down by playing on his anxieties or creating false confidence in him.

Two instances illustrate how India’s lack of familiarity with Chinese strategic culture created a misplaced sense of assurance. During the early 1950s, Nehru took up with Zhou Enlai the matter of Chinese maps showing large parts of Indian territory as part of China. Zhou Enlai explained that they were old Kuomintang maps which had not been reviewed and revised. He did not acknowledge that they were wrong. Yet the impression created was that China accepted the boundary as drawn on Indian maps.

The other misunderstanding was about the Chinese position on Kashmir. Some months before the 1962 border war, secretary general in the MEA, R.K. Nehru, met Zhou in Beijing. Nehru drew Zhou’s attention to reports that China was leaning towards the Pakistani position that Jammu and Kashmir was disputed territory. He reminded the Chinese premier that on an earlier occasion when asked if China recognized Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, he had replied, rhetorically, “Has China ever said that it did not?” Now Zhou turned this same formulation on its head and asked Nehru, “Has China ever said that it did recognize Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir?”

In both instances, the Indian side did not press the Chinese to convey categorical and unambiguous assurances. If the Chinese had demurred, as they might have, we would have at least been better prepared to handle the subsequent problems we had with them.

There is a certain subtlety to the Chinese use of deception, which escapes most Indians.

In the Chinese scheme of things, the use of force is an essential and accepted way of pursuing national interests; and war is not necessarily an unmitigated evil. The Indian attitude towards the use of force and war is more ambiguous; it is often seen as a failure of diplomacy rather than as its extension, at least in certain circumstances. It favours force as a last resort only. We come across this even in our treatises on statecraft, in the Arthashastra and the Nitisara.

When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Beijing in 1956, he had a most interesting exchange with Mao on the nature of war. Mao suggested that war was not necessarily a bad thing since revolutions took place through war, emancipating countries and peoples. He suggested that the Second World War had created conditions for China’s liberation, just as it may have also allowed India’s independence. Nehru, on the other hand, drew attention to the new situation created by the advent of nuclear weapons, which could, in a war, threaten human survival itself. It was at this point that Mao made the chilling statement that even if nuclear weapons were used, China and India would still have several hundred million people left.

In analysing China’s foreign policy behaviour, and specifically its posture towards India, these elements of Chinese thinking must be always kept in mind. Without an understanding of China’s worldview and how it influences the country’s associations with other nations, it would be difficult for India to confront the China challenge.

It is against this background that we should look at India–China relations, particularly our border dispute.

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