The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

As K M Panikkar noted, while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Arrian, the ancient Greek writer, contended that Indian kings refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent because it might have even been seen as morally incorrect. Thus, while the classical Indian tradition of realist statecraft leaves us with the assessment that in the raja-mandala the immediate neighbour is an adversary and the state beyond it an ally, in practice, this is tempered by the fact that this applied to subcontinental affairs only.

China, on the other hand, sees the world divided between the civilised world centred around itself, the Middle Kingdom, on the one hand and the world of uncivilised barbarians on the other. At the periphery of the Middle Kingdom (and still within the civilised world) lay the states who paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and professed to be in awe of its great civilisation. What this meant in practice was that the Han Chinese Middle Kingdom expected its neighbours to be tributaries—the concept of a sovereign equal simply didn’t exist.

These two disparate frameworks of international relations co-existed next to each other for the most part of human history because of the unique geography—the Himalayas acted as the strategic barrier between India and China and made large scale movement of people and goods impossible. Armies couldn’t cross the mountains and the disparity in their international relations frameworks didn’t actually clash. The Himalayas kept the peace between the two civilisations.

Until the twentieth century, when the advances in technology made it possible, for the first time in human history, to breach the Himalayan barrier (in a strict sense, the Himalayas had been breached once before in 649 CE). And when in 1950 Communist China annexed Tibet—as opposed to treating it as a tributary—India and China became neighbours. For India, this meant, in the Kautilyan sense, that China was now the ‘enemy’. For China, India was now a state on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom, and therefore a ‘tributary’. The Himalayan barrier fell, and placed two conflicting worldviews in direct confrontation. It is no coincidence that this led to military conflict in 1962 and 1967.

But if technology broke one strategic barrier it also helped raise a new one. Starting from 1974 and especially after 1998 nuclear weapons replaced the Himalayan mountain range as the factor that deterred war. The new strategic barrier will improve as India’s missile capability improves and brings key Chinese cities within range making a direct military conflict between the two very unlikely.

However, this does not mean that the underlying conflict has gone away. It has, on the contrary, intensified as today both China and India have regional and global strategic imprints. The Middle Kingdom is much bigger, forced to work within a system of sovereign states that is alien to it, even as its tradition would cause it to expect ‘tribute’ from its much larger strategic periphery. India is more comfortable among sovereign states and is beginning to work off a global raja-mandala.

The New Himalayas might keep the peace along the old ones, but they won’t stop the wider geopolitical contest that will take place in the coming decades. It is therefore important for the Indian mindset move beyond the five decades of the second half of the twentieth-century when the old barriers were down and the new ones hadn’t come up yet. The game has changed (See what the astute admiral said). To bring the global raja-mandala into balance, India must seek allies that lie beyond China.

7 thoughts on “The New Himalayas”

  1. Brilliant piece, as always, Nitin.

    What the Chinese emperors referred to as ‘Zhonghua’ or “Middle Kingdom” was perhaps the central part of China, to distinguish it from states around it. Rather than countries beyond its borders.

  2. Brilliant? More like amateurish. Nitin’s writing ignores the simple fact that things change, and they can change a lot in a few thousand years. More critically, he dismisses entirely the formative experiences of both China and India in the age of European Imperialism and how their experiences in meeting modernity formed their respective national consciousness.

    China is a Marxist-Leninist state in the very traditional sense governed under the auspices of democratic centralism. How has the dialectic of communism affected the weltanschauung of the Chinese body politic? Similarly for India, unlike the silly retroactive continuity applied to past Indian political history to mold it to fit contemporary gandhigiri, is the direct inheritor of an extremely aggressive and expansive imperial legacy. How did British impressions of statecraft and it and India’s role in the world percolate down to Indian political thinkers of today?

    These are questions that need to be answered before one can simply stick their proverbial head in the hole and blithely assume that all of China’s policies devolve from it’s idealized role as an imperial hegemon and all of India’s stem from being Ahimsa loving sadhus.

  3. Jingji,

    It is hard to completely overthrow 3000 years of civilisational ethos. Why is China pushing tian xia philosophy and setting up ‘Confucius’ institutes?

    And btw, ahimsa loving sadhus are a recent phenomenon. Even they didn’t influence Indian geopolitics much. The Brits did, but as the link off this post shows, their colonial subjects quickly went back to their old, subcontinent focused, ways.

  4. This is one area where I think we will just end up agreeing to disagree. Civilizational “ethoses” are nebulous things and bound by wildly varying interpretations depending on the individual. I don’t believe they serve a valid purpose in logically explaining actions so much as rationalizing worn out tropes.

    The Confucius institutes are just side irrelevant side shows, more useful in keeping some Chinese bureaucrats ass warm with a job than anything else. One has to learn to distinguish what is essential and what is tangential. China’s present political and economic relationships with other nations are actually quite distinct from historical trends. They bear a much closer relationship to Portugese and Dutch patterns during the early colonial era than they do their direct Ming and Qing predecessors.

    Panikkar succinctly states the different approaches to foreign policy between the British and post independence India. While he attributes this to a “we are like this onlee” passivity, I think he ignores the grossly different priorities between Imperial Britain and India. Simply put, Britain was a globe spanning empire of interconnected regions held together by military force. India is not. It was only natural that Britain would be extremely invested in say Egypt, it was their colony after all, while India would be indifferent. British policy was guided to varying degrees by their citizens at the metropole and the ambitions their colonial administrations. The desires of their colonial subjects suffice it to say was secondary to these. After independence, the vision of India’s government shrank. They naturally no longer cared about control over Gibraltar or the Suez because while these were critical to the maintenance of the British empire, they weren’t so to a new India. Just as important, the new government had an entirely new people to whom they were responsible to, Indian citizens rather than the machinations of London, as to where they should place their limited resources to focus on.

    Also Panikkar’s criticism of Indian foreign policy requires a more closer reading in between the lines. His very membership as part of the Indian political establishment means that his views of how wide India’s scope should encompass are not heterodox, they might not be the dominant one at the time but they are hardly isolated to just him. One has to keep in mind the circumstances of the time, most critically the single-handed nature in which pandit Nehru ran Indian foreign policy by fiat based on personal whim.

  5. Jing writes:
    “China is a Marxist-Leninist state in the very traditional sense governed under the auspices of democratic centralism.”

    What kind of worthless horse manure is this? Since when this centrally controlled communism become “democratic centralism”. I suppose by similar definitions Uganda under Idi Amin was “democratic autocracy”. By redefining the meaning of commonly used words, one can claim any nonsense, as Mr. Jing seems to have done by defining a communist oligarchy that rules china as “democratic centralism”.

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