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.