Modern nation States, formed after the collapse of colonial empires, defined territorial integrity as the yardstick of national interest. Interventions such as culture, language and religion have shaped choices too, but essentially these too sought to represent themselves within the frame of territory. It is this boundary that has led nations into conflict and shaped their choices. Not ideology.
The evolution of Chinese foreign policy is instructive. Communist China was strongly supported by the Soviets during the first decade of its emergence. China’s fledgling Communist Party and all other communist parties, including India’s, were guided by the Stalin-led Comintern after the 1920s. They provided the educated manpower, helped build the power plants and, of course, the ugly Soviet-style buildings. And they defined foreign policy interests. After Stalin’s death, serious differences erupted within the communist movement. Dubbed as different interpretations of Marxism, this split demonstrated China’s commitment to its national integrity as more important than its fraternal and ideological ties with the Soviet Union. Relations between the two countries rapidly deteriorated and by 1959, border skirmishes were reported between the two nations. By 1960, the ideological leadership of the Soviet Union had been totally rejected by Mao and by 1961, the Soviet Union withdrew its advisors and other help.
In India, the consequences of the Sino-Soviet split were reflected in the split within the Communist Party of India into the CPI(M) and the CPI. The CPI(M) was, and is still, known for its pro-China line and this is visible in their opposition to India’s growing engagement with the US and to its strategic exercises with other regional democracies. Both parties remained virulently anti-American. And they continue to make this pathological anti-Americanism their chief foreign policy plank.
A closer look at Sino-US ties will show that realpolitik, not ideology, has always been the basis for China’s foreign relations. Today, this should be the basis for Indo-US relations — and even India-China relations. This was the basis for Henry Kissinger’s Pakistan-mediated 1971 visit followed by Nixon’s visit to its one-time arch communist enemy in 1972. This was truly a paradigm shift and China has never looked back since. For China, it was the ticket to the international stature it enjoys today. China became a member of the Security Council and enhanced its international stature. It also gained access to American technology and contact with the West.
The US, in return, dumped Taiwan unceremoniously from the United Nations and opened its doors to China as a strategic partner to balance the Soviet Union. Mao, despite preaching anti-US rhetoric throughout the 1950s and 1960s — an ideology he successfully exported to India — had no moral qualms about throwing it away in the 1970s. He knew it was in China’s national interest and certainly of more import than ideological rhetoric. It was this paradigm shift to a pro-American foreign policy that allowed China to enter the global market after its economic reforms became policy in 1978. The gains of Chinese pragmatism are there for the world to see and China will not jeopardise its wider economic relationship with the US for petty ideological posturing.
During the 1980s, the US supported China’s economic modernisation by investing heavily in its manufacturing, retail and automobile sectors and by providing China access to the huge US market. Wal-Mart is a success story in retail, linking China’s villages to the world and providing good returns to farmers without the middle man. The US has also helped China’s civilian nuclear defence programme. This support was unstinting in the period the former Soviet empire existed. The Chinese and the Americans cooperated extensively in Pakistan during the anti-Soviet Afghan War. The US also shut its eyes to Chinese nuclear proliferation to Pakistan. Former US President Bill Clinton not only leaked A.B. Vajpayee’s letter to China but also supported its legitimate rights in the subcontinent, after India’s 1998 nuclear explosion. Today, China and the US exist in a symbiotic relationship. China and Japan literally finance the US deficit. China needs the US market, just like the US needs China.
India must work to guard its own national interest, both economic and strategic. We are not interested in containing China. We are interested in the gains that India gets through a growing engagement with the US. We can’t allow failed 19th century ideologies to turn the clock back. Our friendship with the US need not come in the way of the growing friendship with China. China has benefited a great deal from American support earlier and India would be foolish to spurn the American hand of friendship. Geopolitics in the future may change our relationship, but like China, we too can take advantage of it for the moment. Pragmatic foreign policy for national interest is perhaps what the Left, led by Prakash Karat, needs to learn. Let us ask them how they evaluate the ideology behind communist Chinese foreign policy and the willingness of West Bengal for American investment. One must stop having double standards, all in the name of ‘ideology’.
Ravni Thakur is honorary Director, Euro-Asia Institute and Reader at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.