India’s Modi and Nehru’s legacy

By Moss Roberts

India has long standing historical reasons not to join an American-backed anti-Chinese alliance. The necessities of its current economic development demand that India avoid conflicts in East Asia so as to maintain good working relations with China, the U.S., and Japan, a strategy descended from the non-alignment policy of India’s first PM, Jawaharal “Pandit” Nehru, at the time of independence in 1947.  Although not a power in its own right, newly-independent India earned a begrudged respect for its neutralism in Moscow and Beijing as well as in Washington and London. Nehru argued for seating China at the UN and kept his distance from the UN “allies” in the Korean War, giving tepid vocal support while refusing troops.

Diplomatically, Nehru did all he could to limit in space and time the extent of the fighting in Korea.  As early as January 1951 shortly after China entered the Korean war, at a conference of Commonwealth ministers India was expressing sympathy for China and connecting China’s admission to the UN with ending the war.  After the truce in summer 1953, India continued to play a broker’s role in the repatriation of prisoners.  Later, India played a similar role after France’s Vietnam War and during America’s.

PM Narendra Modi seems to be following Nehru’s path.  A New York Times article on Modi’s visit to the U.S. (9/29/14, A9) conveys his caution:  “Nor has India proved to be a trusted partner (India avoids the word ‘ally’) on American foreign policy priorities, including the conflict in Syria.”  The benign sounding word “ally” that the PM “avoided” spells danger.  “Alliance” has a long history in India’s political discourse, going back to the time of Nehru, the 50th anniversary of whose death came in 2014. Remarkably, his name is absent from the remarks of all concerned with Modi’s international tour.  However, in June 2014, India’s vice president Hamid Ansari made a little noted visit to Beijing, during which India and China pledged to work for global coordination to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel Agreement: the Five Principles developed by Nehru and Zhou Enlai in the early months of 1954: peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, cooperation, and benefit.   Nehru was proud of the Five Principles which paralleled and influenced the Geneva peace process of spring 1954.  The Accords produced at Geneva, influenced by the concurrent Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu, ended France’s Vietnam War.

Nehru claimed that the Five Principles would have global significance.  He hoped to build a zone of non-alignment throughout east and southeast Asia in order to keep the Cold War out of the region.  Nehru opposed alliances in general, as well as “treaty organizations” or “coalitions” because he thought they were used to drag smaller nations into dangerous situations that did not benefit them only the great powers.  Washington had other ideas: thwarting an election to unify Vietnam and creating a client state in south Vietnam, touching off the twenty-year long sequel to the Korean War.
To Nehru’s non-alignment Washington responded with a stick – arming Pakistan – and a carrot – food aid.  Moscow and Beijing sought his cooperation.  Nehru’s criticism of the Cold War, his determination to keep India and the entire Southeast Asian region free of U.S. military interference led him to oppose alliances, especially of the military sort, such as SEATO (1954-55, the South-East Asia Treaty Organization), modeled after NATO.  Organized by President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State J. F. Dulles after London had yielded leadership in the region and the Viet Minh had humiliated France, SEATO had all of two Asian members, Pakistan and Thailand.  Aimed at Indochina and China, SEATO was dominated by the U.S. and military pressure was high on its agenda.  Through its Continental Operations Department (in collaboration with the CIA) Taiwan had already been conducting covert raids of sabotage and terror since 1951.  The Nationalist regime was pulling in the opposite direction from Nehru, hoping to win Washington’s backing for a larger attack on the mainland.
Nehru was particularly angered by U.S. arms sales to Pakistan, ostensibly for the “cause” of anti-Communism, the fast track to a place in the line for Washington’s armaments and foreign “aid.”  The U.S. and Britain wanted to use Pakistan’s soil for airfields to protect the Persian oil fields and fend off the Soviet Union.  India and Pakistan were continually at war from their year of independence, 1947.  The Indian government and people resented Washington’s arming Pakistan.  With Communist China established, Washington could not push India too far and prudently put strict limits on military aid to Pakistan.  Then in 1957, one year after the Dalai Lama’s visit to India, Washington proffered another carrot: Taiwan and India were selected as showcase “islands of development” and slated to receive large increases in aid.  U.S. foreign aid was used to counteract growing Chinese influence in the Third World and to pull India a bit closer to Washington, shortly after the CIA augmented its operations in Tibet.

1954 was an unusual moment of suspended momentum for the Pentagon juggernaut.  At Geneva the main issue was Vietnam.  Ho Chi Minh’s prestige in Vietnam was like Mao’s in China and Nehru’s in India.  As the neo-con of his day, Dulles was consumed with frustration at the situation in Asia and at China’s successful diplomatic debut; he left the conference shortly after it began.  He had behaved “like a puritan in a house of ill-repute,” according to Townsend Hoopes in The Devil and John Foster Dulles. Eisenhower and Dulles, who had urged the French to fight on, were angry and humiliated at the collapse of France’s position in Vietnam.  Their response was to create the SEATO war-alliance, first organized as the Manila Pact in the fall of 1954.

In the U.S. the Democrats were giving the Republicans hell.  Senator Lyndon Johnson, torn between outrage and self-pity, was quoted in the Canberra Times: “We have been caught bluffing by our enemies,” he said, “We stand in clear danger of being left naked and alone in a hostile world.”(1)   For the Republican Party, Indochina could become a publicity fiasco like the Democrats suffered for the Yalta concessions to Stalin or for “losing” China.  Alternatively, what if the U.S. jumped into Vietnam, and it turned into another prolonged military standoff like Korea?  Having just “gone to Korea” to end the stalemate there, President Eisenhower was not going to start another right away.  It was a perfect moment of quandary in Washington and an ideal occasion for India to sally forth with China on the world scene advocating peace, neutrality, and withdrawal of forces  – the Five Principles.

The Geneva Accords guaranteed a national election in 1956 to reunify Vietnam, and withdrawal of foreign troops from Cambodia and Laos.  The Accords also temporarily separated Vietnam into northern and southern zones.  At the behest of Moscow and Beijing, for the sake of “peaceful co-existence,” Ho Chi Minh sacrificed territory below the 17th parallel gained on the battlefield, in hindsight a regrettable concession to the powers. Nehru’s neutralism was aligning with Moscow’s post-Stalin line of “peaceful co-existence,” while Beijing shared the page and was on its best behavior.  Despite its promise to respect the accords, Washington was already moving to undermine them in Vietnam by thwarting the reunification elections promised in the accords and by building a military dictatorship in South Vietnam.

India assumed the Chair of the ICC (International Control Commission) set up at Geneva to supervise the accords.  However, the U.S. and the new South Vietnam government prevented India from carrying out its mandate to arrange for elections to unify Vietnam, a leading cause of the war to come.  Washington’s plans to keep Southeast Asia a battle front had everything to do with putting pressure on China, to keep China from attacking Taiwan and to thwart its economic development.  The first step in the process was making South Vietnam a separate zone under Emperor Bao Dai, a figurehead, soon to be replaced by Ngo Dinh Diem, who declared the Republic of South Vietnam, a new nation.  This made the promised national election impossible and the coming war unavoidable.  Try as he might, Nehru could not overcome the north-south division of Vietnam or stave off the war: he faced Dulles’ drive for “united action” against the successful revolutionaries of China and Vietnam.  Nehru’s aspirations for the region went up in smoke.

Nehru died in 1964, before he could witness the final outcomes of the Vietnam War, which justified his prophetic vision; he rarely receives the credit he deserves.  Dulles proved to have been “terribly wrong,” to use Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara’s judgment on Washington’s Vietnam war policy.

Fast forward to PM Modi’s visit: before coming to the U.S. the PM already had substantial commitments of development funding from Japan and China as described in several ATOL columns this past summer.  Making the U.S. his third stop suggests a well-thought out agenda for seeking investment while preserving flexibility to refuse conditions.  It is rarely remembered that in the mid-1950s Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was telling Nehru that Indian industry was ahead of China’s.  Today, both Japan and China seek mutually beneficial economic relations with India, while the U.S. shows its strong interest in war games and marketing military equipment.

On his U.S. visit Modi agreed to renew a 2005 defense “relationship” with Washington, ceremonially balancing the commemoration of Panchsheel in China.  India, the U.S., and (once in a while) Japan have an ongoing “war games” series, called Malabar Exercise.  India maintains equidistance from all sides.  The Times quote makes clear, however, that Modi is far less interested in playing an active “strategic” role in Washington’s “pivot,” namely allying with Japan (perhaps the Philippines and Vietnam) in an anti-China cordon.  For Washington strategic maneuvering is the priority, for India, it’s economic development.  Moreover, the legacy of Gandhian non-violence makes many Indians wary of Washington’s militarism.  In a front-page photo in the Wall Street Journal for October 1, India’s PM is shown against Gandhi’s statue at the Indian embassy in Washington.  If Modi brought anything of the spirit of Gandhi to a war-minded Washington, the benefit would far outweigh any economic agreements: it would be a great blessing for the international community, the world, and the people who live there.

In several important articles published in ATOL in late 2014-early 2015, the distinguished diplomat and analyst M.K. Bhadrakumar, wrote of Modi’s moving away from PM M. Singh’s courting of a strategic relation with Washington against China.  Modi, he argues, had to take cognizance of the significance of the depression of 2008 and the opportunities for development that good relations with China promises.

On September 16, 2014 M. Bhadrakumar wrote: “In sum, Modi visualizes Asian partners to be much more meaningful interlocutors (than the West) at this point in time for meeting India’s needs. Modi believes what he said in Tokyo recently, “if the 21st century is an Asian century, then Asia’s future direction will shape the destiny of the world” And,China has shrewdly assessed Modi’s national priorities and sees in them a window of opportunity to transform the relationship with India into one of genuine partnership.”

On January 30, 2015 Bhadrakumar wrote, “The great American fear today is that Modi might break this cycle and put India-China relations on a predictable footing. From the Chinese commentaries on Obama’s visit, Beijing is aware of the American attempt to hustle Modi towards the U.S.’s rebalance strategy in Asia. And Delhi is hastening to clarify that proximity to the U.S. will not translate as alliance against China. An element of strategic ambiguity has appeared.”

Moss Roberts is a professor of Chinese in the Department of East Asian Studies at New York University. He has translated from the Chinese the Dao De Jing and the Ming novel Three Kingdoms and also teaches a course at NYU on revolutions in India, China and Vietnam.



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