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A Diplomatic Precedent for Resolving Sino-Indian Tensions

Jul 02, 2020

The recent melee between Indian and Chinese troops in the stark, precipitous and almost Martian-like terrain of the Sino-Indian border near Pangang Lake in Galwan Valley will not be soon forgotten. Although cool heads have prevailed in both Beijing and Delhi, calling for an immediate halt in fighting, both countries are extremely incensed – not to mention face-conscious – about the “heroes” lost on their respective side on the conflict. While it is reassuring to learn from reports that not a single shot was fired, it is shocking to realize that hand-to-hand scuffles in the treacherous terrain resulted in dozens of deaths. With the recent uptick in tensions, it serves the world to reflect on the diplomatic efforts of US Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, who diffused tensions between China and India to stop an escalating conflict in 1962. 

In the English-language media of India there is emotional talk of boycotting Chinese goods – even Chinese restaurants – as the government looks to shift its policy away from China. Indeed, earlier this week India moved to ban 59 Chinese apps, calling them “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking to shore up support from other quarters abroad, particularly America; within hours of the conflict, India indicated it was thinking of joining the US bandwagon in banning Huawei and other Chinese firms.  

The US has never been a strong influence in India, especially during the Cold War. It was seen, with sufficient justification, to favor Pakistan, which was locked into strategic treaties with the US and significantly benefitted from US aid and military assistance. 

China, too, found it within its interests to lean toward Pakistan, especially after the Sino-Soviet split, because India was seen as being in the Soviet orbit. It’s no coincidence that the secret diplomatic legwork that culminated in Nixon’s visit to China was largely conducted via Pakistan. 

In later years, US-Pakistani relations subsequently deteriorated to the point that it was possible for Pakistan to shelter Osama bin Laden without US knowledge and approval, not that approval would have been forthcoming. The chill is significant because it opens diplomatic space for greater US-engagement of India. 

Which raises an interesting question. What, if any role can the US now play in soothing tensions between the neighboring nuclear states of India and China, without stoking fears in Pakistan, another nuclear power in the borderlands of the disputed Aksai Chin region? 

History provides an example of a terrible intervention made by the UK – one that surely made things worse – and a deft, minimalist intervention by the US that clearly helped calm things down.  

More than 70 years ago, Britain’s last Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was so intent on staging a gallant, but hasty British retreat that he accelerated the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan in secret, while assigning Cyril Radcliffe, a British barrister with no experience in the subcontinent to draw up borders that have been unstable hot spots ever since. 

A decade and a half later, a bloody conflict broke out in 1962 between China and India in Ladakh, near the site of the present-day conflict. US Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith was the man for the moment:  He credits the fact that President John F. Kennedy, whose attention was riveted on the Cuban Missile Crisis at the time, trusted him to do as he saw fit. 

This was an inadvertently propitious arrangement, for it gave the American ambassador maximum leeway to rely on the diplomatic toolbox without resort to weaponry. Ambassador Galbraith took a firm stand against escalation by advising then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru not to use the Indian Air Force, though some logistic air support eventually was sent to India. 

Ambassador Galbraith’s gentle policy compares favorably with hawkish Kennedy aides, such as US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who raised the specter of using nuclear weapons. By the time the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved and the Kennedy hawks turned their gaze to India, Mao had already ordered Chinese troops to withdraw, satisfied with having “taught” India a lesson.

Ambassador Galbraith, who earned sufficient trust to counsel three generations of Prime Minister Nehru’s political dynasty—Nehru and his daughter and grandson, Indira and Rajiv, summed up the 1962 crisis in words that are relevant and ring true today. He described it as “an accidental conflict” and told Rajiv Gandhi, only half in jest, that  “whoever has seen Aksai Chin, as I have, would want someone else to have it.”

An agronomist and economist by trade, he saw professional militaries, bored by long periods of peace, as over-anxious to provoke conflict.  

In an interview late in life with retired Indian Colonel Anile Athale, Galbraith wryly remarked: 

"In the old days, land was important as the giver of all things. That period is gone now. Technology and brainpower are all that matters and yet conflicts over land, specially one like on the India-China border, that yields nothing, continue. This is a burden of ancient history that we continue to carry. If tomorrow there is settlement on planet Mars, we will begin to worry if others are interested." 

Wise words for the ages. 

Galbraith refused the opportunity to inflame passions over which side was right or to sing praise of one side over the other by noting in the same interview that “inventive journalism is a great danger to mankind.”  

He worked quietly with an understandably agitated Nehru to de-escalate tensions, but he later remarked that the US State Department wasn’t of much help, either. As he related to Colonel Athale, the State Department “considers foreign policy something which is to be conducted for the convenience and enjoyment of people in Washington.” 

The current US Ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, may be in a similarly propitious position as his predecessor Galbraith was. His sterling reputation and his role in arranging the Trump-Modi summit gives him leverage in the current context. With the Trump administration distracted every which way, the inability of the US executive branch to focus on India might provide an apt moment for quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to help keep the peace. 

At the very least, the US should not exploit this dangerous rift, whether it be to goad India to support the US trade war, exploit Indian tensions with Pakistan or score petty points against Beijing. US military adventurism is not welcome, but some good, old-fashioned diplomacy might be if it can nudge South Asia towards peace instead of war. 

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