What role can US play amid Sino-Indian tensions?

What role can US play amid Sino-Indian tensions?

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 think that hand-to-hand scuffles in treacherous terrain could result in dozens of deaths.

In the English-language media of India there is emotional talk of boycotting Chinese goods, even Chinese restaurants, while the government looks to shift its policy away from China. PM Narendra Modi is looking 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, because it was seen, with sufficient justification, to favour Pakistan which was locked into Seato and other strategic treaties with the US, and was also a major recipient of US aid and military largesse.

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.

US-Pakistani relations subsequently cooled 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.

What role, if any, can the US now play in soothing tensions among the three restive neighbouring nuclear states of India, China and Pakistan?

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

It's worth comparing and contrasting the role of Britain's last Viceroy, the regal envoy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and John F Kennedy's man in India, John Kenneth Galbraith.

Mountbatten, intent on staging a gallant British retreat and anxious himself to return to Britain for personal reasons, put pomp and circumstance above the practical amelioration of communal violence and desperate conditions on the ground. He accelerated the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan in secret, while assigning a person with no experience in the subcontinent to hastily draw maps and borders that have been unstable hot spots ever since.

A decade and a half later, when a bloody conflict broke out in 1962 between China and India in Ladakh, near the site of the present-day conflict. US Ambassador Galbraith was the man for the moment. He credits the fact that his friend the President had his back, but also tellingly noted that JFK had his eyes on Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Cuba was not at all interested in intervening in India.

This was an inadvertently propitious arrangement, for it gave the US ambassador maximum leeway to rely on the diplomatic toolbox without resort to weaponry, though some logistic support eventually was sent to India, with the interesting condition, and one which PM Jawaharlal Nehru readily agreed to, that the anti-American Defence Minister Krishna Menon "had to go". Nehru wanted a show of American military support but the US was preoccupied by the Cuban Missile crisis. By the time Kennedy turned his hawkish gaze to India, Mao, satisfied with having taught India a lesson, had already ordered Chinese troops to withdraw.

Galbraith, who resorted to quiet, creative diplomacy, has summed up the 1962 crisis in words that are relevant and ring true today. He described it as "an accidental conflict" over a "totally useless piece of land". 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 deescalate, 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 give him leverage in the current context. (Disclosure: Kenneth Juster and I travelled to Thailand together as high school exchange students) 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.

In 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.

Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.

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