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14 March 2024, Gateway House

Crosswinds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition over China

In his new book, former Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China, Vijay Gokhale analyzes how newly independent India navigated Anglo-American competition and the Cold War ideologies of China in the 1940s and 1950s. The author focuses on key events from the recognition of the Peoples’ Republic of China to the two Taiwan Straits crises. His insights of the period resonate with today's U.S.-China rivalry, and highlights India's evolving role in the Indo-Pacific.

Adjunct Distinguished Fellow, National Security and China Studies

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Former foreign secretary of India Vijay Gokhale’s fourth book titled Cross Winds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition over China covers in detail the Anglo-American strategic competition over China during the decade of 1949 to 1959, and the role India played in it. It covers precisely four events. They are: recognition of the communist government in China in 1949; resolution of the Indo-China crisis at the Geneva Conference in 1954; the two Taiwan Straits crises in 1954-55 and 1958. In the epilogue, the author has analysed the lessons for India which it can follow in the present. Gokhale has also made it clear that this is not a book covering the details of India-China relations between 1949 and 1959.

The four events comprise the four chapters of the book. The opening chapter shows how the U.S.-China rivalry of today has come full circle from the early 1950s. At that time, China was seen through the lens of ideology, that is, communism versus democracy. It is the reason the U.S. supported Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek), who ruled China from 1928 to 1949 and then had to flee to Taiwan. Britain viewed the issue of recognition of China from the prism of maintaining its commercial interests in the Asia Pacific region.

This set off a series of events that brought India into the game, reflecting the continued influence of the UK on India, despite the country’s having attained independence from Britain. While Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, understood the importance of the communist regime over that of the Guomindang’s, his naivete in believing that China would join hands with India to drive Asian development, has been highlighted in this chapter. The devious game that Britain’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, head of the Far Eastern Department of the Foreign Office, E.M. Dening, and ambassador to China, Sir Ralph Stevenson, played between former Prime Minister Nehru, former Indian Ambassador to China Panikkar and the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson during the debate over whether or not to recognise the communist regime in China, is an eye opener. In the end, India was the first to recognise China on 30 December 1949, despite getting nothing in return.

The book then moves to the Geneva Conference in 1954 on Indochina, highlighting India’s important role in international relations from the exact moment it became independent. Nehru advised U.S. Ambassador to India Loy Henderson (1948-51) to study the psychology of Asian nations and the state of mind of the Asian people from the start. The lack of understanding since then is seen in the mistakes the U.S. made and repeated in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. In the lead-up to Geneva, a four-powers conference was initiated and held between the U.S., UK, France and USSR). The USSR proposed that a five-power conference be held with China as the fifth power. That brought China to the forefront of international relations and into the United Nations Security Council. From that moment on, the U.S. considered India insensitive to its requirements and also unhelpful as New Delhi advocated a ceasefire in Vietnam despite U.S. opposition. (A resonance of this is playing out with India’s stance in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.) The diplomatic manoeuvres by Britain during the preparations for the Geneva Conference offers insights into such negotiations and indicates the lengths to which countries will go to protect their own interests.

The author’s analysis on the First Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954-55 brings out clearly that America’s secretary of state at the time, John Foster Dulles, was convinced — and rightly so — that the outlying Jinmen and Mazu islands (just offshore of the Chinese mainland), should not be given away to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Britain and India believed these islands were a part of the PRC due to their proximity to mainland China. The ambition of India’s defence minister, Krishna Menon,  and his efforts to get a mediatory role to solve the “Formosa Problem” between the U.S., China and UK, does not paint him in good light. The discussions of the Jinmen and Matsu islands and Taiwan at that time and the resultant ambiguity of the U.S. committing forces for the defence of Taiwan, has continued to this day.

The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958 was provoked when Mao Zedong fired artillery towards the offshore islands to test the U.S. reaction. The U.S. felt isolated when it was planning to react. A repeat of this pattern can be seen 50 years later in the 2000s in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. had difficulty in getting allies and partners to support its efforts.

This chapter also brings out the dogmatism practiced by the Chinese in their negotiations. The Chinese are sticklers for protocol. However, when it suits them, they violate it. An example: Zhou Enlai, then-premier of China (1949-76) wrote to defence minister Krishna Menon (rather than either the prime minister or the external affairs minister who would have been his appropriate counterparts) to discuss the belligerent actions on the part of the U.S. in the Taiwan Strait and American efforts to propose a ceasefire between the PRC and ROC. In this correspondence,  Zhou also mentions that if the U.S. withdraws its forces from Taiwan, the PRC will liberate Taiwan peacefully. The U.S.’s well known aversion to Krishna Menon, the UK and China trying to manipulate him, and Menon’s actions born from his personal ambitions, is well brought out in the book by studying his actions in detail.

The final chapter proffers learnings in the present-day context. Zhou Enlai’s unwillingness to accept the McMahon Line as the boundary between India and China in the eastern sector (despite his promises to Nehru), still resonate with Indian policymakers today who exercise extreme caution in negotiations with China. Most specifically, Gokhale warns that naivete and personal beliefs should not overshadow pragmatism and realism. The Taiwan issue is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s and India, unlike then, when inexperience led India’s diplomacy, must today weigh its options very carefully. In the same vein, the author mentions the efforts of the UK to regain some of its lost glory through the AUKUS (Australia-UK-U.S.) trilateral He emphasizes that India’s interests in the Asian region will continue to be affected by China’s relations with the West, as it was in the 1950s. At the time, the UK wanted its Commonwealth countries including India, not to provoke China into thinking it was being ganged-up against. China astutely projects the same today, that the Quad and Indo-Pacific are mechanisms that specifically target it. Lack of a quid pro quo at that time was disadvantageous to India. Luckily today, India, with the knowledge of hindsight, is acutely aware of its status.

This book draws heavily on archival material, which gives the reader authentic insights into the developments and giant personalities which characterized the events detailed in the four chapters. Gokhale says his book was born of curiosity to discover why India recognised China without a quid pro quo; he brings out the matrix of people, places and events during those four incidents in a highly readable and lucid manner.

Gokhale, Vijay, Crosswinds: Nehru, Zhou and the Anglo-American Competition over China. Penguin India, 2024.

Lt General SL Narasimhan is the Adjunct Distinguished Fellow for National Security and China Studies, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. 

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