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FRIENDSHIP IN A NEW AND CHANGING WORLD

The recent visit to India of Nguyen Phu Trong, the secretary general of the Communist Party of Vietnam, is a landmark in the evolving Asia Pacific geostrategic equation. The agreements signed with the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, include energy cooperation in the South China Sea and the protection of information in defence — the sum defining the future trajectory of the Indo-Vietnam relationship. However, the traction to the partnership stems from the alignment on defence and security. The training of 500 Vietnamese personnel in submarine warfare, in English language skills and the computerization of an integrated services structure and in army exercises in mountain and jungle warfare, where each side brings to the table its special strengths, plus the modernization of Vietnam’s weapons systems constitute the core of the package. If, as is likely, India exports the Indo-Russian Brahmos supersonic cruise missile (and its hypersonic version, when it’s ready for use in a few years’ time), it would set the seal to an ambitious partnership going forward.

Vietnam’s unequalled place in the 20th-century narrative is easily explained. The country’s founding vision was set in stone by the legendary Ho Chi Minh, but it was the military genius of Vo Nguyen Giap — acknowledged by friend and foe alike as one of history’s great captains — that brought the vision to its epic fruition. Vietnam defeated, in turn, imperial France, the United States of America and its invasive neighbour to north, the People’s Republic of China. Giap’s legions routed the Chinese expeditionary force in Cambodia and booted out Beijing’s Cambodian surrogate, the genocidal Pol Pot regime.

During its French and American wars India, understandably, could not in the scheme of things, render Vietnam material help, but there was much sympathy and admiration among the Indian people for the country’s liberation struggle. A more nuanced expression of support emanated from the government of the day in New Delhi. The event that truly bonded India and Vietnam was China’s attack on its southern neighbour in February 1979 and Deng Xiaoping’s sneering boast that “China was teaching Vietnam a lesson” taught earlier to India in 1962. While the US and Britain, in collusion with China, kept Pol Pot’s seat at the United Nations warm and succoured the monster in his jungle lair, Indira Gandhi, spurning Western pressure, recognized the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh and gave Vietnam whatever economic help India could afford, a fact much appreciated in Hanoi. The then prime minister, Pham Van Dong, visited New Delhi in 1982 for a dialogue with the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, during which he became the sole foreign leader ever to explicitly endorse India’s position on its contentious Himalayan border with China.

India and Vietnam adjusted deftly to the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the ground realities of the post-Cold War scene, and have been taking on board the significance of the Barack Obama administration’s Pivot of Asia tilt. India’s Look East policy enunciated by P.V. Narasimha Rao received the requisite ballast from Manmohan Singh. The economic and political ties of India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are stronger today than they have ever been, as are India’s military relations with Singapore and, at a farther remove, with Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia. That said, the key determinant in the regional response to China’s rise will be Japan’s heft as the economic and technological giant. For long, Japan lay dormant with a succession of weak and ineffectual governments, but the arrival of Shinzo Abe as prime minister has galvanized Japanese politics as well as the Japanese economy, now on a roll. Abe has spoken of his hopes for a revitalized Indo-Japan relationship as a major arch in the Asia Pacific security architecture. Japanese capital and technology — witness the spanking Delhi metro — have the potential to change the face of India. The projected Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor is certain to be near the top of the Abe-Singh exchanges in January when the Japanese leader comes calling. The possible export of high-end Japanese technology for the Indian navy will also be up for discussion.

These developments must be blended with the diplomatic demarches between Japan and Russia, the key player in the Eurasian heartland. Earlier in the year, Abe paid a visit to Moscow, the first by a Japanese prime minister in a decade, hence no routine affair. Japan and Russia have still to sign a post-World War II peace treaty because of their territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945. Abe broke the diplomatic impasse with a proposal that the issue be revisited by teams of Japanese and Russian experts in keeping with the national interests of both the parties. A dramatic step forward took place early in November with the announcement that Russia and Japan would upgrade defence and security ties following the first joint defence and foreign ministers’ meeting in Tokyo. The Japanese and Russian navies are to hold an anti-terrorist exercise on the high seas in the near future. As Manmohan Singh has a strong personal equation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin and the Japanese prime minister Abe, it is not beyond reason to speculate that India’s prime minister might have been a facilitator in the renewed Russo-Japanese conversation. There is surely a convergence of interests between the parties. Eastern Siberia is rich in all manner of resources, which Japanese leaders in the past have coveted. Russia would surely welcome Japanese development in a sparsely-populated region abutting teeming China. Siberia’s riches drove Japan to intervene in the ill-starred Allied intervention in Russia in 1919 following the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the outbreak of a civil war. Japanese hopes of watering their horses on the Volga ended in 1922.

Completing the picture, there was never any romance in the Soviet view of Maoist China even in the halcyon decade of their military alliance. The Soviets were never encumbered by the hallucinatory fictions of French intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, André Malraux et al. George Walden, a former British diplomat and subsequently minister (fluent in Russian and Mandarin) relates how, during the murderous turmoil of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution the Great Helmsman ‘strategic’ decision to confront the “Revisionist Social Imperialist” Soviet Union along Amur-Ussuri rivers, ended in a humiliating disaster, panicking The Great Helmsman and his “urbane servitor”, Zhou Enlai, to grasp the fortuitous secret overture from US, who China’s chairman had previously scorned as a “paper tiger”. The Gallic saying, “the more things change the more they remain the same,” sums up the present situation. Having arbitrarily declared a defence identification zone in the air space over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, currently Japanese possessions in the East China Sea, Beijing is confronted by a robust US response with the defiant flight of two B-52 bombers through the tension-ridden area. Japanese and South Korean warplanes have followed suit, placing the ball in Beijing’s court. Switching metaphors, China’s chessboard has only psychotic, jihadi Pakistan as its movable piece in the new Great Game.

The traumas of Mao’s People’s Communes and Great Leap Forward and its consequent famine which starved to death 40 million or more Chinese citizens, the feral heresy hunts of the Cultural Revolution, when millions more perished — some with their livers devoured by class enemies — have left Chinese society in a moral limbo. A strident xenophobia refracted through calls for the restoration of lost territories, like Mongolia, tells of an autistic political culture: the tyranny of the present entombed in the tyranny of the bureaucratic absolutism of the primordial past. Varying shades of disdain for nations beyond the Confucian pale proffer no great advantage in the 21st century. Spiritual impoverishment has brought a tide of devotional creeds and village deities to the country. China’s Christian population stands at an estimated 70 million, with scarcely a foreign missionary in sight: the swelling conversions seeded in underground messages about the risen Lord and Saviour, reminiscent of the sunset years of the Roman Empire. The Falun Gong, which administers a confection of Buddhist and Taoist remedies for broken spirits, is also thriving, much to Beijing’s annoyance. The nostrums of Mao Zedong Thought await their last rites, before the chairman’s mummified remains are consigned to Chinese dust.

History’s revolutionary despots, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte and Josef Stalin, engaged in ambitious undertakings in pursuit of coherent national goals, for good or ill, and not crazed fantasies. Winston Churchill, Whig grandee and fervent monarchist, judged Cromwell to be a great man; Talleyrand, man of the cloth and silken diplomatist, who served the Napoleonic dictatorship before turning against it, evaluated Napoleon as Europe’s most remarkable political figure in centuries, while Churchill, the scourge of Bolshevism and its works, raised a toast, at the Tehran Conference of the Big Three, to “Stalin the Great”, writing of him later as “this amazing and gigantic personality”.

Self-worship and enforced public adulation incubated capricious insanities in the deified Chairman Mao, confined by choice to the embalmed and sublimated Forbidden City. He belongs properly to the pantheon of Nero and Caligula.