India's China policy - then and now

When India attained independence from British rule, Jawaharlal Nehru became the prime minister and remained in the job for around fourteen years till his end

N S Venkataraman Jan 21, 2021

When India attained independence from British rule, Jawaharlal Nehru became the prime minister and remained in the job for around fourteen years till his end.  Nehru was, no doubt, a historian, a scholar, and had a firm commitment to India’s cause. He had a deep faith in socialist philosophy.

The problem arose when Nehru confused socialist philosophy with communist philosophy and convinced himself that the world was passing through a conflict between communism (socialism in Nehru’s view) and capitalism, which could lead to a war-like situation.

With his abiding desire to  ensure peace in the world, Nehru promoted  the philosophy of non-alignment and said that the non-aligned nations would not join the communist bloc (largely represented by China and Russia) and capitalist bloc ( largely represented by the USA).

However, Nehru was all the time inclined to emotionally attach himself to the socialist policy, which inevitably resulted in developing a soft corner in his mind towards China and Russia, which were communist countries at that time.

With his historical knowledge of the India-China cultural relationship, Nehru went out of the way to keep China in good humour and he dreamt that his friendly policy would ensure that China and India would be eternal friends and partners. He could not visualize China’s ambitions and greed under the communist regime.

It was a shock for Nehru when China occupied Tibet and in the process massacred thousands of innocent Tibetans. Nehru knew that Tibet was wronged but he did not want to undo his friendly relations with China and also did not have the courage to confront China.  This was particularly so, since confronting China would mean aligning with a capitalist country like the USA, which he did not like. Nehru remained virtually quiet even when China continued its atrocities in Tibet. To satisfy his conscience, Nehru allowed His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Tibetans to enter India as refugees and accommodated them, taking an ‘element of risk’ in dealing with China.

It was the second shock for Nehru in 1962 when China entered India and successfully occupied thousands of km of Indian Territory. The weak Indian army and not adequately equipped, Nehru assumed that China would not go to the extent of waging a war against India, and thus lost thousands of soldiers. India lost the war and was humiliated.

Nehru passed away around two years later with deep disappointment after clearly realizing that his appeasement policy towards China was wrong and his view about China’s objectives was not correct, even as the historian Nehru continued to admire the culture and civilization of China.  It is said that Nehru died a sad person.

The next decisive approach towards China happened during the time of prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. He recognized Tibet as part of China. Vajpayee knew that Tibet was wronged but did not have the courage to confront China as he was afraid of China’s superior military and technological power. In essence, Vajpayee’s approach towards China was not much different from that of Nehru.

When Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, he too adopted what looked like a similar policy towards China. Like Nehru, Modi too went out of the way to appease China to keep it in good humour.

With China creating a war-like situation with India in recent times once again, Modi has now realized that his policy towards China is wrong. Unlike Nehru, Modi now has the time to revise his China policy and it appears that he has finally decided to confront China. 

Compared to the year 1962, when India-China war took place, China has become much stronger now economically, militarily, and technologically. Confronting China is even more difficult now as compared to the period when Nehru was the prime minister.

Nevertheless, the approach and policy of Modi clearly give an impression that he has decided to stand up to China. This was in sharp contrast to the period when Nehru and later Vajpayee were the prime ministers. Both developed cold feet and did not want to take confrontation with China to its logical end.

Today, the uppermost priority for Modi is to ensure that China would not indulge in misadventure once again.

Modi is taking many steps to strengthen the army and unlike Nehru has no prejudice in aligning with the USA to fight against China in a border war, if it would become necessary.

Still, some well-meaning critics think that Modi is initiating only half steps and does not want to recognize Tibet  as an independent country, which would be the ultimate proof for Modi’s determination to stand up to China.

In recent times, China has become more aggressive and has already successfully converted Pakistan to the status of what looks like a client state, particularly since Pakistan has openly declared itself as the sworn enemy of India.  A joint military war by Pakistan and China on one side and India on the other side is a distinct possibility now.

Modi clearly knows this and has to devise his counter plans accordingly. Such plans have to necessarily include forging a strong alliance with Taiwan, Japan, Australia and United States, since all these countries share the concern about China’s increasing military power and expansionist policy.  

In any case, it is now becoming absolutely clear that Modi’s approach towards China is not anymore based on appeasement of China, as seen in Nehru and Vajpayee’s time.

Certainly, China would do its utmost to weaken the Modi government internally and externally and will try to create problems for India in a variety of ways to unsettle India.

Modi now has a challenge as well as an opportunity on the China front and to show that he is different from the earlier prime ministers of India. 

(The writer is a Trustee, NGO Nandini Voice for the Deprived, Chennai. The views are personal. He can be contacted at



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