Shovan Sinha Ray
Postgraduate in International Studies from Christ (Deemed to be University), Bangalore and a Research Intern at O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana.
Email ID: Shovansinharay@gmail.com
Postgraduate in History from Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi.
Email ID: Vrindakaushal28@gmail.com
India and China have a long and shared historical past. The relationship reached its zenith during the days of the Mauryan empire (321 to 185 B.C.E). So much so, the two countries have borne the brunt of the British colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Nalapat, 2019). Since the onset of the post-colonial era, it was quite evident that India supported China in all international platforms. Backing China’s stance in the Korean war of 1950 and hailing China’s leadership in the Bandung Conference in 1959 were all examples of that very response. Even sovereign India’s actions reflected her intentions of maintaining peace and stability in its neighbourhood. But on the other hand, China pursued its national interest even at times aggressively leading to the failure of Panchsheel.
Panchsheel: A Chinese Contribution to the Indian Foreign Policy
It was Nehru who defined the basic fundamental principles of Indian foreign policy. According to him, any country’s foreign policy is guided by its national interest. He opined that a country’s government acts in the best interest of the nation. International peace and cooperation are only supporting elements in the ballgame of the balance of power that ultimately contributes to maintaining peace. Therefore, the form of government does not change the way how a nation perceives its national interest (Swarnkar, 2013) . It was this agenda that led India and China to codify bilateral ties by issuing a joint statement and signing a treaty known as the “Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India” at Peking on April 28, 1954. This agreement is also popularly referred to as the “Panchsheel” doctrine. However, it was Zhou En-lai who proposed the five principles of Panchsheel when for the first-time bilateral talks were unrolled between the two countries and Nehru merely accepted it with open arms (MEA, 2004).
There also consist of several myths surrounding its origin and content. Often people are deluded with its classical language. The word ‘sheel’ doesn’t mean ‘principle’ rather it means ‘character’. The term is taken from the Indonesian usage of the word ‘sila’ (Easter-spirituality, n.d.). It means “ right conduct” that has also been enshrined in the noble eightfold path doctrine of Buddhism (Paranjape, 2004). Whatever the source and ancient interpretation of the term ‘sheel’ might be, the five core principles of ‘Panchsheel’ called for mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity, non-aggression and non -interference in each internal affairs, equality, mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence.
Commencement of Distrust and Suspicion
The “honeymoon” period of Indo-China relationship ended within a decade of signing the landmark bilateral treaty. Panchsheel came under crisis when China laid its claim over the disputed areas of NEFA and Ladakh. In 1962 the bilateral relationship reached its lowest point when China launched a border war (Lidarev, 2012). China who unpredictably launched a strike also voluntarily retreated leaving a bruised ego and a ruptured friendship. It is to opine that “Panchsheel” as a set of principles in foreign policy did not fail but its purpose to maintain peace and stability with China, in particular, was defeated. Since then clouds of distrust prevail over the Indo-China relationship. On one hand, the Chinese counterpart condemns India’s foreign policy claiming it to be ‘interventionist’ owing to the Tibet issue (Chowdhury, 2019) and providing asylum to the Buddhist spiritual leader Dalai Lama. On the other hand, India blames China for its secessionist acts like capturing areas of Aksai-Chin (Dutta, 2020), standoffs on Doklam plateau (Chengappa, 2020) and recently in Galwan Valley – Pangong Tso (Duhalde et al., 2020). On top of that, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created a worldwide disruption in terms of life and livelihood. Not only has it impacted the environment, economy, trade, employability, etc. but has also witnessed a major shift in the understanding and implementation of foreign policies of various countries. It was only until very recently the two countries continued bilateral trade as usual strengthening Nehru’s idea of national interest in foreign policy but the camel’s backbone has been broken with the launching of a series of technological warfare and a movement towards boycotting Chinese goods (Shrivastava & Sandhu, 2020).
Regional Groupings to Counter China’s Moves
A paradigm shift is taking place in the international relations and foreign policy arena owing to China’s aggressive actions and ineffective leadership in dealing with the pandemic situation(Palmer, 2020). China adopted antagonistic actions and policies towards other major powers of the world such as Australia, Japan, India, South Korea, Vietnam and the United States to name a few. South Korea deployed THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System) in the South China Sea region that has raised concerns for Beijing. The outcome was that it made the USA, Japan and South Korea (Fisher, 2016) come closer. In the case of Australia, its decision to ban tech giant Huawei and its 5G technology and the demand to probe in the Covid-19 issue at the global level have caused ruptures in their bilateral relationship(Sheftalovich, 2020). Similarly, owing to the trade war, the Sino-U.S. relationship got its final blow amidst covid-19 pandemic that has further implications for both the countries’ military, foreign, international and domestic trade policies. So much so, the US has banned Huawei and has shut down the Chinese consulate (EOC, 2020) in Houston. Therefore, the COVID-19 situation and China’s reaction to it has paved the way for the development of a united front against the rising dragon. Security dialogues like the Quad followed by a Quad plus can be the future of international relations who can then counter China not only in the Indo-Pacific region but also beyond it (Ray, 2020).
Restoration of Panchsheel is the Need of the Hour
India is a South Asian giant (Inamdar, 2020) with a vast market that can play a conspicuous role in its neighbourhood and afar. History gives legitimacy to traditions and traditions form one’s identity (Anderson, 2006). So to say, India should carve out a new identity from its historical principles of Panchsheel in the post-COVID-19 international system. Panchsheel can strengthen diplomatic ties with en rapport countries and act as the ideological foundation of India’s post-COVID-19 foreign policy. The emerging middle powers and their groupings like the Quad, SAARC, BIMSTEC can adopt the principles of PANCHSHEEL to define their relationship amongst each other. It is because the principles were designed in a holistic manner to safeguard the interest of nation-states. It upheld the importance of ‘commitment’ and ‘cooperation’ when faced with global challenges like the climate change, health crisis, terrorism, refugee migrants and so on without intervening in territorial integrity and sovereignty of the member states. It is of the opinion that the Informal Strategic Dialogue such as the Quad (India, Japan, Australia and USA) has the potential and flexibility of becoming a Quad Plus if the need arises. It can transform itself into a larger body that can include countries like South Korea and Vietnam as well. In yet other words, Panchsheel can act as a guideline to define India’s relationship with other nations to effectively counter check China’s aggressive foreign policy. Therefore, the principles of Panchsheel can lead to the formation of a multipolar world with India being one of its chief pilots.
To conclude, the values of principles of Panchsheel should be restored in the Indian Foreign Policy. It is because the principles did not fail in totality but its agenda to maintain peace and stability with China, in particular, could not be kept up with. Therefore, the five principles of Panchsheel can be successfully introduced to the regional groupings like the Quad, SAARC, BIMSTEC, etc. It can further be put to use in bilateral relationships since commitment to cooperation, maintaining territorial integrity and valuing sovereignty are the central ideas of Panchsheel which will stand beneficial in the post-pandemic scenario of a multi-polar world.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.