The decision of the Government of India to recognise the People’s Republic of China on 30 December 1949, and to establish diplomatic relations with the new regime on 1 April 1950, was the first diplomatic negotiation between the two sides. Neither side had much accumulated experience with such matters in such an exercise, even though the government of independent India had been in existence since 1947 and the Chinese Communists had had their share of handling foreign powers, including the Soviet Union as well as China’s allies – the Americans and the British – during the Second World War.

India had gained her freedom from the British Empire two years earlier on 15 August 1947 and, by the end of 1949, was in the final stages of adopting a Constitution that would establish the new Republic. The country and its leadership enjoyed respect, legitimacy and international stature.

The new Communist regime in China, by comparison, had “liberated” China by using military force to overthrow a legitimate government (the Nationalist government). It needed recognition from the rest of the world to establish its own legitimacy.

In the pre-independence era, the principal political movements in both countries – the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Kuomintang (Nationalists) – had had contact with each other. In 1927, in Brussels, Jawaharlal Nehru and KMT delegates had issued a joint manifesto on mutual cooperation in the anti-imperialist struggle.

The INC had maintained these links through the 1930s and used to organise China Days against Japanese Aggression in a show of solidarity with the people of China. The Chinese Communists had also established contact with the INC in the 1930s. It was upon a request from General Zhu De to Nehru in November 1937 that an Indian Medical Mission, which included the legendary Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis, had set out from Bombay (Mumbai) in September 1938 for the Communist war-time base in Yan’an.

Nehru desired to have personal contact with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and this was one reason for his visit to China in August 1939.

But since Britain (and France) declared war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, Nehru was forced to cut short his plans and could not meet Mao. He did, nonetheless, keep a brief correspondence with Mao, and was able to meet with some of his associates, including the future PLA Marshal Ye Jianying, in Chungking (Chongqing), the war-time capital of China.

Nehru had a deep interest in international affairs. This was evident in his first important work – Glimpses of World History. In this, he would refer to China as a great country and a friend of India. He envisaged a post-colonial world in which the two countries would play a major role in global affairs.

By reaching out to the KMT, he was already planning on finding common ground between India and China on important questions. He had conversations about this with President Chiang Kai-shek and his charismatic spouse, Soong Mei-Ling (known as Madame Chiang), when he visited Chongqing in August 1939. Nehru wrote about this visit: “I returned to India an even greater admirer of China and the Chinese people than I had been previously.”

When Chiang Kai-shek visited India in early February 1942 and met Nehru, he urged the latter to moderate the INC’s antipathy to British rule in India. He desperately needed British help, especially critical war supplies, from over the “Hump” – which was the name for the air route from British India to China over the Himalayas – and felt that the INC’s harsh stand against British rule might upset these plans.

As a gesture to Nehru, Chiang Kai-shek voiced his support for the cause of self-determination for India after the war. Nehru grew even more firm in his conviction that the two countries would play a significant part in the post-war world order.

Like Nehru, Mao too was greatly interested in international affairs. Even as the Soviet Red Army was preparing to attack Berlin, Mao Zedong was defining the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy for the post-war world in a document titled “On Coalition Government” in April 1945. Declaring that the moment was near when the Japanese would be decisively defeated, Mao said that it was China that had led the anti-Japanese war in the Asian mainland, and “they will also play a very great role in safeguarding peace in the post-war world and the decisive one in safeguarding peace in the East.”

In a longish chapter on foreign policy, Mao exhorted the international community to respect China and cautioned the Americans that they were “committing a gross mistake” by supporting President Chiang Kai-shek. Mao was sympathetic to the freedom struggle of other Asian countries.

He referred specifically to India, saying, “We hope that India will attain independence. For an independent and democratic India is not only needed by the Indian people but is essential for world peace.” However, unlike Nehru, Mao Zedong made no mention of India as a major partner to China, and believed China would be the main guarantor of peace in post-war Asia.

After the independence of India in August 1947, the two countries established embassies. However, the rapid advances by Mao’s Communist armies inside China in 1948 meant that there was little bilateral interaction between independent India’s new government and the Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek.

Nehru keenly followed the developments of China’s civil war. By September 1948, Indian Ambassador KM Panikkar was reporting to New Delhi about the imminent collapse of President Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. The Communist General, Lin Biao, had seized the entire north-eastern region of China and Beijing was poised to fall. To the south, General Liu Bocheng had defeated the Nationalist forces in the Battle of Hsuchow (Suzhou) and was threatening the capital in Nanking (Nanjing). Panikkar informed the Government of India on 2 December 1948 that Chiang’s government would, hereon, be “no more than a phantom or fugitive government”.

Nehru’s instincts told him that if a Communist victory was inevitable, India’s interests would be better served by establishing early contact with them. Panikkar, with the Indian government’s acquiescence, began reaching out to the Chinese Communists.

On 5 October 1948, Qiao Guanhua, who headed the Hong Kong branch of the New China News Agency (and was to become China’s Foreign Minister in the 1970s), sought instructions from the Communist Party Central Committee on an overture by the Counsellor of the Indian Embassy in Nanking to visit the “liberated areas”. Signalling his desire to maintain ties with the new regime, Nehru also decided that the Indian Ambassador should not withdraw from China even if the Nationalist government were to collapse.

A suggestion from the Nationalist Chinese Ambassador in Turkey to the Indian Ambassador there, for India to mediate between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, was rejected by the Government of India. Nehru correctly surmised that the KMT regime was collapsing and that it was a “bankrupt government in China now”. Facts were to prove the veracity of India’s strategic assessment of the internal situation in China. This assessment gave it a head start in building ties with the new regime in China.

Both the Government of India and the Chinese Communist Party began to give serious consideration to such a possibility by the beginning of 1949. They approached this matter, however, from very different perspectives.

What were the factors that guided the thinking of the Indian government on this question? Nehru’s personal convictions certainly played a part in it. He believed that an Asian resurgence in the post-war period would be possible only with China as a major player.

He said so at the Asian Relations Conference in April 1947, on the eve of Indian independence, when he called China ‘that great country to which Asia owes so much and from which so much is expected’.

There were other reasons, too, for India to contemplate early recognition of the new Communist regime in China. The first of these was India’s northern frontier and its relationship to the status of Tibet. President Chiang Kai-shek’s government had, after India’s independence, reiterated that Tibet was a part of China, that the Simla Agreement of 1914 was no longer valid, and that it did not acknowledge the McMahon Line as the boundary.

The Government of India was aware of the Chinese Communists’ intention to “liberate” Tibet. A report from the Indian Political Officer in Gangtok (Sikkim) to the Ministry of External Affairs, stating that the “occupation or domination of Tibet by a potentially hostile and possibly aggressive Communist power would be a threat to the security of India”, may have added to India’s anxieties on this score.

The Indian government might have surmised that an early recognition of the new Communist regime would be helpful in securing its goodwill. This would, in turn, be helpful in settling the issue on the frontier. This was understandable logic. Securing the boundary was a legitimate consideration in dealings with the new Chinese regime.

A second consideration, mainly domestic, also appears to have shaped Indian thinking – the growing Communist movement in India. In at least two separate communications in June-July 1949, in letters to Ambassador Panikkar in Beijing and Ambassador Vijayalakshmi Pandit in Washington, Nehru voiced his concerns over Communists in India.

Nehru was concerned that any show of political hostility towards the Chinese Communists might make it difficult not just to deal with them, but also to handle the Communists in India. In themselves, these were all reasonable considerations in the making of policy in favour of the recognition of the new Chinese regime.

The other major question related to the timing of such recognition. On 27 September 1949, four days before Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the new Republic, General (future Premier) Zhou Enlai met with Ambassador Panikkar in Beijing. Zhou, according to Panikkar, laid special emphasis on friendship with India. He also conveyed that there was no difference of view in regard to Tibet between the two countries, and that he was particularly anxious to safeguard in every way India’s interests in Tibet.

The Indian government took this to mean that the new Chinese regime was equally eager to build friendly ties with India. Nehru’s instructions to Panikkar were that “in the first instance, conversations should take place between China and us regarding our interests in Tibet and common boundary between Tibet and India”.

He asked Panikkar to give some indication to the Chinese side (before he officially returned to India since he was no longer recognised as Indian envoy by the new regime) of India’s willingness to settle matters of common interest through diplomatic negotiation.11 This suggested that up until September 1949, Nehru was looking at achieving outcomes through the process of diplomatic negotiations.

Things began to change from 1 October 1949, after Mao Zedong proclaimed the formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Immediately upon his return to India, Panikkar began pressing upon the Government of India for early recognition of the new Chinese regime. Nehru recorded a note to the Ministry of External Affairs on 17 November 1949 in which he said that “both Panikkar and Stevenson are anxious that recognition should be given as early as possible. They think that delay may be injurious”

However, there were other influential voices in the Government of India that advocated patience in this respect. Chief among them was India’s Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, who felt there was nothing to be gained by early recognition. Panikkar, in his memoirs, mentioned that the Governor General of India, C Rajagopalachari, had joined Patel in urging Nehru to go slow in the matter. Why were such voices of advice ignored?

The Long Game: How The Chinese Negotiate With India

Excerpted with permission from The Long Game: How The Chinese Negotiate With India, Vijay Gokhale, Vintage.