Good fences don’t make good neighbours

Published: September 26, 2009 - 16:32 Updated: July 3, 2015 - 16:21

It is difficult to please your neighbours. Poet Robert Frost recommended good fences to make good neighbours. This simplistic approach has been followed with considerable ardour by feuding neighbours in different parts of the world. Various countries have built walls, put concertina wires and beamed laser rays to beef up their defences to prevent neighbours to intervene and play dirty. Has this worked?

There is a body of evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, to show that fencing changes nothing. It only deepens suspicion and a keen desire on the part of individuals to find ways to queer the pitch of those who want to immune themselves of any neighbourly nuisance. Before it came down in 1989, the Berlin Wall, too, did not stop both halves of Germany and their respective patrons from playing cat and mouse games. In some ways, it exacerbated the hatred between neighbours to the extent that the wall as an example of anthropomorphism acquired a life of its own and needed to be turned into rubble at the hands of rage-filled citizens forcibly separated by two regimes.

By the same token, the borders of India and Pakistan - some settled and some not - have been fenced and electrified. Has this helped in removing mistrust, bitterness, antagonism? Both hold each other responsible for insurgency, violence and the infinite mess that they are in. Fences vitiate politics and mindsets. Take for instance the border that India shares with China. For more than 94 years it remains mired in controversy. Holding a glass of Scotch in his hand in Simla, Foreign Secretary of British India, Sir Henry McMahon, in 1904, drew a line that separated the two countries. This unmindful act of British colonialists upset the natural tranquillity and geographical co-existence of indigenous people who were unaware of the machinations. It also programmed the DNA of two emerging powers, India and China, to slug it out over territories that only display mindless machismo. Although the border has been quiet since the mid-1980s, and the leadership of the two 'oriental' civilisations have shown sagacity to set aside differences and engage in trade and confidence-building measures, mistrust has not really gone away. It lingers, like bad memory in bad faith.

China's growth rate has been phenomenal. Some believe that it will become a true super power by 2025 and leave the United States of America far behind. Across the Himalayas, India has sustained a different political system. Among all the countries of the world, despite its transparent ills, evils, failures and contradictions, India seems most qualified to keep pace with China. This realisation is showing up in different ways. This competition is shaking up the Asian region as well as those areas where both the countries are seeking natural resources. In this burgeoning face-off, the US has become a player of sorts. A section of India's strategic establishment mistakenly believes that the US will back India against China. The recent, dangerous and prejudiced flurry of reports in the media against the Chinese government is being attributed to this pro-US lobby that wants India to work in consort with the US to take on its northern neighbour.

This belief is misplaced and loaded with delusion. In the backdrop of global slowdown, Washington, economically dependant on China, is doing everything to keep Beijing happy. It is willing to allow a role for Beijing, much to our discomfort, in stabilising the Af-Pak situation. In other parts of the world, too, (as in Africa or Burma) the US is looking the other way in allowing the Chinese to satisfy their search for natural resources. India too prefers the path of nuanced diplomacy - which is the right path. This does not mean that suspicion, antagonism and envy do not cast their shadow. Similar sentiments are exhibited by other Chinese neighbours like Vietnam and Japan. As an analytical article in the Hardnews cover package shows, the Chinese fad for massive militarisation and defence acquisition might be strategically a self-defence manoeuvre, but countries in its immediate periphery feel threatened. Surely, Frost needs a makeover. We need a new border discourse in the neighbourhood, based on peaceful co-existence, sharing of economic well being and respect for sovereignty, human rights and democracy.

This story is from print issue of HardNews