New Delhi: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” George Santayana’s words ring a bell in everyone’s mind as history is pervasive and ineffaceable. The past had definitely been a mixed bag in Sino-Indian equations and the 1962 War clearly left a huge psychological dent that both countries have found hard to repair till date. However, it is impossible for either country to ignore the other as both impact severely on the regional security scenario and are expected to play a significant role in the international arena politically and economically. On the issue of climate change and even at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations, the two have cooperated. There may be thousands of avenues of cooperation between the two countries but trust deficit and other geostrategic factors have only led to further estrangement.
A Tale of Two Nations
The cause for the 1962 War and the Chinese aggression can not be watered down to one or even two but the sovereignty of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh was one of the most prominent ones. The road that China built through Aksai Chin to connect the regions of Tibet and Xinjiang was one of the trigger-points of conflict between the two countries. The territorial dispute between the two nations is on two fronts – Aksai Chin (Western sector) that lies to the east of the Kashmir valley and covers an area of about 37,250 square kilometres is currently occupied by China; and most of Arunachal Pradesh (Eastern sector) that China calls South Tibet and covers an area of 83,743 square kilometres. The McCartney MacDonald Line and the McMahon Line are the effective boundaries between the two nations in the Western and the Eastern sectors respectively. Interestingly, both these lines were promulgated and formalised during the British era in India and both of them coincide with the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that remains disputed to this date even though it has achieved legal recognition in the agreements between the two countries signed in 1993 and 1996.
The first major attempt to establish constructive relations was made in 1954 when the slogan of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” was floated by the Indian contingent that was gratified by the progress made on this front by endorsing the five principles of peaceful coexistence. What many forget is the fact that the Panchsheel Agreement did not include the border issue directly. However, the agreement tacitly mentions the mountain passes along which the boundary would lie by specifying that the traders and pilgrims could travel by them. They are Shipki La Pass, Mana Pass, Niti Pass, Kungribingri Pass, darma Pass and Lipu Lekh Pass.
This bonhomie was short-lived due to the imminent Tibetan uprising in 1959 that forced the Dalai Lama XIV to flee from Lhasa and at a time when China was in the process of pressurising the international community not to give shelter to him, India decided to disregard China’s diktats and invite him to its land. Ethically, this might be the correct decision but to this day, many deem it as the biggest strategic blunder that India could have committed at that point of time. This served as the platform on which China could raise its offensive against India; and in response, Nehru adopted the ‘forward policy’ that focussed on beefing up India’s defences along the border especially in the so-called disputed regions. The Chinese determination to “teach India (and Nehru) a lesson” became increasingly evident with more and more Chinese intrusions into Indian Territory and aggressive acts along the border. One another geostrategic factor that gave China a big boost was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both the nuclear superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union – were preoccupied with finding a peaceful denouement to the crisis.
India’s China policy during Nehru’s years was fraught with contradictions. The manner in which he handled the Tibet question caused enough damage to India-China relations. He was quick to shift from his initial trans-Himalayan policy followed by the British that recognised Tibet as a separate entity and even supported the idea of providing military aid to Lhasa, to a sort of appeasement policy by formally endorsing China’s sovereignty over Tibet after a few feeble diplomatic protests.
From 1959 to 1976, relations between the two countries remained tense and successive diplomatic failures resulted in further tensions. It was only in the year 1988 that both nations especially India under the leadership of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi initiated diplomatic efforts to build peace and this proved to be a major turning point. This was taken forward by the succeeding Prime Ministers, particularly Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, leading to strong economic ties and a united stand at some of the international platforms against Western exclusivism.
Bridges and Chasms
A whole range of issues looms large over India-China relations. The Dalai Lama and his Government-in-exile in Dharamshala has been a thorn in the flesh ever since Tibet became part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and he sought refuge in India that was granted by the latter. China continues to depict Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory in its official maps. At the same time, there are several common grounds between the two countries that could take Sino-Indian relations to a new level of cooperation. The commonalities do not stop at civilisational ties or colonial histories. Besides being two of the largest countries in the world and economic power houses in Asia, both have similar vulnerabilities whether it is energy requirements or environmental change. What separates the two is the ideological force that guides the political/administrative machinery of the two countries as well as the role of the military in foreign policy making.
The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) stake in China’s foreign policy became stark when the Central Military Commission (CMC) released its report in 1993 in which India figured prominently. This report was aimed at reassessing China’s security position and threats in the post-Cold War era. It called India a “long-term potential adversary”. One of the failures of Indian diplomacy has been complete negation of the military as far as foreign policy is concerned. Handling of military dialogue between India and China by the Defence Secretary without any consultation with the military is illogical and incorrect. One of the reasons why China has been able to make inroads into all the South Asian countries is the robust relationship that PLA has been able to establish with the militaries of these countries.
Economic ties have grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years albeit mostly in China’s favour. Trade has been an integral part of relations between the two countries for ages; the Silk Road, extending 4,000 miles enabled trade of goods, ideas and cultures for many years. It was after both countries decided to open up their economies (China in 1978 and India in 1991) that economic cooperation between the two countries began to grow. However, both conferred the Most Favoured Nation status on each other in 1984. By 2007, China had emerged as India’s larges trading partner overtaking the US. In 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao singed a communiqué in which they set a bilateral target of $100 billion to be reached by 2015. What goes against Indian interests is the fact that the trade is heavily in favour of China; India’s deficit in 2012 stands at $13.7 billion. The other flipside of these trade ties is the heavy influx of Chinese goods into the Indian market that is now impacting the domestic manufacturers in a great manner. Indian goods are exceedingly struggling to compete against dearth cheap Chinese goods. The Indonesian Batik industry, for instance, has been heavily hit by Chinese presence. Whether or not trade can be taken as a yardstick for cooperation is debatable. Investments on the other hand could be treated as a benchmark without second thoughts. China’s investments in India are negligible.
Sub-regional initiatives have been touted as one of the modes of boosting cooperative mechanisms between the two countries. However, the rhetoric built around such initiatives with the employment of phrases such as “mutual economic benefit” and “people-to-people contact” raises several questions regarding their effectiveness and credibility. The reality is that China opens itself only selectively to such initiatives. For example, in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar initiative, only the province of Yunnan finds a place. Also, China calls for integration of only the Northeast of India with the initiative. Therefore, China follows the centre-periphery model. If this sub-regional arrangement is treated as one economic block, Chinese would win on all counts. The Chinese are far ahead of others in the manufacturing sector and the costs of production and distribution are very low in their country. Yunnan, which is actually under-developed, would gain most from such an arrangement as it would be the centre of China’s activities. The Northeast, which is very rich in natural resources, would be exploited. One of the policies of China has been to push its unemployed population to the areas along the boundary and this has created resentment among several of its neighbours including Vietnam and now Myanmar. India would definitely not like such a scenario to develop in the Northeast, which is an already politically and militarily volatile region.
India-China relations are very much dependent on some external factors, one of them being the US. China has reportedly been wary of growing Indo-US ties especially after the signing of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2008. The Chinese leadership perceives strengthening of Indo-US relations as a means of counterbalancing China in Asia to a certain extent. The PLA has a zero-sum game approach towards India and the US. Their intention is to make India weak before it becomes a strong ally of the US; therefore, India has always been a sub-set of China’s larger strategy to compete with the US and overtake it in the coming years. Secondly, the growing Chinese influence in both South Asia and the Indian Ocean region poses threat to India’s interests in the region. Chinese proximity to India’s neighbours has added to the woes of the Indian foreign policy makers and strategists. China-Pakistan nexus is just one among several challenges that threaten India’s national security.
The Future Hangs in the Balance
In the future, the two nations can together guide the world economy considering the fact that China is one of the most prolific manufacturing hubs of the world while India is one of the most promising leaders in the services/knowledge sector. Coming to tourism, tens and thousands of tourists from China travel to Europe, the US and Southeast Asia. There are at present hundreds of flights a month from different international airports in China to these regions. Contrastingly, there are only a dozen direct flights between India and China. Both countries have a population of more than a billion and they share the Buddhist lineage which should be exploited to promote tourism. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for the Chinese to get visa to visit India and vice-versa.
Even in the field of education, India could prove to be a huge English language teaching market for the Chinese as the latter are making efforts to learn this global language to enhance their business interests across the globe. Furthermore, at a time when India should actually be among the top three trading partners of China, it is not. Chinese companies have faced obstacles while attempting to invest in India as there continues to be a mind block towards greater Chinese engagement in India. On similar lines, the Indian software industry has barely been able to take baby steps in expanding its influence in the Chinese market. On the nuclear policy front, India and China have historically been at loggerheads. India, being a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has faced Chinese opposition on various occasions; the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) meetings are a case in point in which the passage of India-specific waiver to facilitate nuclear trade and commerce between India and other members of the NSG was opposed continuously by China.
Jairam Ramesh’s “Chindia” might be a little far-fetched as of now since the two countries are in reality not comparable with China being much ahead of India in a majority of sectors. However, synergy is driven by respect for cultures and thus India-China linkages are expected to increase exponentially in the coming years. China is undoubtedly the numero uno security issue. However, it is not yet a problem or a threat. Both should compete and in fact both countries have enough space to compete with each other in the world; but this should not lead to conflicts. India and China are two economic powers of today and the future of the world depends on how they can cooperate to promote peace and stability.
The author is a Research Associate at Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS).