By Lt Gen S L Narasimhan (Retd)
India China relations seem to be moving towards the Nadir. The already tense relations have been further accentuated by China’s reaction to His Holiness Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. Even prior to the visit, the relations between both the countries were affected by some Chinese actions and some actions of India that were not supportive of China.
In a four part series of articles, it is intended to trace the course of India China relationship, the convergences and divergences in that relationship and suggest ways to improve the bilateral relationship.
India – China bilateral relations are defined by a complex balance of competition and cooperation. Their remarkable growth in Comprehensive National Power fuelled by the economic growth and military capabilities have led to more frequent and sustained political interactions. Sino-Indian relations are centered on the border dispute, the fight against terrorism, differing concepts of state sovereignty, the desire for recognition at the international level, and the search for natural resources beyond Asia to support their economic growth.
Till 2014, India-China relations had maintained a good momentum in their development, with co-operation being the dominant factor. The two sides sought to continue raising the level of mutual political trust and promote the in-depth development of bilateral co-operation. The governments of both countries have their own reasons for wanting stable ties: the desire for a peaceful periphery in order to focus on domestic socio-economic objectives; the need for stability in Asia, especially in the aftermath of American draw down of forces from Afghanistan; existing and potential economic ties; and the prospect for cooperation in the multilateral realm.
Present day Sino-Indian relations stand at crossroads. On one hand, there is growing military and economic competition, while on the other there is also co-operation. But first, we need to understand the current state of affairs, divergences / convergences between the two countries and the complexities involved. The challenge for both countries is to find ways to increasingly convert the divergences into convergences. There is wide latitude for further co-operation and it is intended to broadly identify the most promising threads of convergence for mutual benefit.
The only way for that to happen, however, is for both the countries to realise the responsibility that comes with their status as rising powers. By working together, they can best tap existing and future opportunities to build mutual trust and respect. In view of its position as a rising Asian power, the world is now looking towards India to help in maintaining peace, stability and development in the South Asian and Indian Ocean Region and create a balance of power in this part of the world. If both India and China can embrace the responsibility that comes with that, and facilitate greater regional integration, a lot can be done. It is not entirely impossible despite a history of “mutual suspicion”, and this paper will focus on feasibility of resolving these differences.
A Glance at India – China Relationship
Historically, India and China have had good relations. This fact was underlined when in April 2003, Mr Wen Jiabao told then Indian Defence Minister Late Mr George Fernandes that India China relations have been friendly for 99.99% of the history[ CITATION Kul10 l 2057 ]. China’s scholars Xuan Zang and Fa Xian’s visit to India is well known and documented. Even today, common Chinese recognize that Buddhism went to China from India. In the contemporary period, from 1949 to 1957 the relations between India and China were good. It is from the time that an Indian patrol located a highway built by China through Aksai Chin that the relations started going downhill. With the forward posture being adopted by Indian armed forces, the number of face offs between Indian and Chinese patrols increased. This led to further deterioration of bilateral relations. The rhetoric created by political leaders and the media aggravated the situation. Finally, both the countries entered into a conflict in 1962 that created scars in the minds of Indian polity and the people that is still to heal.
Post the 1962 conflict, there was a chill in the relationship between India and China. In 1974 India exploded her first nuclear device for peaceful purposes. This created a perceived imbalance of power in South Asia and India started getting looked at as a peer competitor if not a rival by China. Therein lies the new era of the China – Pakistan relationship. India – China relations started thawing after Late Mr Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988. In the period that followed, India started hyphenating the bilateral relationship with that of China – Pakistan relationship. However, China was clear that she had to empower Pakistan as a countervailing power to India. The China – Pakistan relationship grew stronger than the China – India relationship. A number of mechanisms were established to discuss the unresolved boundary issue between India and China. Eminent Persons group and Joint Working Group met a number of times. Though outwardly, no progress was made by these mechanisms, it assisted each side in having a better understanding of each other’s view on the issue. However, India – China relations remained subordinate to China – Pakistan relations during this period.
In the late 1990s, India started de hyphenating her relationship with China from the China – Pakistan relations. During the visit of Mr Vajpayee to China in 2003, a decision was taken to upgrade the boundary talks to the Special Representative level. This happened because of the realisation that political backing was required to take the talks forward. 19 rounds of talks have been held so far between the Special Representatives. While India kept changing the Special representatives with change in regimes or due to the demise of the special representative, Mr Dai Bingguo stayed on as China’s Special Representative till he attained super annuation in 2013. Mr Shiv Shankar Menon in his book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, says that though technically it is possible to resolve the boundary it is politically unlikely implying that technical details have been worked out. The period between 2000 and 2014 saw the strategic relationship improving but tactical level differences increasing.
When the Fifth Generation Leadership came to power in 2013, one of the first visits that Mr Li Keqiang undertook was to India. However, that visit was marred by a face-off between Indian and Chinese patrols in the Daulat Beg Oldi area. In 2014, Chinese President Mr Xi Jinping visited India. That visit was overshadowed by a face-off between Indian and Chinese patrols in Chumar area. Ever since that time, the number of face-offs between Indian and Chinese forces have been reducing.
However, the strategic level relationship has entered a stalemate while tactical level differences have been reducing.
While analysing the India-China defence cooperation, one cannot diverse oneself from other factors affecting the bilateral relationship because it is not a stand-alone aspect. The issue can be best understood by analyzing the divergences, convergences and the existing state of affairs in bilateral relationship. This will generate more ideas to enhance the bilateral cooperation between both countries. At present the divergences in the India-China bilateral relation is actually more than the convergences. Hence, there is a need to institute measures to enhance cooperation to bridge the existing gap.
In the second part of the trilogy, we will look into the convergences and divergences in the India China Relationship. Adieu till then.