India and China are two big neighbours. Both are fast developing nations with global ambitions. The challenge lies in managing this competition in a healthy manner and not allowing it to lead to confrontation.
Nations are products of their histories. China had a ‘century of humiliation’ from which it came out in the middle of the last century to build a modern socialist state. A long war and a long march led by Mao Zedong preceded its liberation.
India too faced centuries of colonial occupation before it finally unshackled itself around the same time that of China. India achieved it through Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement.
Historical and civilisational experiences of the two countries shaped future growth trajectories of both. Right at the onset of India’s Independence, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid down certain benchmarks for India’s foreign policy.
- India will build an Asian alliance. Nehru hosted the 1st Asian Relations Conference in March 1947, even before India became fully independent. Almost all the important Asian leaders were present at that conference.
- India will remain non-aligned; it will also retain its sovereign autonomy. Nehru was one of the tall leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) together with Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Marshall Tito of the erstwhile Yugoslavia and Sukarno of Indonesia.
- India will strive for peace and non-aggression; but will continue to build strength for its self-defence. Nehru championed Panchsheel — the five principles of peaceful coexistence, but also initiated India’s nuclear programme during his prime ministership.
India continued its journey on these principles. There were no major U-turns in its foreign policy in the last seven decades. It largely remained a continuum.
Nehru, unfortunately, became obsessed about ideas like Panchsheel, and faltered in the process. Leaders like P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi added the important dimension of pragmatism during their tenures. Modi aggressively pursued the policies of neighbourhood first, sovereign autonomy and de-hyphenation in relations with countries. Diaspora diplomacy is his unique contribution to foreign policy.
China, under Mao, developed its foreign policy based on its own historical experience. The violent Long March of the Red Army continued after the creation of the Communist China in 1949.
Annexation of Tibet on the one hand and the involvement in the Korean War on the other had shaped its foreign policy in the initial years into a machismo one.
It didn’t take long for India to experience it. Nehru’s ‘peaceful coexistence’ came face to face with Mao’s ‘armed coexistence’ in just a decade’s time when the Chinese People’s Army, after completing its occupational mission in Tibet, stood at its doorstep in early 1960s. A war and a period of chill in diplomatic relations ensued.
Efforts began in the 1980s to find a common purpose once again in the bilateral relationship.
Deng Xiaoping, the supreme leader, told the visiting Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 that the two countries should strive together to make the impending twenty-first century as the ‘Asian Century’.
India supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization towards the end of the last century.
Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, on a visit to India in 2010, even reminded New Delhi that the history of tensions between the two countries was just five decades old while the history of friendship and bon homie was over 2,000 years.
“China and India are connected by mountains and rivers and enjoy a traditional friendship dating back more than 2,000 years”, he said.
Yet, here we are today, standing eyeball to eyeball once again, almost on the brink of another war. It is instructive to analyse the history and strategise about the best course for future.
1. Peaceful Rise: India has a proclaimed ‘ambition to rise as an influential and responsible global power’. But its rise has been and will continue to be peaceful and beneficial to other countries. China has grown impressively in the last few decades. It continues to grow and aspires to become the world’s largest economy in a couple of decades. Can the current Chinese leadership ensure that it will be a ‘peaceful rise’?
Deng, as the supreme leader, recognised this imperative and managed the rise of Chinese in a very innocuous manner in the 1980s and 1990s. His famous dictum — “Hide your strength — Bide your time” — ensured that China’s rise didn’t rattle other countries.
The foundations for China’s unprecedented growth were laid during Deng’s regime in a very silent and unobtrusive manner. But President Xi Jinping displayed a different style. Deng’s reticence has been replaced by Xi’s aggression and haughtiness. Phrases like ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ and ‘Big Power Diplomacy’ became ubiquitous under Xi’s rule after 2013. It is for the Chinese leadership to think if this approach is really helping the country.
2. Talking and Engagement: When the rise of nations is not that peaceful, the next important imperative is to be engaged in talking. Mature leaders of India and China are talking with each other regularly. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi have met 17 times so far. They developed a good mutual friendship also.
At the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Soviets and the Americans were almost on the brink of a nuclear war until president John F Kennedy of America decided one afternoon to reach out to the Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev with the help of his brother Robert Kennedy and of the Soviet Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dorbynin. That one message had saved the Soviet Union and America from a disastrous war and the world from the Armageddon.
The Chinese friends these days suggest that the border dispute should be decoupled from bilateral trade and civilian relations.
On the surface, it sounds very benign. However, its implications need to be analysed carefully.
In fact, it is not a new suggestion either. When prime minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988, the intrinsic understanding was that the border dispute may be frozen for some time and other issues may be taken up for bilateral discussion.
Freezing borders means freezing on both sides. But if one side continues to violate the borders, the other side cannot be expected to ‘decouple’ or ‘freeze’ it. Just as talks and terror cannot go together, talks and border violations also do not go together.
Hence, India and China should actively talk about the border dispute rather than trying to put it on the backburner. The very first principle of the India-China border negotiations was that neither country would alter the status quo, and no armed conflict would be allowed. Both the points have been violated by China during the recent stand-off. Hence, to start with, China should restore status quoante in the western sector to April this year.
3. Trust Deficit and Perception Management: Both India and China are populous nations. People in both the countries are highly nationalistic. Managing perception about each other among the general populace is an important challenge for leaders of both countries. It is important to ensure that people of the other country do not look at us as enemies. In the era of the extensive reach of social media, this perception management becomes even more important.
The ‘trust deficit’ that is often talked about is not limited to leaders alone. It is among the people too. China needs to work hard on this front. Recent survey by the Washington-based PEW Research Foundation highlighted growing negative perception about China in many important countries. Once important trade partners of China, countries like Canada and Australia also today witness steep rise of anti-China sentiments among their citizens.
India is no exception. Anti-China sentiment among the ordinary people of India is at its all-time high today. There are voluntary campaigns to boycott Chinese goods and products. Some Chinese scholars sneer at it. As a democracy, India cannot afford to ignore the popular sentiment altogether, nor can it trample upon it.
There is a famous saying that “we cannot choose our parents”. We cannot choose our neighbours either. We have to learn to live together. India and China have no option but to live and grow together. ‘Growing together’ requires a mindset different from that of mere ‘growing’.
We hear a lot about ‘Big Power Diplomacy’ in China these days. ‘Big Power Diplomacy’ is not about the size of the country or population or military strength. It is about the mindset. What the world experiences is Big Brother Diplomacy. Need of the hour is ‘Big Heart Diplomacy’.
(The article was originally published by Swarajya on November 24, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)