Relations between India and China go back nearly two thousand five hundred years when India exported Buddhism to China and there were regular visits by priests, travellers, and traders between the countries. Yet, this year, ironically, the two nations will be celebrating the most fractious 70 years of those historic relations.
These seven decades go back to April 1, 1950, when India became one of the few countries to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. Soon after, the two ancient civilizations sat down to draft a new world order as they emerged out of domestic chaos and imperial clutches.
The initial years exuded ambition, warmth, and the framing of the five principles of peaceful co-existence—Panchsheel. These principles were in 1957 adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly, and later by the Non-Aligned Movement. That was also the time when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was given the thunderous applause of “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” on his reciprocal visit to India. That was then.
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The first rude jolt for India came when the People’s Liberation Army attacked India in 1962 on two fronts—Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Though China withdrew unilaterally from Arunachal Pradesh, it permanently occupied parts of Ladakh. The attack and subsequent defeat put India on the path to military modernisation and in pursuit of nuclear power.
Much has changed since then. From almost an equal economic footing in the 1950s, the two have progressed in different ways. Both have made tremendous progress and brought considerable economic and human development to their people. China is challenging US hegemony at a global level while India is trying to break the shackles of being a regional player.
Ever since the war, bilateral relations between the two have remained cold for close to six decades, though the current leaderships are making efforts to improve relations. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India in September 2014, the same year that Modi came to power in a massive victory. The Indian Prime Minister too went to China in May 2015 and there have been numerous regular meetings between the two leaders. A measure of confidence has been built between the two as both nations are seen to accommodate each other in areas of trade and commerce.
Some other noteworthy examples are cooperation on building the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) proposed by India in 2012. An outstanding idea, it seeks to challenge the hegemony and the opacity of the Bretton Woods institutions and create a parallel structure to the West. Even as China supported India's idea for the NDB, it created another structure—the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), another multilateral development bank and another rival to the World Bank and the IMF. On its part, China invited India as a founding member along with other countries. The creation of the two banks not only show the common vision of the two nations but also the facts that they want to challenge the global status quo and work together, even if occasionally.
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However, such a united front on the global stage does not hide the fact that despite persistent negotiations, the two are unable to resolve bilateral relations beyond a small measure. The Mamallapuram summit in 2019 is a case in point. It dealt with economic cooperation and reducing trade deficit but did not touch on the more substantive issues that dog relations between the Asian giants.
India looks upon China with suspicion, an emotion which China reciprocates.
The two countries, which hold a whopping 37 per cent of the world population, do not see eye to eye on most issues. China cannot wrap its head around issues that matter to India—the border dispute, the Kashmir issue, fostering of terrorism by Pakistan, the string of pearls being built around India, and a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council. In fact, despite all the talk about reducing the trade deficit in India’s favor, China has not moved its little finger on it. The trade imbalance stands at $53.57 billion in 2018-2019 and, ironically, includes considerable numbers of inferior quality goods. Even though this is the reduced figure over 2017-18, India is also a destination for goods of Chinese origin coming into India from Singapore and Hong Kong as well.
China was able to get its telecom major Huawei enlisted for 5G trials in India despite India’s security concerns about China’s telecom companies, a view that is shared by many countries in the Western world.
The scars of the 1962 war roused India from its slumber and the country has built fairly effective and modern security forces, including nuclear weapons. However, it is in the geopolitical theatre that the nation continues to be out-maneuvered by lack of a cohesive strategy and long-term vision. The ‘String of Pearls’ is one area where Delhi finds itself in a spot. Beijing has been efficiently stringing, the rather beautifully-sounding ‘String of Pearls’ one by one around India. The peals are the exorbitant pieces of civilian infrastructure in ports surrounding India, which can be converted as Chinese military assets if need be. Sri Lanka has already given its Hambantota Port on lease; Maldives had to part with islands; the Gwadar port in Pakistan is as good as Chinese with the doddering economic state that Pakistan is in; and China is also building a deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu, Myanmar.
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Despite many countries in the neighborhood in India’s sphere of influence, India has allowed them to slip away into Chinese hands, and now feels the pinch of insecurity as Chinese naval vessels visits these ports routinely. During one the emergencies in Maldives, when India rushed its aircraft and naval vessels, it found that China too had roused its navy to counter the Indians. Practically, the Chinese have already surrounded India.
On the other side, the Pakistan ghost in India’s western courtyard has effectively hampered India’s rise globally. It is surprising that it has been able to do so while sending across terrorists on global killing missions and sheltering Osama bin Laden, but not so surprising when seen that it has an iron backing of China. India has not been able to wrangle a permanent seat at the UN Security Council because China has successfully stymied it, of course, in part prodded by Pakistan. The other four, USA, Russia, France and the UK have endorsed India’s candidature in a brand new revamped UNSC but regional rivalries across continents keep tripping the expansion.
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It is a similar case in point over the issue of terrorism where India finds Chinese support to Pakistan resolute—India’s northern neighbor has defied the US to repeatedly block resolutions moved by India, the US, the UK and France at the UN to declare Masood Azhar an international terrorist. It is a repeat of a non-stop story over Kashmir. Ever since the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir in August 2019, China has raised the issue umpteen times at the UN despite being put down repeatedly by India supported by over a dozen countries. Caught between the two all-weather allies, India’s diplomacy was on the back-foot for months as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan traversed the globe on borrowed jets just to get back at India and China kept a constant din in UN forums.
China’s remains relentless in pulling down its southern neighbor, largely owning to a recalcitrant and incorrigible Pakistan.
Significantly, India has not mustered the same level of consistent opposition or demonstrated the same ill-will towards its big neighbor. It has kept away from pinning down the big brother in international forums, rising only when it is time to safeguard its image, interests, and to right the untruths parroted by the dragon.
The one vital issue where India has taken a stand, and rightly so, is not extending support to China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an increasingly colonial thought that is driving smaller countries into bankruptcy. One of the few countries, India did not buy into the BRI right from the world go, and made it clear to China as well as the world that this was not an initiative conducive to the health of smaller economies.
India had put its foot down by not attending the initial Belt and Road Forum that China had hosted in May 2017. It questioned lack of transparency and processes and also lashed out at both Pakistan and China over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which falls in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In fact, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in 2019 had clarified at the World Economic Forum (WEF): “We are us and not just some other country. It's not just in this initiative but in whole lot of areas. My own sense is as India becomes bigger, we will find concepts developed for other countries won't necessarily apply to us. It's not very likely we’ll copy models… It is connected with sovereign matters."
Jaishankar’s statement underlines India’s vision of being a bigger player on the international arena and that the country will not play ball when concepts like BRI hammer against international norms of sovereignty. According to a 2018 report by the Washington-based Center for Global Development, of the 68 countries which were potential borrowers in the BRI, as many as 23 were found to be at “quite high” risk of debt distress. No wonder, India has taken a principled stand of not being party to a “debt-trap initiative” while warning the rest of the world.
At the same time, the friction between Delhi and Beijing has not stood in the way of frank bilateral talks between the two nations. On the 70-year milestone, Modi said good bilateral relations are conducive not only for the two countries, but also important from the perspective of peace, stability, and prosperity of the region and the world. This is a sentiment reciprocated by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who said that with joint efforts of both sides, the two countries have established a strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity, and are endeavoring to build an even closer partnership of development.
The warmth between the leaders and the need to build stable relations should not obfuscate the realities that surround India-China relations. Complacency of the 1960s that gave a shock and brought about a defeat cannot be allowed to overpower our senses again. The coronavirus crisis that emanated from the wet markets of Wuhan and overwhelmed the globe in a menacing manner is another rude reminder of China’s overreaching powers..