Dialogue  July-September  2009, Volume 11 No.1


India and China: Why Difficult Meeting Ground?


Bhaskar Roy


When Chinese leaders talk of 2000 years of happy relations between China and India, they do so to circumvent some prickly questions. The theory, in reality, is misleading. A few Buddhist monks travelled to Tibet and China to spread their philosophy. An even fewer Chinese scholars came to Nalanda, the biggest university in the world at that time, to study. Even they were vastly outnumbered by visiting scholars from South East Asia. The fact is that Indian culture and religion were far more deep in South East Asia (including what was Indo-China) in the ancient times. These are seen and respected by the people there – Angkor Vat in Kampuchea, Bali in Indonesia, and in Thailand.

     Therefore, instead of mouthing worn out platitudes, the leaders of India and China in all fields – political, cultural, historical – must look for the roots of how and why this mutual animosity started, and seek ways to resolve it thereafter. The path ahead is, however, difficult and made more complex by China’s determination to become the central Kingdom or middle Kingdom in Asia around which the lesser countries of this large continent revolve.

      The solar system on earth, with the Chinese emperor as the “Son of Heaven” to which the smaller kingdoms of the country paid obeisance, was an old Chinese philosophical concept. It had very deep meaning, and may be an idea for a “harmonious society” headed by the patriarch, from which President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Hu Jintao may have drawn inspiration for his “harmonious world” theory. The first generation leader of Communist China, Mao Zedong, drew concentric circles on the maps of South Asia and South East showing countries areas over which China must have sovereignty,  suzerainty   and primary  influence respectively. Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh fell into the sovereignty and suzerainty sub-circles along with Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.

      Mao was fully aware that such a strategy would take decades, if not a century, to achieve if at all. Therefore, the question arises whether India really lost the opportunity to settle the boundary issue on Chinese offers in the 1950s and in 1988. But it appears the vague terms in which the 1988 offer was made, later withdrawn by the Chinese as only a concept, did not differ from what the Chinese have for minimum demand in Arunachal Pradesh i.e. Tawang. Although the Chinese claim Tawang on the grounds that the 6th Dalai Lama was born there, it also is of vital strategic importance to India in terms of the Siliguri corridor, a small and only land link between the rest of India and north east India. On the other hand for China, possession of Tawang is of equal strategic significance, an un-paralleled military advantage against India. 

      In 2005, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India, an agreement was drawn up between the two sides on modalities for resolving the boundary issues. One of the clauses of the agreement was that there will be no transfer of population (Clause 4). The Chinese are now reneging on this clause because of Tawang.

     It is very well known that the Chinese authorities are anything, but sentimental. The claim on Tawang, as they say in deference to the sentiments of the Tibetan people, is a weak argument which does not merit any consideration. The importance of Tawang is military and strategic. There is no other reason.

     People in both India and China are beginning to talk about the mistrust, or lack of trust (two have subtly different meanings), between India and China. Both are true. But the roots of the two are different. In China’s case, it is state conditioned. In India’s case, it is the “great betrayal” of 1962, and how the eulogy of friendship “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai” was sarcastically abused by the Chinese soldiers on the battle fields of 1962. 

    It may be futile to talk about the support, love and admiration the people of India had for the Chinese people especially during the war against Japan. Jawaharlal Nehru and poet Rabindranath Tagore were the main catalysts for this. Pt. Nehru, as India’s first Prime Minister, supported Mao’s China against all odds. But he is the man who has been most vilified attacked by Chinese propaganda.

     In recent history, India stood by China in most difficult times including the 1989 international actions against China on the Tien An Men incident. China repaid all these by its virulent propaganda attack against India following India’s 1998 nuclear test, and tried to gather international pressure to close India’s nuclear programme. These attacks continued well into this century.

     In the people-to-people context, for the last six decades Chinese children from the early formative year in school have been conditioned by rigidly tailored teaching by the state. That includes the most important areas of history and culture. Foreigners are barbarians and enemies, not to be trusted. China has now created a huge army of ultra-nationalist “netizens” or computer network users, who inundate “world wide web” at any hint of China being criticized! While the Chinese authorities are using the group as an alternate warfare unit, the policy could well blow back on the system as is happening with the state sponsored terrorists of Pakistan.  

     China may claim it has resolved boundary disputes with all countries except India, but it has at the same time generated trust deficit with most countries on its periphery except Pakistan. Notwithstanding trade military purchase relations with Russia, there remains a deep distrust between the two because of historical reasons i.g. post World War-II history.

     Where territorial disputes are concerned China’s claims on the Spratly Islands in South China Sea has put it squarely against the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. The South China sea territorial issue is becoming a “flash point” mainly because of China’s recent intransigent stand supported by military manoeuvres in the area. Another potential “flash point” is China’s claims over the Senkaku (Diayou) islands in East China Sea which are in Japan’s possession. And all territorial problems with Vietnam are not over.

     In the face of the unrelenting Chinese propaganda, echoed by their firm ally Pakistan, and lately joined by a section in Nepal, this questionable nature of China’s territorial claims have been drowned in South Asia, including the Indian public.

    The real corrosive effect of Chinese propaganda and media psychological warfare which the old Soviet Union KGB called “Active Measures”, have hardly been understood in India in the broadest of sense – government, intelligentsia, media persons, politicians and the general public who like to call them informed. The reason is that the Indian political, bureaucratic and media establishments have been engrossed in a China empowered adversary, Pakistan, which is easier to deal with and has more public appeal. This is sad. 

    Chinese propaganda targeting India has had a free run. Therefore, the Chinese authorities have expressed indignation and shown discomfort when the Indian media like the Times of India  and the Hindustan Times  published reports to China’s dislike, recently. The mandarins in Beijing were aggrieved. Only they must have their way, or else! Communist China leaders has always displayed an attitudinal problem in foreign relations, starting from Mao Zedong. It appears to have been deliberately cultivated arrogance to put the interlocutor or opponent under pressure. None have been spared – the old Soviet Union, the USA, Japan and, of course, India.

      In more recent times, even currently, India has been projected as a hegemon in the South Asian context. In the last one year, Chinese ambassadors in Nepal, visiting Chinese officials and advisors to the Chinese government have suo moto assured Nepal of protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This went to the extent that one senior Chinese scholar and advisor to the Chinese government openly stating in an newspaper interview in Kathmandu that China was aware India was planning to “Sikkimise” Nepal, and China will not stand by.

      Earlier this year, the Chinese  opposed an Asian Development Bank assistance to India for development projects in Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese effort failed, but it is on record. In June, China blocked an Indian move in the UN to declare the Pakistani Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD) Chief Hafeez Mohammad Saeed a terrorist on the ground that the evidence against him was not sufficient. Of course, China was working in Pakistan’s interest. But it put a question mark on Beijing’s true commitment to counter terrorism.

      Indians have not forgotten either the inappropriate manner in which Ambassador Nirupama Rao, now Foreign Secretary, was summoned by Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing in the middle of the night in 2008, to be read out a demarche on Tibetan activities in India. Then came the big blow when Beijing tried to block the India-US civilian nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting, also last year.

      Circumstances, however, forced Beijing to soften its approach on the eve of the talks. Ambassador Zhang Yan in New Delhi followed up a People’s Daily  article on growing relations with India. The Chinese delegation leader and veteran negotiator Dai Bingguo said China supports a greater Indian role in international affairs. Both sides gave a positive spin avoiding public airing of disagreements, if any.

      Just prior to the talks, the Indian Foreign Ministry decided to send out a message that India will no longer be pushed around. Minister of State Sashi Tharoor said China had no locus standi in Arunachal Pradesh. In Beijing, the Indian Embassy issued a press note to Chinese newspaper de-bunking their articles on Indian market protectionism. It was made clear that China was dumping goods. This was a welcome change in India’s China policy. 

      What may have been missed out by general observers of India-China relations in India, was an article in the China controlled Hong Kong Chinese language newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, just prior to the talks. It commented that “In the current world situation where a China-US-Russia triumvirate has clearly emerged, India’s strategy to draw close to the US economically and to Russia militarily” shows it is in a “non-co-operation “ (can be read as ‘confrontational’) path with China. The comment added this would adversely affect India’s rise in Asia and regional power role in South Asia.

      Newspaper the Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po were set up by China in Hong Kong as sounding boards to the outside world. Hence, what they write is highly significant. In the present case, the Ta Kung Pao  report sends a very serious message that in China’s perception, India’s growing strategic relations with the US and the stepped up military co-operation with Russia were challenging China’s quest to become the preeminent  power in Asia, that  is, an unipolar Asia with China as the pole. The warning was also very clear that if India did not restrict its independent strategic ambition in Asia, China will do everything to make India’s stability in South Asia, difficult.

     This is as strong a threat as can be expected when China was simultaneously holding business as usual talks with India.

     This is not an idle threat. With Pakistan as the ever enduring anti-India pivot, China seems to have pulled out all stops to use most of India’s neighbours to put it in a straight jacket. Apart from what has been mentioned on China’s activities in Nepal, Pakistan’s foreign ministry recently approached willing section in Nepal and the Nepali government to form a Nepal – China – Pakistan triangular arrangement for mutual support and advantage in the region. This message was carried by Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir to Kathmandu earlier this year.

     In spite of now open disclosures that the Chinese state owned arms trading giant, NORINCO, supplied the LTTE with millions of dollars of arms and ammunition, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government in Sri Lanka have visibly leaned towards Beijing because of the latter’s unstinted military support in the war against the LTTE. President Premadasa is too shrewd not to understand the LTTE-NORINCO relations, but a Sinhala chauvinist his interests lie elsewhere. He was also able to defy the west’s persuasion to talk with the LTTE, and heap sarcasm on the West.

      In a very pointed statement, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rasitha Bogollogama described Sri Lanks’s relationship with India and China thus: With India there is an old historical and cultural relationship; China is a “friend in need”. Sri Lankan inclination under the Rajapaksa government needs no further explanation. 

      A quick shift in strategic relations of Sri Lanka became visible in the immediate aftermath of the LTTE’s defeat. Most striking was President Rajapaksa’s first foreign trip to Myanmar, which was described by his foreign minister as highly significant. This was followed by Myanmar’s aid to Sri Lanka for internally displaced people, and visit of foreign minister Nyan Win to Colombo. Simultaneously, there was stepped up Sri Lankan high level visits to China, and opening of more investment opportunity to Chinese state-owned companies in Sri Lanka.

      Details are long, but what is emerging is a new Sri Lanka-China-Myanmar trilateralism not seen before. With Pakistani overt and covert military assistance to Sri Lanka, the so-called Chinese pearl necklace around India seems to be complete. Only with the change of government in Bangladesh, Dhaka is no longer in this game when this political disposition is concerned.

    In terms of a loosely constructed Game Theory, the Matrix is as follows:

China (Centre Point) – India (Target)

       o    Pak-China-Nepal

       o    Sri Lanka-China- Myanmar

       o    Pak-China-Myanmar

       o    Pak-Sri Lanka-China

       o    Bangladesh-in and out as per the government in power.

       Given the above matrix, a serious question must be asked of Indian foreign policy mandarins why India has rather difficult relations with almost all its neighbours, though most of them are India dependent in many ways. Pakistan is an exception because the problem goes back to partition of India.

      It is understood that smaller countries have many complaints about their better endowed and larger neighbours. But India cannot put the blame solely on these countries. Suffice it to say that Indian diplomats have, at times, behaved arrogantly, and sometimes superciliously. A deep introspection is urgently called for. Here also is a serious question of attitude of Indian diplomacy.

      In the case of China, however, Indian diplomacy has been more than accommodative in the past. Chinese troops along the India-China (Tibet) border have more often than not transgressed the 1993 Peace and Tranquility Treaty (PTT) and the 1993 Confidence Building Measures (CBM) agreement of 1996, both signed at the highest levels between the two countries.  Very little of this have found their way to educate the Indian public. Such attitudes from the Indian side have encouraged the Chinese to try and push India into as submissive a position as possible in the interest of peaceful relationship which could be developed further.

      There is an old Chinese saying ‘respect this strong, and blackmail this weak”. Therefore, the Chinese authorities have been taken aback with India’s assertion to protect its rights, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

      The recent amiable Chinese position on the eve of the 13th SR level talks was a tactical halt to its aggressive activities. It is not in a position to raise tensions with India at the moment because of some very recent developments. One of them is the Uighur Muslim riots of June 5-6 in Urumqi, capital of China’s North West Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous region. It is a very serious problem of minority issues in China, mainly of Beijing’s doing. It has its international implications, may be more than the Tibetan issue, because the Uighur issue is a Muslim problem.

       Other problems include difficult relations with Japan, territorial disputes in this region as mentioned earlier, strategic dance with the US watching each step, and possible Indian role in the USA’s China policy, among many others.

       The main thrust over India, however, endures and endures strongly.

      Chinese strategic planners, who include President Hu Jintao and hardliners in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), appear to be on a high and hurry to consolidate China’s straddle on Asia and the world. They are floating on their economic might ($2.15 trillion in foreign exchange and near No.2 economic power in the world) to advance their military strike capability well beyond its national forward defensive arc. The aim, as per Chinese strategic discussion from 2004, is to consolidate their supremacy from the Western line of North Africa to the Eastern line of Asia-Pacific region, Indian Ocean and Central Asia included. Highly ambitious indeed, with all the ingredients to ignite a “thousand prairies”. 

     The new adjustment in India’s foreign policy which includes China, and  determination to build a minimum credible nuclear deterrence emergence, is a concern for Beijing.

     The Chinese were the main beneficiaries of the cold war, at least vis-a-vis India. But as the Ta Kung Pao article conveys, India is now seen in a strategic arrangement with both the US and Russia. The “China-Russia-US” triumvirate is just an empty balloon in the wind.

     Having said that, the region from South Asia to South East Asia – Asia Pacific is in for a lot of tension – politically, diplomatically, economically and militarily. India is a major player notwithstanding Chinese efforts to make it a minor subservient. The signing of the India-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is significant. The India-ASEAN FTA is now just a matter of time. The real game is just ahead.  


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati