Originally Published 2013-12-30 12:31:31 Published on Dec 30, 2013
Both India and China have already entered an age of pragmatism. But they must soon transform it in an age of competitive realism if they are to jointly architect and mould the Asian century.
Beyond Chinese Whispers and Indian Rope Tricks
" The deeply intertwined civilisational legacies of India and China add a set of textured imperatives to the contemporary relationship between the two Asian giants. The most astute of observers often misses the subtle nuances that get woven into the narratives and discourses of the two countries by these imperatives, focused as they are on evaluating the relationship from the twin rubric of economic competition and regional hegemony. Such a rubric is more than adequate to explain the global geopolitical shifts, the realpolitik of Indian and Western Pacific Ocean regions and the modalities of energy security: strategic actions that have a certain rationale and linearity to it. But it's often inadequate to explain the seemingly sudden eruptions like the Chinese incursions into Indian territories or India's kneejerk ban of Chinese telecommunications equipment. The twin rubric flounders to explain any localised and tactical action that might seem like an irrational departure from a well-laid out script. Any attempt to understand and analyse contemporary Sino-Indian relationship, especially its multiple layers, must factor in the possibility of civilisational imponderables.

India and China have a shared history stretching back to 3000 years, one that's been organically cultivated through an exchange of ideas, people, goods and commodities that was more informal than institutional. If Chinese Buddhism can trace its intellectual and spiritual roots to India, several traditional ship building techniques of Eastern and Southern India can trace its material roots to the Song dynasty. Like all historical exchanges the intermingling of cultures and ways of life led to a series of layered understanding of 'Chineseness' of China and the 'Indianness' of India; an understanding that's ironically as static as it's dynamic. The post-independence contemporary relationship between a modern India and China were underpinned in the initial stages by a shared colonial history and an anti-imperial mindset, best exemplified by Dr Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis who was one of the five Indian doctors who answered the call of Jawaharlal Nehru to help China after Japan invaded the country in 1937. Every single important Indian and Chinese leader has never failed to mention the example of Dr Kotnis as a sub-text of the possibilities that exist between the two countries.

India and China did start off their post-independence relationship on an even keel, with the right mix of emotional and civilisational connections, a burgeoning personal relationship between Nehru and Mao and a shared desire to create a multipolar world order. Yet the inherent contradictions in the processes of nation-building of the respective countries, with India modelled as a secular western democracy and China modelled on a one-party system, created their own set of tensions that started getting reflected in positions taken by both the countries on several issues in multilateral and global forums. The United Nations General Assembly debates of the 1950s and early 1960s on issues of independence of colonies, emerging world order and increasing militarisation make for a fascinating insight on how the internal imperatives of nation building, the nuts and bolts of what constitutes a collective identity of nationhood, got reflected through the respective positions taken by India and China. In identifying the relative positions of both the countries on several issues, one can trace the subtle and nuanced divergences, as well as the definitive departures, that paint a context to the current complexities of the Sino-Indian relationship, especially those revolving around the politics of Asian regionalism and the new world order.

The Sino-Indian relationship rapidly entered an era of suspicion, from an earlier notion of romantic brotherhood, best exemplified by the slogan Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai and the principles of Panchsheel, on the back of the apparently sudden Chinese aggression on Indian borders and the 1964 detonation of a nuclear device by China at its Lop Nor test bed. Both issues need to be seen in the context of India's increasing tilt towards Soviet Union from the beginning of 1960s and China's concomitant deterioration of its once close relationship with the same country. The dynamics of the internal political economy of both India and China during the 1960s and early 1970s, in a curiously ironical way, created an environment of insularity that determined a relatively isolationist foreign policy for both countries. In India the fluid political situation after Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri's death, and the subsequent consolidation of political power by Indira Gandhi through a combination of socialist electoral populism and an aggressive South Asian foreign policy, created the context for a relatively isolationist international position. In China the context was more extreme in the form of Mao Zedong's ill-conceived plans for self-sufficiency and ideological puritanism of Long March and Cultural Revolution respectively. Such an environment led to a narrative and discourse of Sino-Indian relationship that was marked by reactive diplomacy, tactical moves and short-term relationships of convenience by both sides. It's best symbolised by China's tactical relationship with Pakistan, and India's equally tactical support to Vietnam on the issue of Spratly Islands. Both India and China saw each other exclusively as competitors to a larger Asian legacy, and the bilateral relationship was coloured by this prism. Even today, such a lens does dominate parts of the Sino-Indian discourse.

There are two tipping points that changed the nature of the Sino-Indian relationship from one of reactive diplomacy to one that's based on a proactive understanding of shared strategic interests and a larger global role. The first was the implementation of Four Modernisations, initially enumerated by Zhou Enlai in 1963, by Deng Xiaoping from 1978, focussing on agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology. This single step necessitated the opening up of the Chinese economy. The thaw in the relationship with the United States brought about by the Richard Nixon administration as well as the increasing commercial links with European countries also helped end China's insular approach to the world. The second tipping point was the first phase of liberalisation that was brought about by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. It was a period when India, under a young and new prime minister, sought to integrate itself better with a changing world order and deal with deep rooted schisms and ideological positions in the arena of foreign policy. A selective opening up of the Indian economy necessitated a more layered foreign policy approach, one that was more global than ideological in nature. It was an approach that strengthened India's role as a regional power. The period saw a more confident India symbolised by Gandhi's path-breaking visit to China in December 1988 as well the country's positive and proactive interventions in Sri Lanka and Maldives.

The relationship between the two countries after India's second phase of extensive liberalisation in 1991 has been marked by a long-term strategic focus that's based more on a achieving a strong regional balance rather than one of domination and hegemony. Consequently, the Chinese position on the border issue with India, which was once described by Zhou Enlai as 'problems left over by history', has moved to a more practical and all-encompassing position, first enunciated by Deng Xiaoping, of 'solving territorial and marine rights disputes with neighbouring countries through consultation by putting the interests of the whole above everything else, so that the disputes will not hamper the normal development of state relations or the stability of the region'. The Indian government, which had earlier insisted on the resolution of the 'boundary question' by vacating territory claimed as 'non-negotiably Indian' before exploring other dimensions of the bilateral relationship, is today open to developing all aspects of Sino-Indian ties while simultaneously seeking to 'try and resolve the boundary dispute, ruling out the use of force to change the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)'.

The last 15 years have seen both India and China adopt a globalised foreign policy approach with the twin thrusts of enlarging and deepening existing bilateral and multilateral relationships and establishing new strategic focus areas. For India the approach has translated into the Look East policy and a close partnership with the United States of America, while for China it has resulted in concrete economic diplomacy as seen by the Chinese investments in Africa and strategic acquisitions of energy sources and partnerships with energy companies in Central Asia, Latin America and Africa. It's estimated that Asia, especially India and China, will contribute over 50% of the world's GDP by 2025. Both China and India are acutely aware of how this global economic reconfiguration will slowly shift the balance of power towards them. Indian President K R Narayanan's visit to China in 2000 was a turning point towards a new age of pragmatism in the Sino-Indian relationship, coming as it were in the embarrassing backdrop of the escape of the 17th Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje, who ironically was proclaimed by China, from Tibet to the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. China was caught in a pinzer grip: on one hand it was extremely unhappy with India's shelter to the Karmapa, yet on the other it could not officially register its protest as doing so would have constituted an implicit acceptance of Sikkim as an integral part of India. But both sides handled the situation with a rare degree of maturity, treating it as a tactical issue, resulting in the visit of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in 2002 and reciprocal visit by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003. This streak of pragmatism resulted in China recognising Indian sovereignty over Sikkim, following which both countries opened up the Nathula and Jelepla Passes in Sikkim. Trade ties also flowered during this period, with bilateral trade surpassing US$10 billion mark for the first time in 2004. Such has been the intensity of the 'animal spirit of market forces' unleashed that in April 2005 when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Bangalore he started his speech thus: "Cooperation is just like two pagodas (temples), one hardware and one software. Combined, we can take the leadership position in the world."

An important aspect in the last decade of the Sino-Indian relationship has been their search for energy sources. Both India and China has earmarked energy security as a critical cornerstone of their future national security policy and this has, more often than not, resulted in a competitive policy of securing energy sources through strategic and tactical partnerships throughout the world. But there is also shared understanding of mutual strategic gains through partnership approach in jointly taking on bigger players in the global oil market. This understanding was concretised through an agreement that allowed ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to place joint bids for global projects. The advent of the UPA government in India in 2004 has substantially transformed the Sino-Indian relationship into one focussed on trade and commerce, and one that's becoming increasingly aware of the possibilities of military and defence cooperation. Whether it has been greater cooperation on multilateral forums of WTO and BRICs, or joint military (naval) exercises, both countries have shown a remarkable ability to keep aside contentious issues, like the problem of stapled visas for residents of Arunachal Pradesh or Chinese incursions in Ladakh, to arrive at commonalities of cooperation.

The durable confidence in each other that has emerged between the two countries in recent times was amply demonstrated during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visit to India in 2010 when he was accompanied by a delegation of over 400 businessmen, the largest such delegation to any country. It has continued when during the 2012 BRICs summit Chinese President Hu Jintao told Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that 'it is China's unswerving policy to develop Sino-Indian friendship, deepen strategic cooperation and seek common development? China hopes to see a peaceful, prosperous and continually developing India and is committed to building more dynamic China-India relationship'. There is also a greater understanding and tolerance of each other's security concerns with a conscious restraint shown on issuing provocative statements. For instance, China's response to the testing of the nuclear-capable Agni-IV missile was muted, with only a call for the two countries to 'cherish the hard-earned momentum of co-operation'. Similarly India's response to the stand-off with Chinese troops in Ladakh and Aksai Chin was low-key with a call to both countries not to 'destroy the long-term progress in relations'. With bilateral trade expected to touch $1 trillion by 2050 -- of course the rising trade deficit currently stands up at $40 Billion -- it might seem that India and China are on the highway to an eventual strategic partnership that will rewrite the world order. Yet, there are three future challenges - which are opportunities too - that both countries need to recognise and surmount.

The first is the civilisational legacy itself. While the legacy does give a sense of deep-rooted historical continuity of the relationship between India and China, it also acts often as a speed breaker, or worse as a hindrance, to the development of a pragmatic and strategic mindset on both sides. The key challenge is to leverage the positive aspects of the legacy, while systematically and consciously marginalising the negative aspects. The Indian and Chinese efforts to commemorate the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2010 by co-launching the 'India Year' and 'China Year' through an exchange programme of cultural activities is an example of a positive leveraging of this shared legacy. The frequent people-to-people interactions and the exchange of youth delegations is also a step in the right direction. One must consciously remember that the negative parts of this civilisational legacy, for instance the supposed Chinese tendency to break promises or the Indian proclivity towards creating structurally weak institutions, inform several layers of policy and decision making processes in both countries. The negative aspects of the legacy are as much an issue of an individual's mindset as it is a generational approach. Since both countries have a fair degree of administrative, functional and institutional autonomy, there are actions at the ground level that seem to run counter to the larger narrative of strategic cooperation and pragmatism. So, for instance, the Chinese incursion in Ladakh was found to have been a decision taken by a Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) commander, as were bunkers constructed in the area by the Indian Army a decision of a divisional commander. The twin challenges, and the twin opportunities, on both sides is for the strategic and pragmatic mindset to percolate down to the lower levels of the institutional mechanisms, and for the creation of a new cadre of younger people who are not informed by the negative aspects of the legacy. There is an urgent need to bring in a fresh perspective to reconstitute the Sino-Indian relationship for the 21st century.

The second is for both countries to move from a current environment of pragmatism to an ecosystem of realism in understanding the unique national security considerations of each other. Both countries have to realise that they will compete against each other in the world stage, from energy resources to enhanced military capability. The unique regional dynamics of each country -- Pakistan-Afghanistan in the case of India and Russia-Central Asia in the case of China -- and specificities of global configurations -- Chinese tussle with Japan and the US and India's desire to expand its reach in Indian Ocean -- will lead to unique national security considerations and a resultant set of strategic interventions. Both countries will have to necessarily hedge their bets against each other, just as all jostling competitors do. If China has a clearly earmarked, though informal, 'string of pearls' policy to contain and constrain India, there is a counter to it from the Indian side in the form of strengthened bilateral relationships with immediate South and Southeast Asian neighbours as well in beefing up civilian and military infrastructure in the northeast. In such an environment, with global powers also having their own deep-rooted interests; it is easy for India and China to fall into the trap of an undeclared Cold War. After all each facet of the Sino-Indian competition -- economic, energy, nuclear, strategic and military -- has the potential to aggravate and amplify existing mindsets of suspicion. It's precisely within this challenge of a latent Cold War lie an opportunity for exploring the ecosystem of competitive realism as an alternative mechanism. It's similar to the one that defined the post-war relationship between Germany and France -- two of Europe's dominant powers, intensely competitive against each other, but always tempered by realism. It's certainly not a laughable proposition that if India and China do manage to create an ecosystem of competitive realism they might actually create the foundations of an Asian Union on lines of the European Union

The third is the need for a more nuanced, factual and researched understanding of each other's political economy of policy and decision making institutions and structures. China today, for instance, treats the vagaries of the Indian electoral system as a 'near term uncertainty and variable', while India simplistically perceives the Chinese system as a 'hierarchical and monolithic' controlled by a single party. Both are an extremely essentialised form of understanding with the Chinese perception discounting the inherent flexibility and strength that India's democratic structure imparts the country, and Indian view marginalising the real functional autonomy of the various structures within the single party system. A comprehensive research and fact-based overhauling of the current understanding of the various systems in the two countries is necessary for new relational architecture, one that's deeply layered and multivocal, involving political leaders, legislators, officials, experts, businesses, policy institutes, academicians, students, and other social actors. The rapid federalisation of India with states becoming more powerful and acquiring relative autonomy in establishing relationships with countries - Gujarat is a prime example - and the economic might of regions within China perforce requires a more academic and research oriented approach in understanding each other's political and economic systems. Some of these systems are evolving even as you are read this piece. A revised perspective of each other is necessary to break away from the historical legacy of suspicion, built on a lack of understanding, so that India and China can create a unique niche for themselves in the emerging world order. Both don't realise it yet, but in the very process of creating a space for themselves, they have the possibility of architecting a new world order.

(Dr. R. Swaminathan is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He is also a Fellow of National Internet Exchange of India and Contributing Editor of Governance Now)

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