The recent visit by the Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, to India marks yet another moment in the deepening and maturing of the India-China relations. No country has, perhaps, been as misconstrued in the Indian public discourse as China. Prior to the changed foreign policy approach of the Modi regime, previous administrations used to conduct backdoor diplomacy with China. Significant agreements were signed and breakthroughs made, but the warmth and friendship was missing. However, since the last 4-5 years, what we are witnessing is a break from this past.
India – not the political pundits sitting in media, bureaucracy and think tanks, but the government – seems to have finally been convinced by the Chinese worldview that the way ahead for India-China relations should be a spirit of cooperation, rooted in their ancient exchanges, and not the spirit of competitive utilitarianism fostered by the Western worldview of politics.
The ‘Chennai Connect’ or the recent informal Mahabalipuram summit was about advancing this spirit, in the context of the rising ‘Asian century’. More importantly, this spirit is being tested on the ground, especially in other countries and a changed level of maturity and commitment is already being seen in both India and China.
Beating the Odds
While the preface to this summit was not particularly pleasant in its outwardly visible signs, the unexpected grandeur with which Xi was received as well as the smoothness and natural compatibility with which the summit proceeded exceeded expectations – this summit was as striking, or even more, than the Wuhan summit from which the format of informal highest-level exchanges was inaugurated.
The informal summit after every such shake-up has resulted in building more trust than ever before and has added a deeper element to the relationship. Except for the over-interpreted optics of word play, there is not a single action by either India or China vis-a-vis each other that could suggest anything negative in the relationship.
The odds, however, are always stacked against the relationship. Incidentally, the irritants are all purely external factors, related to third countries, and rarely ever concern issues directly between India and China. This time, in particular, Pakistan was weighing heavily.
Just as the Wuhan summit had been preceded by the Doklam border crisis which had escalated the India-China tensions, the current summit was preceded by India’s abrogation of Article 370 which granted Jammu & Kashmir a special status. India’s internal decision has caused a havoc in Pakistan with its attempts to internationalize the issue, with China seeking to support, humour and keep Pakistan in check, likely so as to prevent it from losing its balance and stability completely. This demeanour of China has drawn much flak from Indians.
As always, the close relationship between China and Pakistan was made a judgment standard for India. Our public discussions were full of things which are meant only for optics and have no deeper reason behind them – like the overtures made by Pakistan towards China through Imran Khan’s visit and Chinese statements on Kashmir that would often irk Indians. With just about two days to go for the summit, Imran Khan visited China and, both, issued a standard joint statement, further giving the Indian political pundits opportunity to float baseless speculations.
It didn’t matter that China has done nothing on the ground to oppose India and that it has only given verbal statements – balanced on the whole – after much pressure from Pakistan. To misjudge a country, without seeing the larger picture and all components, results in passing quick judgments based on temporary, superficial or passing optics by these countries.
This has always been the case in India-China relationship – in the minds of the public, it is based more on speculations than on reality. The problem is that we view everything that China does through a lens of insecurity. This is despite the fact that the India-China border has not witnessed any military confrontation after the 1962 war and is amongst the most peaceful borders. Moreover, China has adopted a wider approach to the border problem despite the mistakes committed by the Nehru government.*
Despite this, China has continued to be a much misunderstood country in India, although the current administration has surmounted this psychological blockade to a great extent. The tendency to compete with China and the feeling of heightened insecurity is such that it has percolated to all fields – economy, military, foreign affairs and soft power.
A Break from the Past
In recent times, a break from these psychological formations has been seen in the Indian government’s approach. The Modi regime has infused the kind of sure-footedness and dynamism in foreign policy that is reflecting in our relations with China also.
No longer is foreign policy the domain of bureaucrats or marked by deliberately staged vagueness. Rather, there is a match between what is said and the action done on the ground. During the left-liberal era, rhetoric was one thing and a timid, overly balancing, cautious and uncertain foreign policy was another reality. In the current times, all this vagueness has been replaced by purpose and surety with regard to India’s relations with all countries – US, Arab states, Israel, China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.
Instead of following the hollow and vapid speculations advanced by the so-called public intellectuals, the Indian government has been following a cooperative and mature relationship with China. While several important guiding agreements were signed between the two countries during 1990s and early 2000s, it was with the Wuhan informal summit of 2018 that there began a practice of bringing depth and warmth in an otherwise indifferent, impersonal and coldly remote relationship.
Both the Wuhan and Mahabalipuram informal summits have successfully established a mechanism of direct premier-level contact between India and China. And, with Xi inviting Modi to a third summit in China next year, it is clear that this unusual but thorough format is here to stay.
This in itself, it is no mean achievement. The fertile ground provided by these regular high-level, informal exchanges have been more significant than any agreement that is signed after years of painful, mechanical negotiations by bureaucrats.
Indeed, it would be a misplacement to suggest – as some ex-diplomats are doing – that the 1998, 2003 and 2005 agreements enabled India-China relationship to be guided along a certain path. Instead of looking at the larger picture to analyze these small fragments, they end up analyzing the larger spirit by placing undue importance on these small steps, negotiated after considerable expenditure of diplomatic labour and mechanical efforts. The only thing that bureaucratic agreements have achieved is to prevent the escalation of hostilities, but the distrust and coldness remained as strong as ever, especially from the Indian side.
Since 2018, this mechanical negotiating of the relationship has been reversed. The regular informal summits between the two leaders are meant to lay down a larger vision which would guide the relationship in all its micro aspects – border exchanges, third country cooperation, cultural, economic and other exchanges, and, other issues that may arise from time-to-time. It is this spirit and vision that would also reflect in the agreements signed between the countries.
And its results are already visible. There has been a sea change in the Indian approach towards China and vice versa. India has strengthened its support for China in its sovereignty issues and stopped playing politics. India has also refused to be taken in by US-China escalations and politicization of the Indo-Pacific.
There was a time when Chinese investments in our neighbours – Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indian Ocean islands – were resented by India. Today, that insecurity has been replaced by India also becoming active in taking a leadership role in these smaller countries, without clashing with or feeling any threat from China.
Likewise, China has also reciprocated. Some of the landmark decisions, like the listing of Masood Azar, came after the 2018 informal summit. Despite the optics on Kashmir, China has also managed to keep Pakistan from going completely insane. It is doing India a favour by stabilizing the situation in South Asia. It is clear that by establishing this mechanism both India and China have matured their relationship and grown.
While the Wuhan summit made a major breakthrough in terms of establishing that India and China should follow a pattern of cooperation in various third countries, like Afghanistan, Nepal and African states, the recent Mahabalipuram summit took this a step further. The summit highlighted not only cooperation in foreign policies and in the economic arena – by deciding to establish a high-level mechanism to resolve trade deficit and economic issues, at the level of finance ministers – but also took a decision to inaugurate public cultural exchanges based on historical ties between the two nations.
Significantly, they also decided that they would not allow ‘differences to become disputes’ or to ‘dilute cooperation’. Coming in the backdrop of recent push-and-pull and illusory fabrications of tensions between the two countries, these commitments are significant.
Getting Rid of Remaining Vestiges of Distrust
Despite the significance of the commitments between the two countries and the growth of active rapport since 2018, there continue to be lingering traces of misperception on India’s part towards China’s actions in its neighbourhood.
Immediately after concluding his India visit, Xi proceeded to Nepal. That visit was equally significant, coming at a time when China is making heavy investments in Nepal and is building a corridor to link China and Nepal via Tibet.
China has been keen to sign an extradition agreement with Nepal, which would enable Nepal to more effectively police anti-China activities as well as deport anti-China dissidents and troublemakers. However, this was not signed during the current visit.
Paradoxically, Indian public discourse – which has been closely watching Chinese activities in Nepal – appears to see a cause of elation in this development. Indians are under the impression that China ought to be ‘contained’ in India’s neighbourhood, especially Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Nothing could be farther from the reality. What India fails to realize is that China’s increasing penetration into these smaller countries is actually helping to stabilize these countries and prevent all kinds of anti-national and fanatic Islamic and missionary elements from getting a full play. Consider the case of Bangladesh. The country is on an equal – if not worse – footing as Pakistan when it comes to Islamic fanatics, the only saving grace being the Hasina government. Due to dependence on India, China and Russia, the Hasina government has had to adopt an absolute policy of zero tolerance towards these fanatics, which, however, lapses quite often.
In the case of Nepal, the country is a fertile ground for Christian missionary activities. Worse, these missionaries directly run NGOs and human rights organizations which are funded by powerful lobbies in US and Europe as well as their governments. Natural disasters – like the 2015 earthquake – have been used as ripe occasions to distribute Bible along with aid material. Christianity finds favourable roots where there is poverty. Waking up to this threat belatedly, Nepal brought in stricter laws against conversions in 2018, and drew a lot of flak for this mainly from US and Europe.
Other than India, Nepal is the only Hindu majority country and has historical and cultural relations with India. Yet, India has failed Nepal repeatedly. Despite being a regional great power, India was unable to prevent – rather, under Congress, India directly abetted – the communist takeover of Nepal. Similarly, in more recent times, India has shown nothing but indifference to the poisonous missionary activities in Nepal. It has not struck India that it would benefit India if her neighbourhood does not become a hotbed of NGO politics couched by religious fanatics, funded by foreign governments. Prior to Xi’s recent visit also, there were a series of protests in Nepal.
Chinese penetration into Nepal – be it in terms of closer cooperation in economic field or in strategic/defence/internal policing – will definitely put a brake on these adverse elements in Nepal. An extradition treaty and a commitment to deal toughly with anti-China protestors means Chinese shadow over internal law and order in Nepal. This is bad news for the missionaries, who often stage protests in the garb of Tibet nationalism, since missionaries anywhere just need a cause to provide a cover for their hidden agenda of conversions.
Better would be India-China cooperation in third countries like Nepal – and China had already suggested this last year in the contexts of Nepal, Afghanistan and Africa.
There is no clash here between India and China. Rather, increasing Chinese presence, coupled with Indian cooperation, may change the face of South Asia for better. Through this, Chinese activities are paving the way for India to rise above perpetually grappling with the small neighbourhood issues and have a global footprint.
URL links to The History of Sino-Indian Relations and the Border Dispute between the Two Countries