New rules for Indo-Chinese checkers
There are plenty of theories as to what is going wrong, or at least why so little seems to be going right, with relations between India and China: It has to do with the Dalai Lama, the legacy of 1962, Beijing’s fears of a US-India alliance, general bloody-mindedness on both sides. Deciding which is wrong and right is a mug’s game – the Chinese decision-making process is pretty opaque and the Indian one regarding China is almost as much an enigma.
Based on a decade or two of watching the two countries, reading a small mountain of material, and talking with the mandarinate of both governments I have come to some broad conclusions.
One, the two countries are never going to be friends. It is not merely cultural and political differences. The two ruling elites have aspirations that ultimately are not really compatible. Crudely, two countries can’t both be top dog in Asia.
Two, the two countries need not be enemies. They may share a huge border but it is also the highest and most impassable in the world. China looks to the Pacific: its people are clustered along its shore and their trade ships set sail from there. India looks at its own ocean for the same reason. One looks west, the other south and the Himalayas lie between. They notice each other, but only occasionally and from the corner of their eye.
Three, the two would prefer not to get into each other’s hair. Both countries are overwhelmingly concerned with their economic development. They both have mind-boggling numbers of very poor people – yes, even China. Even their rich are aspirational. As the World Bank pointed out, the richest one-fifth of India is as wealthy as the poorest one-fifth of Denmark. Conflict is immiserating and particularly silly when one’s economy is growing between eight and eleven per cent a year.
Yet, Beijing and New Delhi have been squabbling through much of this year. Why? I actually don’t think anything has fundamentally changed. The shift is that civil society has intruded in an otherwise hermetically sealed relationship. I remember receiving a lengthy briefing from a then Indian foreign secretary on Pakistan and the US. What about China? He said, “We don’t discuss that part of our foreign policy with the media.”
But now television and newspapers have turned a spotlight on the relationship and have become excited. A poorly demarcated border means both sides “intrude” regularly. Sometimes it’s deliberate. Sometimes it’s accidental. They also shoot their mouths off at each other because, in the past, it didn’t really matter. It was only for official ears only. Finally, the two held interminable closed door sessions where high-level officials, feeling they were speaking off the record, experimented with the diplomatic line and left a legacy of misinterpretation. Now this is all under a very public microscope and looking like a hairy paramecium.
So the game is to do what India does with other major countries. Start composing mutually acceptable rules of behaviour. Each country lays down red lines regarding what they will countenance in the relationship – and do so publicly so the other side knows there can be no future fudging. It then becomes possible to start doing something constructive with what lies between those lines.
I think we’re starting to see this happening. The new Indian ambassador to China has clearly come with a brief. His first flurry of speeches have been far more than the normal PR pap.
The speech at the Sichuan Institute for South Asian Studies deserves special note. The Indian envoy made a case for the two countries to recognize it can no longer be “business as usual” – in other words, the mix of doing nothing and doing it under wraps that has been the hallmark of relations so far.
First, he said, the media has arrived. “The lesson for those of us charged with building this relationship, therefore, is to pay greater attention to public perceptions of its state.” Sino-Indian relations is going to be thrashed about the way the Indo-US and Indo-Pakistan relationships are. So get ready.
Second, both sides need to accept that the game is different today. We are two rising powers. We are changing the global system. And we are being changed in ways that will make the two countries unrecognizable from what they were in, say, 1962. All this “is fundamentally altering our economic, political and cultural thinking.” He added, “The past, therefore, cannot serve as guidance for the future.”
Third, China may be well ahead of India in the economic race but it cannot deny India is doing pretty well. Even if India fails to overtake, it will still emerge big enough to make China’s life difficult if relations become hostile. So invest some time in bilateral ties, don’t leave them “suboptimal.” “A wise approach to international relations requires coming out on the rights side of history.”
Circumstances are different because of the economic and attendant social transformations taking place in both countries. But the Sino-Indian relationship has been ossified, assuming the thinness of the past. The two countries, the Indian ambassador argued, “should be shaping our ties; at the least, we should be managing them: clearly we do not have the option of neglecting them.”
These are broad principles, not specifics. But my guess is that filling in the details is what the Sino-Indian relationship is going to be about the next few years.