India and China Must Set Aside Mistrust to Emerge as World Leaders

The Wuhan consensus has reinvigorated ties between the two countries, but summits are not enough to overhaul the mistrust and prejudice.

The Wuhan consensus/spirit is being heralded as a new turning point in India-China relations after the 73-day stand-off at Doklam last year. Recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao witnessed re-capturing the bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jingping. To further accelerate the trust building measures, Embassy of China in New Delhi organised a conference to invite fresh ideas to keep the momentum. Despite current measures to push the trust to a Himalayan height, the strategic mistrust between the two countries cannot easily be overcome.

It appears that India and China have locked themselves into a revolving loop of resets. These informal meetings, summits or bilateral meetings and high-level leaders’ visits lubricate the engine, but do not overhaul it. In the first part of this article, I fathom China’s mistrust towards India and in the second part, decipher India’s apprehensions about China.

Chinese and Indian Army troops. Credit: PTI/Files

Chinese and Indian Army troops. Credit: PTI/Files

China’s mistrust

India’s colonial past, coupled with its system and structure of government based on Westminster democracy obliquely suggest that Indian society and government are pro-West and closely follow Western ideology. Newly independent India embraced and aimed to build a socialist society and though Nehru followed a non- aligned policy in foreign affairs, it tilted in favour of the Soviet Union.

In present times, when established international order is shattering and US President Donald Trump is dismantling Western norms in international politics, the argument that India is cozy in a western model falls flat. Although, India, like China, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the established system, the system itself is not designed to serve the interests of New Delhi. Thereby, India is unceasingly engaged in altering the system and even great powers are hesitatingly acknowledging the need to revamp it. But New Delhi needs the unflinching support of Beijing to accomplish it. To enable ‘change in regime’ in the system, it should not follow the ‘first-come-first-served’ basis to induct members, but judge on a case-by-case basis while granting membership to coveted organisations.

The widely held belief among Chinese academicians and policy makers is that New Delhi is a part of US’s China containment strategy. This understanding makes China’s policy towards India resistive to making any headway in the right direction. Instead, China must view the emerging proximity between India and the US as lying in the fault lines of its own dealing with New Delhi. Whether the technical objection to India’s membership to NSG or frustrating India’s efforts to list Masood Azhar on UN global terrorist list.

A man walks past the podium at the Belt and Road summit in Hong Kong May 18, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

A man walks past the podium at the Belt and Road summit. Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip/Files

India’s hedging with the US is to minimise its decreasing strategic influence in the region and beyond. If Beijing pursues a proactive policy toward India that would reassure New Delhi its clout would not be diminished, the latter might reconsider the tilt towards the US. For instance, the informal Wuhan summit altered New Delhi’s sensitivity to ponder that India, as Modi articulated at Shangri-La dialogue, “does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be. India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region is, therefore, a positive one. And, it has many elements”, could rest the case of using Indo-Pacific region as a strategy to balance China. In fact, his articulation that the region is not limited to some countries could be seen as an invitation for Beijing, if it shares the same commitment to build a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific which embraces us all in a ‘common pursuit of progress and prosperity’, echoing Xi’s vision of a community of shared destiny.

The misconception in Chinese mind that India has a chaotic democracy germinates all sort of ill-contemplations suspicious of India’s rise as a power in world politics. China’s own failed experience of democracy between 1911 and 1949, led the country to believe that democracy is not sustainable in developing countries. For 70 years, as the largest democracy of the world, India has a good track record of successful transfer of power both at Centre and state-level, respecting the mandate of common people in the elections. This vouches for sustainability of Indian democracy.

Even if Indian democracy appears chaotic on the surface, the roots are strong enough to sustain its basic characteristics. New Delhi’s track record of respecting diversity of caste, religion and languages, despite being challenged at times, makes Indian democracy more acceptable, respectable and durable across the globe. A close reading of the Constitution and Indian experiments with democracy vividly establish a ‘democracy with Indian features’, though New Delhi has never proclaimed as such.

Another miscalculation by China is to think that a strong and powerful India is a potential threat. India can be a competitor, but certainly not a threat, as it lacks all the power capabilities to be equated at par with Beijing. Even if New Delhi accomplishes all parameters of being a great power, geo-strategic balancing, which increasingly favour multi-polar arrangement, impede India to be a hegemon. A new India can bring prosperity and peace in the region, prerequisite to usher the Asian Century.

India’s apprehensions

The two countries have had millennia of connections and interactions: from Buddhism influencing Chinese society to Jawaharlal Nehru’s ardent China’s policy. However, India’s crushing defeat in the 1962 war and China’s growing courtship with Pakistan, India’s arch rival, have incubated trepidation in Indian minds. The mistrusthas only been piling up over the years. China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and India’s advocacy of Quad and ‘Indo-Pacific’ are further stacking up the trust-deficit. In fact, resurrection of Quad is intrinsically adjoined with China’s global ambitions and threat perceptions measured by the countries therein.

Lately, in Indian academia and policy making, assertive right ideology coalesces with Western ideology, be it capitalism or pronouncing communism as an authoritarian system antithetical to democracy. Indian system, like its foreign policy of non-alignment, is neither capitalist nor communist, but socialist. The craving for socialism has subsided under ultra-nationalism. The growing antagonistic attitudes towards communists are manifestation of disillusionment with the Left movement and socialists leaders at home.

Chinese political system is being largely perceived by Indians as epitome of authoritarianism, with its suppression of basic rights of its citizens and systematic Sinicisation of ethnic minorities in China. But these charges, more or less, are also labelled against India by scholars and media, domestic or foreign.

A Confucius Institute in Canada. Credit: Raysonho/ Grid Engine BY CC0

The ghost of 1962 still haunts Indian minds. Indian establishment is suspicious of Chinese in the same way the Chinese are of Japanese. Although Confucius institutes have mushroomed around the world, with 106 centres just in the US, New Delhi perceives them as agents of espionage and has restricted their establishment. One wonders if these centres are engaged in illegal activities, how hundreds operate in the US? In fact, the Americans quickly understood that without knowledge of Chinese language and cultures, Washington can’t formulate apt policies to deal with Beijing. When China came calling to train American students in Chinese on its own expense, bringing native teachers, the US saw no harm. Needless to say, these arrangements equally served the interests of China in soft-power projection. In fact, in the absence of requisite language training, Indian scholars fall prey to American interpretations of China, which serves Washington better.

India’s Beijing dilemma has further intensified because of China’s engagement with Pakistan, which looks on surface incredibly solidifying aftermath of CPEC and estrangement of Islamabad from Washington. The case of Azhar Masood and India’s membership to NSG conditioned on membership of Pakistan is being largely perceived as cementing of Sino-Pakistan engagements against India.

Although, it may appear that the China-Pakistan outlining is to check India, realpolitik and strategic calculus confine Beijing to engage directly against India on behest of Pakistan, as 1971 saga suggests. As a matter of fact, India-China trade of $84 billion outdoes China’s investment in CPEC, totally $63 billion, with only futuristic gains. China-Pakistan trade is worth $13.77 billion.

New Delhi’s apprehensions over Beijing were multiplied due to China’s increasing foothold in the India Ocean and South Asia. With growing economic and political clout, it’s natural that any country with big ambitions will spread its feathers, but equally important to introspect how India’s space has shrunken for strategic manoeuvring in the region. The success of India’s foreign policy lies with small countries of the region aligning with India’s cause and not with the Quad. India’s strategic autonomy also acts as New Delhi’s soft power among developing countries and provides necessary strategic ambiguity to take advantage of it.

In a nutshell, the mistrusts are driving policies, which are ill-conceived and do no good. India and China need to shed their prejudiced approach in dealing with each-other. As rising nations in the world and as neighbours, New Delhi and Beijing should learn to cohabit. New The two countries must ‘empty their cups to fill it’ with fresh Darjeeling tea, for taste and aroma.

Rajiv Ranjan is an assistant professor at Shanghai University.