India and China Are Stuck in a Decades-Old Sibling Rivalry

Not only does using the prism of a sibling rivalry help us understand the India-China relationship, it can also tell us how to make it better.

Why does the India-China sibling rivalry have such power? Credit: PTI

Why does the India-China sibling rivalry have such power? Credit: PTI

This article is the second in a two-part series by the author on India-China relations. You can read the first part here.

The first article in this series looked at some psychological factors that might help unravel the conundrum posed by the India-China relationship today, namely, if deeper and more extensive engagement between the two countries is in their mutual interest, why is it not happening? This essay will consider two factors as routes to a resolution.

Applying the ‘illogical yet not irrational’ formula to this conundrum, an obvious inference is that an adverse force, X, is working to counter any trends towards deeper India-China engagement. It would be tempting to see here the hand of a third country whose interest it is to keep India and China apart. But this is too facile a hypothesis, for it violates India’s standing and agency, treating us as a mere pawn on the chessboard, to be moved at will. Therefore, by elimination, X must be an internal force applicable to both India and China, and one which has sufficient political appeal in both countries to override the benefits of mutual multi-dimensional engagement.

A longstanding sibling rivalry

A hint of what X might be, is revealed in Ambassador Shyam Saran’s comment on China seeking “deference” from India, quoted in the previous article in this series. It may be useful to explore this lead further, using the framework of psychology rather than that of geopolitics. Feelings such as the need for deference, respect, entitlement, status and so on are common in cases of sibling rivalry, where brothers and/or sisters are compared (usually by their parents) on arbitrarily-chosen measures of ‘performance’. Here below are the normal stages in which sibling rivalry plays out and its main effects:

  1. Early memories – of both siblings – are of an enchanted period together, a golden age.
  2. A period of comparisons made between the siblings by others (‘why can’t you be good at maths like your brother?’), followed by their growing rivalry.
  3. A traumatic event which gives rise to strong feelings of betrayal, envy, anger, hurt and loss.
  4. Finally, a long and bitter estrangement where contradictory feelings of admiration/envy, similarity/difference, cooperation/competition, curiosity/denial, interest/indifference, and affirmation/rebuff coexist in both siblings.
  5. Interactions in this period are characterised by reactive tit-for-tat and tactical scoring of points, rather than any reflection over basic differences and how they may be resolved.

And here are its counterparts in India-China relations:

  1. The obligatory reference to the rich cultural interflow between the two civilisations during the two millennia prior to about 1500 CE – the halcyon golden period of Sino-Indian engagement – with free-flowing exchange of goods, knowledge, practices and people. Repeated in the 1950s.
  2. Comparisons between ‘Red China’ and ‘Democratic India’ by the West in the 1950s, visualised as two large, populous Asian standard bearers of opposing ideologies: ‘who will win the race’?
  3. The Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight to India and the 1962 war, both of which changed the script dramatically.
  4. India and China as neighbours but strangers – with a highly sub-optimal range of mutual interactions – and with ambiguous feelings about each other as listed above, with the significant omission of “curiosity” (on both sides).
  5. The nature of the Sino-Indian interactions over the last two years demonstrate the characteristic one-upmanship nature of sibling rivalry. For example, China’s insensitivity to India’s concerns on Pakistan-based terrorism and India’s blunt rebuff of China’s Belt and Road Initiative . Even the complaints – ‘But he did it first!’ – will be wearily familiar to any harassed parent.

Sibling rivalry is not in the usual lexicon of geopolitics, which prefers terms of greater gravitas. Nevertheless, it has enormous destructive power, as our epics tell us. A glance at the crime pages in our newspapers or the reportage on many boardroom battles also reveals the power and durability of the emotions unleashed by sibling rivalry. When modern political nationalism magnifies these emotions – as in both China and India – the force X that results is magnified manifold.

Why does the India-China sibling rivalry have such power? Because it combines all the factors mentioned. Early positive experiences followed by trauma create lasting negative memories, whose emotive load warps future perceptions. This creates a ‘prism’ effect that refracts and distorts meaning. Add the linguistic piece, and you have all the elements for a ‘perfect storm’. (A more detailed explanation of this idea is in the previous article in the series.)

Recognising strengths

However, this diversion into psychology also tells us how it is possible to undo the dire effects of sibling rivalry. The first step, as in most psychological conditions, is to accept that the problem exists. The second is to tackle the root cause – disempowering comparisons – in the right way. Here, Mao’s dictum ‘the correct handling of contradictions’ provides a useful pointer. Responsible parents know that each child is unique and special in its own way. As a nation too, it is important to list, celebrate and use our strengths, and certainly not to devalue them. Likewise, to note our weaknesses and address them robustly, but not give way to despondency on that score.

For example, Indian democracy – with its freedoms and institutions – is a key asset that we should cherish and strengthen. India’s democracy – creaky as it may be – is a powerful factor in the choices exercised by ordinary people. This is brought home in Berenice Guyot-Rechard’s recently published book Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas, 1910-1962, where she describes India and China’s decades-long tussle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people living in their Himalayan borderlands. India’s defeat in 1962 meant that Chinese forces could exercise administrative control for a brief period over Indian territory under their occupation. But when the Chinese withdrew, the border people decided to accept the returning Indian administration. They did so, in the authors’ words: “despite China’s demonstration of invincibility, impeccable efficiency and self-sufficiency…The benevolence of such a strong state would depend on its leniency towards populations, not on its need to negotiate with them…. The Indian state, by contrast, was fragile and imperfect…and offered more space to negotiate, criticize and make demands”. The flexibility and responsiveness of the ‘imperfect’ Indian state, in other words, was what made the crucial difference.

Another key asset for India is its large, sprawling higher education system. Though underfunded and over regulated, it has the advantage of scale as well as the felicity of use of English as a global link. With further investment in education (a dire need in any case), a portion of the enhanced and strengthened (and digitalised) educational capacity could be opened for foreign students from the immediate neighbourhood. Thousands of successful students returning to our neighbouring SAARC countries with a useful education or skill can only create and enhance long-term goodwill towards India. Such goodwill may be worth more than the roads and bridges offered by China, which India may find difficult to match. For Indian students too, the experience of mingling with their foreign counterparts would be salutary.

Indeed, it may be possible to extend this idea further and create a type of ‘voluntary service overseas’ programme for Indian students, who could gain academic credits for assignments or project-oriented work done in our neighbouring countries during their summer vacations. China need not be excluded from such an initiative. Indeed, if one were to think boldly, is it too naïve to think of Sino-Indian joint student projects and ventures as areas for productive and creative partnership? Success in a few such exemplary initiatives would build relationships between future generations who may resist the current geopolitical orthodoxy that ‘rising powers’ are eternally doomed to live in a state of contention with each other.

On the other hand, it is true that India suffers by comparison with China in almost every parameter of economic and human development. Democracy cannot be an apologia to avoid addressing these lacunae. These development goals are important in themselves, and not just to catch up with China. But the temptation to dilute democratic norms in the belief that they hamper the road to development – a view that finds favour in some political as well as business circles – is dangerous thinking, which can lead to India becoming ‘a poor man’s China’. This brings us to the second topic of this essay: India-China competition and its psychological management.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a group picture during BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Benaulim, in the western state of Goa, India, October 16, 2016. Credit:Reuters

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a group picture during BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Benaulim, in the western state of Goa, India, October 16, 2016. Credit: Reuters

A balance between competition and collaboration

Given their size and economic reach, it is inevitable that India and China will have numerous areas where they compete and will continue to do so, just as there remains much scope for collaboration. How well we understand the psychology of competition will determine whether we can compete with full vigour in the first category, and yet not be deterred from cooperating in the second. A reference to the psychology of sport will make this clear.

In their book How Champions Think, Bob Rotella and Bob Cullen identify the key drivers for competitive success. To simplify, these consist of four factors – intention, skill, strategy and fitness. Intention includes will power, focus and attitude, whilst skill covers not just the advanced techniques and methods of the sport but training, preparation and rehearsal. Strategy describes the approach to the contest itself including the possibilities for new and innovative strategies. Fitness covers physical and mental readiness in their fullest measure. A final but crucial point: sportspersons neither fear nor hate their competitors; rather, they respect them and cooperate with them on many common matters concerning the sport. But most of all, they study them with great care and even learn from them. Has India’s polity ever considered the study of China a priority? Can we, even now, devote energy and resources to build a deeper understanding of China?

How does India fare on these four factors for competitive success? The analogue for “fitness” in the India-China context would be not just military preparedness, but also robustness on all economic and human development indices. On all three, we are far behind China. Until we can catch up, the focus should be on the other three factors. Much like the principles of the martial arts, we should leverage the strength of the competitor along with our creativity and innovation, to help us overcome the disadvantage of lower “comprehensive national power”. For example, rather than frown upon China’s BRI, why not encourage Indian firms to participate in the many projects that might emerge from that initiative? It will benefit them as also India’s exchequer, and we will learn something about BRI from the inside.

The business world is full of examples of the triumph of the underdog. Companies like Apple, Facebook and Google did not exist 20 years ago – they grew from complete obscurity through a combination of sustained innovation, changing the arena of competition and marshalling external finance to power their growth. Our democratic, argumentative culture provides the right base in India for creativity and innovation; what is lacking is the range and depth in science-based innovations. Why cannot we leverage our (globally-recognised) management and consulting skills to bring together our inventions with Chinese, Japanese or other foreign investment, and scale them up into large operations? We have a large base of scientific manpower and many state-funded institutions for R&D efforts. They need revitalisation and leadership to take India into the next league. It will be only through science-based innovation that India can leap-frog its development journey and overcome the many challenges on the way.

Even on an as-is-where-is basis, we can achieve better coordination and efficiency from our existing skills. Take our trade deficit with China. Why not put together a dedicated task force from the CII, FICCI, key think tanks and government ministries to undertake a granular study of what needs to be done to break through the ‘non-trade barriers’ that impede our exports to China? Indeed, such a task force could form the core for a larger consultative process between the government and industry on formulating a national strategy for economic engagement with China. India cannot replicate the Chinese system where the state and industry – whether state-owned or private – work within a broad measure of coordination. But we can certainly improve upon the current situation and provide for better information-sharing and more detailed inputs to assist policy-making in the overall interest.

Finally, talking of strategy, here is another example from the sporting world. In 2016, Leicester City Football Club came from far behind to capture the English Premier League championship, hugely upsetting the betting odds and ruining many a punter. Their manager, Claudio Ranieri, had formulated the team’s new and somewhat risky strategy after carefully appraising the competition and assessing their own strengths. Firstly, this meant dropping the orthodox approach of trying always for possession of the ball; rather, when in possession, to focus on converting it into a goal, even through a long shot. Secondly, diffusing pressure and focusing team effort just ‘to win enough to win it all’. Ranieri was also conscious that the next season – with a different competitive landscape – might require yet another strategy change. Similarly, we need to review our strategy vis-à-vis China on a regular basis, freeing it from old shibboleths as much as ensuring that it does not become a purely reactive mechanism to Chinese initiatives.

This series began with a suggestion to employ the resources of psychological science in unravelling India’s China conundrum and to indicate how that may add a valuable complement to our other sources of knowledge. In today’s complex world, cause-effect relations are not simple to detect. Often, a multiplicity of causes is at work, in a manner whose underlying relationships are difficult to fathom. It requires a complex instrument – the human brain – even to attempt to make sense of it all. Therefore, unless we know how this instrument works, and can unveil its own deceits and illusions, we shall ever be in thrall to an objectivity which is suspect. And since war and peace, it is said, are born in the mind of man, that is perhaps a necessary and worthwhile goal.

Ravi Bhoothalingam is an independent director on corporate boards and Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.