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Updated: April 1, 2010 23:19 IST

When will the mistrust end?

Sreemati Chakrabarti
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Indian Army personnel walk at the India-China International Border in Bumla at an altitude of 15,700 fit above the sea level in Arunachal Pradesh. File photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
The Hindu Indian Army personnel walk at the India-China International Border in Bumla at an altitude of 15,700 fit above the sea level in Arunachal Pradesh. File photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Sixty years after the two countries established diplomatic relations, Indians and Chinese need to break the mental barrier and begin to trust one another. Here's how the trust deficit can be overcome.

On April 1, 2010 India and China observed 60 years of their diplomatic relations. On this day in 1950 India took the world by surprise when it decided to recognise the government of the People's Republic of China headed by Mao Zedong and led by the Communist Party of China, which had brought the Chinese mainland under its control after defeating Chiang Kai-shek's army. This was a bold decision by the Indian government – the government of a newly independent country. It obviously displeased the western powers who went along with Chiang Kai-shek's view that mainland China had been occupied only temporarily by ‘communist bandits' who would soon be overthrown. Indian foreign-policy makers, led by the brilliant and far-sighted K.P.S. Menon, gave sensible advice to Prime Minister Nehru. This led to the recognition of the new government established in Beijing on October 1 1949.

The first decade of the relationship saw some very important developments like the signing of the Panchsheel (the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, which later became the official basis of Chinese foreign policy) in 1954, and the Bandung Conference a year later, where both Nehru and Zhou Enlai were elevated to the status of icons for the nations of Asia and Africa struggling for liberation and independence. Cultural and educational exchanges between India and China took place at more than a modest level.

This congenial relationship was upset by the Tibetan Rebellion with the Dalai Lama fleeing to India and eventually setting up a ‘government-in-exile.' The Chinese strongly resented Nehru's trip to Darjeeling to formally welcome the Tibetan leader. The border issue then came to the forefront and disagreement on it further embittered relations, leading to the unfortunate border war between the two young nations. Nehru called it “Chinese aggression” and “betrayal by the Chinese”: these two expressions have been repeated a million times in India mainly through the media despite the fact that all the facts behind the border war have not yet come out in the open. Similarly in China, India was labelled as “expansionist” – desperate to grab the territories of its neighbours. The Indian government was accused of being a “stooge of western imperialism.”

Nearly half a century has lapsed since the 1962 war but some kind of an inbuilt mistrust between the two persists. It often comes out in the open as has been seen recently in the media of the two countries indulging in meaningless mutual accusations. Those in India who feel the border dispute must be resolved before China can be trusted fail to understand the complexities of the issue. Two civilisations have co-existed without any evidence of confrontation for several centuries, when they had no border – a line separating two countries was then an alien idea. It was only after colonialism arrived that the civilisations developed the nation-state mentality and mindset where a single line was to divide the two civilisations. If such a line never existed, it has not been easy to invent one.

Yet another fact of history not known to many Indians who love to demonise China is that the Chinese people and state have been subjected to humiliation and exploitation for more than a century by the western imperialist powers. The Chinese people have always held the government's weakness as the primary cause of its subjugation. Revolutionaries from Sun Yat-sen to Mao Zedong succeeded in mobilising people on the grounds that a government that is completely weak vis-à-vis the foreign powers must go. Up to this day, therefore, the Chinese government is determined not to be seen as weak by its own people. It is this image of a strong government that gives the Communist Party of China legitimacy to rule.

Misperceptions among the Chinese about India are equally unrealistic. They need to understand that India does not covet the land of others nor is it waiting to ‘play the Tibet Card' at an opportune moment. Accepting Tibet as part of China is convenient for India or else an independent ‘Greater Tibet' brings to dispute the status of Sikkim, which has in the past, for centuries, been a vassal-state of Tibet. During my trips to China, both during formal and informal discussions, I have found that the Chinese are far more concerned about India's unpredictability in its Tibet policy than anything else. The Chinese must understand, notwithstanding what some pro-Tibetan independence groups do in India, that this country has nothing to gain by splitting Tibet from China.

Since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's deadlock-breaking visit in 1988-89, there have been many positive developments in bilateral relations. Trade has gone up at an exceedingly fast rate to the extent that today China has become India's largest trading partner. Tourism is on the rise, and with the opening of more consulates and the beginning of direct flights between different cities of India and China, this is likely to increase further.

Educational and cultural exchanges are taking place at an impressive level. According to unconfirmed but reliable reports, 4000 Indian students are studying in China today. The numbers coming from China are far less, thanks to our Home Ministry's visa policy. Even Chinese academics who are invited by our universities to teach the Chinese language to Indian students (due to a huge demand for it) find it very difficult to obtain visas. Both Delhi University's East Asian Studies Department and Santiniketan's Cheena Bhawan have suffered on account of this rigidity, which is the result of mistrust.

I do not subscribe to the view that two rising powers cannot peacefully co-exist. Indeed, some major path-breaking steps have to be taken by both sides to make sure that Cold War II or as some call it, an Asian Cold War does not happen. A resurgent Asia surely does not deserve it. However, Indians and Chinese need to break the mental barrier and begin to trust one another.

How can this trust deficit be overcome?

First, forget the border issue. Not solving it is not hurting either India or China in any way – economically, socially, culturally, or politically. It is too complicated.

Secondly, China is quite sensitive to the ‘Tibet Issue.' With the Dalai Lama and over 100,000 followers living in India, New Delhi needs constantly to renew its commitment on curbing Tibetan separatist actions on its soil so as to mitigate suspicion that it might intend to ‘play the Tibet Card.'

Thirdly, both sides must open up border trade at many points – the border people have been the worst victims of Sino-Indian hostilities, and develop province-to-province economic relations. The recent K2K (Kolkata to Kunming) Initiative is an encouraging development.

Finally, only large-scale people-to-people contacts can wipe out this trust deficit. Exchanges in the fields of education, sports, culture, science, and technology need to be greatly enhanced. Despite being neighbours, we know and understand very little of each other. On the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, cannot India and China make a new beginning?

(The author is Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi and Professor of Chinese Studies at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.)

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