Beyond the expected statements Chinese officials will exchange with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna in Beijing this week, there is little consensus among different policymakers in Beijing on how to engage with a rising India.

Earlier this year, the United States' decision to approve a $ 6.4-billion arms sale to Taiwan sparked a series of agitated commentaries in China's military journals. The tone will sound somewhat familiar to an Indian audience: it reflected a growing anxiety among strategists that the U.S. was building a “crescent-shaped ring” to encircle and contain China. Interestingly, much of the debate focussed on what role India would — or would not — play in a supposed U.S.-led “encirclement.” Some strategists expressed concern that an eventual “integration of India” into an American alliance “would profoundly affect China's security,” as the official China Daily reported. Dai Xu, an Air Force Colonel of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), warned that China needed to be vigilant against this growing network running “from Japan to India” that would suffocate China.

Others, however, were not so convinced, and instead sought to calm the tensions. Pei Yuanying, former Chinese Ambassador to India, said India, as “an independent international power in the international arena,” was “unlikely to be part of any such U.S. scheme.” Shen Dingli, one of the leading voices in the strategic community in Beijing, also disagreed with Dai's views in an interview with The Hindu, suggesting that the current relationship was sound enough for China to have no reason to worry about India's ties with the U.S.

These differing views point to an ongoing debate in Beijing on a question that many policymakers are grappling with: how should China engage with a rising India? On one side of the debate are voices from the PLA, who are pressing Beijing to take a harder line with India and who see little room for cooperation between two rivals. On the other are voices in the Hu Jintao government and official think tanks, which are pushing for a more moderate and non-confrontational foreign policy line, one which they see as crucial to China's own self-interest and continued development.

The military view

The appearance of a number of articles and commentaries last year in military journals and official Communist Party-run newspapers has led some to suggest that the first group is increasingly beginning to have its voice heard. In recent months, articles in influential publications like the People's Daily, have taken a noticeably harder line on India, accusing New Delhi of “arrogance” and calling on China to take a stronger position on the border dispute. The People's Daily, in particular, has also begun to devote extensive coverage to India's military build-up, frequently speaking of an “India threat.”

The articles more or less reflected the “PLA view” of Sino-Indian ties, according to Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who studies the Chinese military. According to him and other analysts, this view is predicated on three basic policy positions on India. The first assumes that India is seeking to become a great power. The policy response is to support Pakistan, which China continues to do, and confine India's influence to South Asia. The second, he says, assumes that India has “hegemonic ambitions in South Asia” — a phrase often used by the People's Daily last year. The policy response in China is to “oppose hegemony” by supporting smaller states in South Asia, like Nepal and Bangladesh. The third is on India's presence in the Indian Ocean, and the policy response is to strengthen China's naval capabilities.

The other view

Much as the PLA is influential, its view by no means reflects a consensus opinion among the highest policymakers. Besides the PLA, there are at least three groups which have a role in shaping China's India policy, including commercial lobbies, retired officials and a select group of India scholars in official think tanks. This section tends to view the relationship beyond the narrow military paradigm of the PLA. It argues that despite the persisting mistrust between the countries, it is in China's own interest, both from the point of view of sustaining its economic development and its standing as a responsible world power, to have harmonious relations with India and a peaceful periphery.

“Many people in the Chinese government realise that despite historical differences, there are growing commonalities in relations between the two countries and their positions on international issues,” says Ma Jiali, a leading South Asia scholar at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), who advises the government on its India policy. “There is also the common goal that both countries do not want to see a unipolar world.” He considers “four roles” India plays in shaping his policy view — “a close neighbour, a developing country with common goals, a rising power and an increasingly important international player.” “The basic fact is,” he continues, “we must have good relations with India, or our national interest will be damaged.”

His view is echoed by Sun Shihai, another influential ‘India hand' at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He says he “completely disagrees” with the policy views voiced by the nationalistic commentaries in much of the official media last year. “Many of those reports misperceived India very deeply,” says Professor Sun. “Among most scholars at least, there is a growing awareness that India's power is rising, its international status is rising, and these facts are a reality that cannot be altered.” He believes that it is in China's self-interest to work with India on issues in which the countries have a common stake such as climate change and combating terrorism. “China has more respect [now] for India's rise, and it is in our interest to co-operate where we can, as we did so effectively last year at Copenhagen [on climate change],” he says. “But as two rising powers with growing international roles and strategic weight, cooperation and competition will be natural. What the governments need to do is manage the competition and avoid conflict. Most serious scholars are of this view.”

Reading the debate

Do these different views matter to India? Chinese foreign policy is ultimately decided at the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee using these various inputs. But how these inputs get used is “an extremely complicated process,” says Prof. Kondapalli. “Various groups put out their agenda to try and have their opinions heard, but what is eventually decided depends on who has greater influence at a given moment in time.” For now though, the outcome of this debate still seems uncertain. “The academic community appears to follow a soft and co-operative line while the PLA maintains its stridency to keep India on tenterhooks,” says Brigadier (retd.) Arun Sahgal of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

Until there is greater clarity on its outcome, the mistrust between the countries will likely persist. For usually, it is only the harder “PLA view” of India that gets covered in the media, serving as fodder for the often over-hyped ‘China threat' perspectives dished out by strategic analysts. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that these views are more “newsworthy” than balanced views from the government and other scholars. But another factor behind misperceptions is the continuing opacity in China's own government, in both policy-making and the state's control of the media.

“The main problem in understanding China's policies is the lack of transparency, which often leads to misperceptions” Prof. Kondapalli says. Consequently, even extreme opinions, from any media outlet, often tend to be regarded as Beijing's official line, and drown out other views even if they are no more than voices in an ongoing debate. And until China becomes more transparent, analysts say, external observers will likely continue to imagine the worst when reading the tea leaves.

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