Some myths are frightening and need to be exploded. Some realities are potentially so dangerous that we can ignore them only at our peril.

India and China are neighbours — each with a billion-plus population, together accounting for 38 per cent of the world’s population, with the fastest GDP growth rates for large economies, with China already (in PPP terms) the world’s second largest economy and India set to become the third largest in the intermediate future. How the two big neighbours bond together in the future is crucial for global order. Further, how they interact with the United States will determine the international trends of the foreseeable future.

For at least two millennia, and until about 300 years ago, these two countries were considered by the then prevailing criteria as the most developed in the world, accounting for about 50 per cent of the world’s GDP. However, owing to similar experiences with foreign aggression, imperialism, and internal orthodoxy, India and China underwent a two-century long decline whereby by the mid-20th century, they became the world’s poorest nations.

Despite being neighbours and having flourishing economies over centuries, the two nations until 1962 neither ever went to war, nor took advantage of local civil wars. This is a most extraordinary and unparalleled experience of neighbourly peace in world civilisational history. Contrast this with what happened in Europe, West Asia, and North Africa.

The two peoples traded goods, exchanged visitors, borrowed ideas, and generally respected each other at the ruler and ruled levels — until foreign invasions and imperialism cut off normal interactions and relations became frozen. They were revived only in 1950, but fizzled out by 1959. War followed in 1962, for the first time in millennia.

It took a lot of effort thereafter to restore some modicum of good relations, in which this writer, with the encouragement of the Sankaracharya of Kanchi Mutt, Sri Chandrashekharendra Saraswati, played some shaping role.

When the Janata Party government came to power in 1977, Prime Minister Morarji Desai asked me to go to China to explore the situation and see if normalisation of relations would be possible. He chose me to go first, despite peer jealousies and objections in the party, because I knew Mandarin, had researched and taught courses (at Harvard) on China, and also because, as Morarji told me, I viewed China, “without wearing rose-tinted glasses.”

My initiative in September 1978 produced enough of a thaw for Morarjibhai to clear the way for External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to make a trip in February 1979, the first by any Indian Minister since 1960. But the outcome of the visit was, alas, scuttled by mishandling the fallout of the Sino-Vietnam war that was launched when he was there, and Mr. Vajpayee had to cut short his stay in China.

In 1981, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent my good friend and External Affairs Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, to request me to visit China again, and in a back-channel format obtain some clarifications about China’s attitude to the re-opening of relations with India, as also its intentions about some extremist leaders of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) who were planning to visit China clandestinely to obtain weapons.

In April 1981, I did visit Beijing and was received by Deng Xiaoping. It was during that meeting that he announced that Foreign Minister Huang Hua would go to India, and that China was open to a negotiated settlement on the Sino-Indian border dispute.

Border delineation discussions began thereafter and are still continuing on preliminaries! Deng Xiaoping conceded my demand, then pending for three years, for re-opening the Kailash-Manasarovar route in Tibet but only for Hindu pilgrims (China’s condition). I led the first delegation of 20 pilgrims in the freezing cold weather of September 1981, and since then Hindu pilgrims in batches have continued to go to Kailash-Manasarovar without any hitch till today.

In December 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi finally cut the Gordian knot in his wide-ranging talks with Deng Xiaoping by declaring that the Sino-Indian border was, in parts undemarcated and in parts disputed, thereby putting on hold (although not undoing) the consequences of the 1962 Parliament Resolution. Undoing, however, can be done only by a new Resolution in Parliament for which the time will come if there is a satisfactory end to the border dispute.

After this landmark visit, Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao and Deve Gowda contributed by signing agreements for various confidence-building measures. In 2003, as Prime Minister, Mr. Vajpayee visited China and reiterated India’s commitment to regarding Tibet as an inalienable part of China.

That commitment had already been made by Jawaharlal Nehru, and formalised in a treaty in 1954. Was the reiteration to build further confidence in the relations? I am not sure since I have not been able yet to fathom it. But Prime Minister Vajpayee’s reiteration means now (his then Cabinet Minister Arun Shourie’s recent polemics notwithstanding) that in India there is bilateral political commitment to regard Tibet as a part of China. It would require an audacious break with the past or an extraordinary paradigm-changing event to alter that reality.

Since 2007, relations between India and China have begun to cool. Outside government, but in the penumbra of officialdom, there is now a developing hysteria about our heading for war with China, or more precisely, about China planning to attack India. This hysteria mystery needs to be unravelled because neither can we be complacent about China’s capacity to inflict damage on us, nor should we have a fevered imagination about China’s alleged evil intentions to harm us.

Both dimensions of our attitude to China are dangerous. As a China watcher of long standing, I am curious about how this huge bilateral consensus, built over three decades, on the desirability or possibility of good relations with China, is weakening so fast. Who are the catalysts in this, what are the dynamics behind this change of this attitude, and how will it end? Is this projected Chinese threat real or just a myth?

We need to separate the myths and realities in our relations with China. Some myths are frightening and need to be exploded. Some realities are potentially so dangerous that we can ignore them only at our peril.

The most frightening myth in currency today is that China and Pakistan will co-ordinate an invasion of India, and balkanise the nation, or at least destroy our economy. This is expected no later than 2012, as precise as that! This we are hearing in some think tanks of Delhi populated by former officials of the government.

This mythical scenario is bogus because, first, China and the rest of the world learnt by the events of 1962, and by subsequent unconnected events, that if anything, the Indian people unite and India nationally consolidates when attacked from abroad. This Chanakya had noted as the concept of Chakravartin. Secondly, with Tibet and Sinkiang simmering, attacking India is not a one-way street or a picnic. On our borders and contiguous areas, moreover, the Indian Air Force is far superior while the terrain on our side of the border provides a much shorter and friendlier supply chain. China’s is very long and through more hostile terrain. Invasion therefore cannot be in the mind of the rational Chinese strategist. Most of these inflamed reports and the surrounding hysteria in India is because the propagators have been brought up on the British Imperialist version of our history, which is that India is a sitting duck for anyone who wants to invade the country.

The most potentially dangerous reality of the Sino-Indian relation today is India’s abdication of vital national interests for the domestic political survival of ruling coalitions. To counter China, some in India are advocating strategic bonding with the U.S. This is not in our national interest because the U.S. will then make us another Australia or Japan, a concubine, so to speak. The bottom line in U.S.-China relations at present is that China has a veto over U.S. actions in South Asia. Unless we can change that bottom line, the U.S. partnership is not going to mitigate our hysteria about China. In the meantime, China has us ringed in like a circus lion. It does not need to invade us when we are in such a state of impotence.

Shorn of the myths, the realistic and appropriate policy course for India is to match Chinese military capacity by concrete action (for example, spending 7 per cent of GDP on defence) and be conciliatory in policy, attitude, and words. Or to put it bluntly, take full care of national security but work for peace and good neighbourliness. At present we are doing precisely the opposite.

(The author is a Harvard-trained economist and China scholar and has made significant contributions to promoting India-China relations since 1978. He is a former Union Law Minister.)

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