Misperceptions hurt India, China ties, says former foreign secretary Gokhale

Slide in relations since 2013, could spark future conflict, says former envoy to Beijing

March 10, 2021 07:51 pm | Updated December 02, 2021 10:56 pm IST - NEW DELHI

 Vijay Gokhale.

Vijay Gokhale.

Mismatched expectations and “misperceptions”, especially over India’s concerns over the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s view of India-U.S. ties , lie at the root of deteriorating relations between Delhi and Beijing, and could lead to an “antagonistic rivalry” and even future confrontation, says a new paper by former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale.

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Outlining a consistent downslide in ties particularly since 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping was elected President and 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, Mr. Gokhale, has suggested that both sides need to build a more realistic assessment of each other before “tackling individual issues of concern”, like the boundary or trade.

 

“Both countries view themselves as civilizational powers and expect others to acknowledge this fact. Misperceptions often lead to one country ascribing intentions to the actions or behaviour of the other country that might not have been the latter’s intention, thus creating mistrust. Hence, going forward, both sides may need to rework their basic perceptions of the other side and reach a new perspective before tackling individual issues of concern,” Mr. Gokhale has written in the paper ‘The Road from Galwan: Future of India-China Relations’, published by Carnegie India.

 

It is the first such detailed account of bilateral relations since the former Foreign Secretary (2018-2020) and former Ambassador to China (2016-2017), who was a key interlocuter during the Doklam standoff in 2017, retired last year.

Mr. Gokhale writes that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was viewed in New Delhi as a lack of sensitivity towards India’s territorial concerns in Jammu and Kashmir, and its primacy in South Asia.

Also read: Editorial | Dangerous impasse: On India-China border row

“There was no consultation between China and India over the BRI,” says Mr. Gokhale, adding that “Perhaps the Chinese assumed that India would align and dovetail its plans with the BRI. When China declared the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a flagship project, it became difficult for India to associate with the BRI.”

However, he said China attributes New Delhi’s rejection of the BRI, and its closer ties to the U.S. to “right-wing or Hindu nationalist pressure.”

“Beijing appears to think that the Modi government is more assertive, less sensitive to China’s core concerns, and more likely to side with China’s rivals. It does not regard its policies or actions as having given proper cause for the Indian side to consider China as a strategic threat,” the paper explains. It then quotes several Chinese scholars and publications to say that “China’s leaders felt that while they had done nothing detrimental to India’s interests, India was responding in ways that could be detrimental to them.”

Meanwhile India’s membership of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), that is due to hold its first summit with U.S. President Biden, Japanese Premier Suga, Australian Premier Morrison and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, is interpreted in Beijing to mean that “India is part of the U.S. containment initiative”.

“From India’s perspective, China’s push into the Doklam plateau…appeared to question the very basis of the Rajiv Gandhi-Deng Xiaoping consensus on the peaceful handling of disputes,” he writes, saying the standoff in 2017 “brought matters to a head”.

Mr. Gokhale says that while the killings of soldiers at Galwan in 2020 marks an “implacable decline” in India-China ties, the decline is long standing. He lists Chinese aggression at the LAC from 2013, its blocking of UN listings for Pakistan-based terrorists, opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (2016), failure to address the trade deficit with India and failure to keep promises of bringing in $20 billion in investment to India, as factors.

The paper concludes that discussions after LAC disengagement at present could be “the final chance” for cooperation between the two countries.

“If not, a new phase of antagonistic rivalry may be starting, with the countries sliding into possible confrontation as the strategic periphery of China collides with the strategic backyard of India in the Indian Ocean region,” Mr. Gokhale writes.

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