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A long march to a new relationship

Nirupama Rao.
Nirupama Rao 14 May 2015 01:49 IST
Updated: 18 October 2016 13:42 IST

The India-China relationship today is marked by low levels of mutual trust and the lack of knowledge of the other among the people of both countries. Mr. Modi’s test will be to introduce more rationality to the relationship and to convince his Chinese interlocutors about this

In 1950, the year of establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China, the Indian Sinologist, Prabodh Chandra Bagchi, offered this summation of their “thousand year” relationship: “To Friends in China:..The road is long, so do not mind the smallness of the present. We wish you may accept it.” This note of forbearance is not easily assimilated in either country today, populated as both of them are by young “dreams”, incandescent nationalisms, and power in the process of being restored.

As the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, goes to China, >bearing his message of INCH (India and China) towards MILES (Millennium of Exceptional Synergy), he is in tune with the synergy of that earlier millennium in relations between the two countries, conscious of the smallness of the present in India-China interaction, and the length of the road ahead as the two countries seek to build harmony in the midst of differences. In the tradition of his ancient Indian forebears in China, when he lands in Xian, from where the Silk Road stretched westward into India, Mr. Modi, ever the pragmatist who also dares to dream, will approach the challenge of China, aware of the complexities that crowd the relationship, but also conscious of the potential it holds.

Not brothers but partners The >India-China relationship today is marked by low levels of mutual trust, pervading ambivalence in each country’s approach to the other, and the lack of knowledge of the other among the people of either country. Mr. Modi’s test is to introduce more rationality and coherence into the relationship than there is today, and to convince his Chinese interlocutors of the need for the same. The two countries that gave the world Panchsheel, cannot live in mutual exclusion. Indians and Chinese cannot be brothers, but they can be partners.

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Deng Xiaoping said that for China, “Development is the hard truth”. That dictum applies equally to India. It is only a strong, secure, economically developed India that can successfully achieve the goal of being a leader on the global stage. A partnership for development between India and China is a win-win partnership and neither side can lose in such a transaction. India, which has distances to cover in its development marathon, aims well to draw in investment and infrastructure-creating expertise from China. This is pragmatic and we must drop apprehensions of Chinese companies as Bond villains stroking Persian cats on a desert island and unleashing deadly viruses on people. India is big and strong enough to deal with such entities and get what it wants.

“Old Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang were intimately linked. A 21st century Silk Road initiative should explore these connections. ”

Policy moves, as reported by the media, to ease visas for Chinese nationals visiting India for tourism and business purposes are logical. India is increasingly a good business destination for Chinese investors and companies. From being ranked 19 in China’s export markets in 2001, India was ranked number 6 in 2013. The Indian consumer is literally the next-door neighbour for Chinese businesses today, a neighbour who is seeking several “home improvements” that a Chinese supplier or investor can help with. Take Xiaomi, known to Indian consumers as just Mi, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer that in just under a year has seen India >become its largest overseas market. Mobile phones are our single largest item of import from China.

Tapping trade and tourism The business of diplomacy is business. Our trade with China has grown phenomenally in the last decade and so has our trade deficit ($44.7 billion at last count). The Chinese market has been resistant to entry by our pharmaceutical exports and our service industries. An unequal relationship is an uneasy relationship. Mandarins in the Chinese Commerce Ministry need more strategic direction from the top decision-making echelons in the Politburo and the State Council on this aspect of legitimate concern for Indian businesses. This is a point the Prime Minister will have to emphatically make.

Another area of focus must be tourism. Tourist arrivals from China are minuscule. Chinese views of India are mired in images of poverty, dirt and chaos. There is much to be done in terms of changing that view, and attracting young Chinese particularly to our Buddhist sites, our backwaters and rainforests, and our Hindu and Islamic heritage. Given the millions who are fans of yoga in China, there is obviously a vast, untapped section of the Chinese travelling public that will make India a favoured destination if we market our tourist attractions in a focussed and “smart” manner.

State visits are occasions for signing agreements, joint statements and declarations. The path of bilateral relations is strewn with the headstones of such documents. Concretely, India and China must move forward with more purpose in areas like their strategic economic dialogue, on issues of military-to-military cooperation (itself a solid confidence-building measure), better connectivity which is the spine on which trade and investment is positioned (a positive measure would be direct air connectivity between New Delhi and Beijing), consultations on disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control (a welcome first round was held in Beijing last month), state-to-state relations between our provinces and China’s (the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh has returned recently from a very useful tour of China), and consultations on the regional situation, especially on Afghanistan.

China-Pakistan ties China’s ‘ >One Belt One Road’ initiative (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — the AIIB — is another), bearing the stamp of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, himself, is a clever way of redrawing the map of the region on a Chinese-driven projection. The Maritime Silk Road, which traces its genealogy to the ancient southern silk route, essentially provides a catchy name to China’s 21st century foray into the waters of the Indian Ocean, building ports and staging points in key stations along the way, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, northern Kenya, and Gwadar in Pakistan. The benefits to India are difficult to assess, as we legitimately seek to consolidate our time-tested ties and create our own organic connectivity with the islands and coastal lands of the Indian Ocean. The Prime Minister’s tours in the region are a reflection of this reality.

As part of its Belt initiative, China is working with Pakistan to >construct a Sino-Pakistan Economic Corridor across the Karakoram ranges into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and connecting with the Arabian Sea at Gwadar.

The alignment of this corridor is largely parallel, when seen on the map, with our Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. The “all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation” between China and Pakistan (Mr. Xi is freshly returned from a visit to our western neighbour), continues to flourish unimpeded, despite reports of the troubles in Xinjiang fomented by East Turkestan Islamic Movement groups ostensibly trained in terror camps in Pakistan. The Sino-Pakistan relationship will not be far from the Prime Minister’s thoughts, and is a source of fundamental dissonance in our interface with China. It will not go away.

China’s selective approach to the issue of Kashmir, where its actions in PoK signal implicit acceptance of Pakistani jurisdiction, vis-à-vis avoidance of contacts with India on Jammu and Kashmir and entities based there, is another source of difference. There is no reason why China should not encourage contacts between Xinjiang and Jammu and Kashmir, or even an aviation link between Urumqi and New Delhi. Old Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang were intimately linked. A 21st century Silk Road initiative should explore these connections.

The boundary question The gorilla in the room is predictably, the boundary question. It is somewhat caged although it rattles the door rather persistently when transgressions occur along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and a hyperventilating media in both countries (and a larger social media universe) agitates it further. Let it not be forgotten that the areas along the LAC in the India-China border areas have remained clash-free since October 1975. Since 1993, various agreements to maintain peace and tranquillity, and confidence-building mechanisms between border security personnel on both sides, have kept the peace effectively, despite doomsday predictions. One hopes for adequate reserves of good sense on the part of both governments to ensure that peace prevails. Recrudescent nationalisms in either country should not drive the debate to a point where well-calibrated mechanisms for stability are rendered non-functional.

In an interview on the eve of Mr. Modi’s visit, >Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that settling the boundary question “as early as possible is the historical responsibility that falls on both governments”. This is not an impossible goal but will require the political strength, confidence, conviction and fibre to accept mutual adjustment and accommodation so that an agreed boundary line demarcates the long frontier between India and China. Are out-of-the box solutions possible, ones that will enable a biosphere beyond borders for the people who inhabit the frontier areas? These have been explored and found possible in similar situations across the world.

For a start, border trade needs more of a fillip from both governments, as also the opening of more pilgrimage routes. The route from Demchok in Ladakh to the holy sites of Kailash and Manasarovar is one such example. Opening the route will certainly create a radically new normal in the area, allowing for a people-centred dispensation to ring-fence a territorial dispute. Here, the ball is in China’s court.

>Mr. Modi’s joining Weibo, the Chinese social media network, is an astute move. Even if it does not move mountains, it will awaken millions of Chinese, the young and educated especially, to an interest in India. We need that awakening. As a leader of the free world, Mr. Modi’s can be a powerful presence in China. That is as it should be.

(Nirupama Rao, a former Indian Ambassador to China and the United States, was the Foreign Secretary of India from 2009 to 2011. She is now a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi. A specialist in India-China relations, she is also working on a book on India-China relations.)

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