Still seriously mismatched

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna's visit to China is emphasising the prospects for India-China cooperation, in the aura of good feeling that high-level visits usually generate. A well-connected academic, Wang Dehua, in an interview about the visit, refers to India and China as “a rising and an emerging power.” He concludes that “India's interests lie in wider economic and cultural cooperation with China. This is China's opportunity to break up the U.S. intention to contain China.”

A recent visit to Beijing and Shanghai after a long absence gave us a more complicated picture of how the rise of India and China, so central to U.S. strategic thinking, looks from the east.

The India-China relationship is still asymmetrical. This theme ran through a dozen or so meetings with Chinese and some Indians who follow the relationship closely. One Chinese observer commented that neither country was top priority for the other. The disparity in their trade relations tells the story: China is India's largest partner for merchandise trade; India is China's 10th partner.

Respect and condescension

Despite this imbalance, Chinese thinkers, and apparently the Chinese government, take India far more seriously than they once did. Several observers commented that China had recently upgraded the rank of its ambassador in Delhi to the Vice-Minister level. India now ranks among China's largest economic partners, even if it is not at the top of that list. Reflecting on India's foreign policy, one Chinese veteran of India-China ties commented that its best feature was its independence. Another made an impassioned plea for China to “seize the moment” to work closely with India and together reshape the working of global institutions, an enterprise for which he clearly believed that India's participation was important. At least one observer spoke with real warmth about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom he said the Chinese leadership admired for his realistic approach to India's economy and for his “kindness.”

But with this increased respect for India came more than a whiff of condescension. Several observers used phrases like “China is the big brother.” All argued that India's ambitions for a greater global role were “understandable,” in light of its improved economic performance, but in the end unrealistic. They felt India was not yet ready for a major global role. Almost all argued that China's Comprehensive National Power (CNP) exceeded India's by a factor of three or four, and that the gap was widening. Chinese commentators often cite this metric, which combines economic strength and military power and, in some versions, measures of cultural or other “soft” power. One observer argued that India's missile programme was 10 years behind China's.

Reaction from the U.S.

A particularly dismissive attitude was reserved for India's practice of equating itself with China — both its quest for an international status that matched China's and its reference to India and China as a matched pair, whether as the “two rising powers” or in other ways. One Indian observer commented that Chinese India-watchers were conscious that a few decades ago, Chinese and Indian per capita incomes were the same, whereas today, China's exceeds India's by a factor of between three and four. The Indian practice of bracketing the two countries, he felt, struck Chinese observers as “a B-plus student presenting himself as the equal of a straight-A student.”

This slightly jaundiced view dovetailed with a widespread comment that India routinely tried to negotiate outcomes beyond what its national power could justify. Some people referred to India's “arrogance,” or to the “unilateralism” or “self-righteousness” of Indian foreign policy. Commenting more specifically on India's negotiating style, the most common word was “tough.” Those we spoke to had considerable respect for India's diplomats, both for their diplomatic talents and for their linguistic skills and knowledge of China. They felt that the need to do business in English put China at a disadvantage.

For two visitors from the United States, perhaps the most arresting observation concerned the balance among bilateral, regional and global issues in the relationship. For the U.S., bilateral ties are the biggest success story, and this matches India's priorities. For China, on the other hand, the easiest arena for India-China collaboration is global, both their interactions at the United Nations and on such issues as climate change. Bilateral issues are much more difficult, and regional cooperation almost non-existent.

Bilateral, regional issues

In India-China bilateral relations, the oldest issue, and the one that still has pride of place, is the border. We found no one who expected this issue to be resolved within his professional lifetime; the best that could be hoped for was to manage it. We were given a succession of presentations on 1960s-era opportunities for solving the border that had been squandered by India's “excessive” ambitions. Solutions that might have worked in the 1960s, we heard repeatedly, were no longer possible in light of the two nations' power gap. On the growing list of other bilateral issues, notably trade, energy and water, Chinese observers often cited India's “toughness” in defending its interests.

The dialogue on regional issues is even more difficult, and is highly selective. The most obvious problem area is Pakistan, which China does not discuss with India. Chinese scholars either deflected our questions about the reported Chinese role in Gilgit and Baltistan, or dismissed the reports of a Chinese military role as misinterpretations of “workers who had military-like uniforms.” Nuclear questions are another no-no — whether or not they involve Pakistan. China is unwilling to enter into any discussion or multilateral forum that involves an implication of equal nuclear status between China and India.

Discussions on East Asia are also difficult. One observer noted that India treated China as an outsider in South Asia and the Indian Ocean; China did the same to India in East Asia. It was clear that China's India-watchers had noted India's “look East” policy but did not particularly welcome it. They predictably dismissed India's fears of Chinese military bases on the Indian Ocean rim. The South China Sea was a major preoccupation, and our Chinese interlocutors pointedly dismissed any notion that India (or indeed the U.S.) had legitimate interests there.

On global issues, the people we spoke with felt that India's and China's interests were much closer, and they had little difficulty agreeing on broad principles to guide their desired outcome in multilateral discussions. As a result, negotiations were much easier — although we heard from both Chinese and Indian observers that once one got into details, reaching agreement was harder. Both countries started from the premise that they needed to defend the rights of “large developing countries,” a phrase the Chinese seemed to prefer to “rising powers.” India often finds it easier to make common cause with China in forums like the United Nations Security Council. But one retired diplomat conceded that China had made good use of ambiguous but positive-sounding statements on such issues as India's quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council and its Nuclear Suppliers' Group waiver. They succeeded in sending visitors away with a warm feeling, without actually undertaking any real commitment on China's part.

Little about Delhi-Washington

We heard little about China's attitude toward India's relations with the United States, and were asked surprisingly few questions about this. China's apparent misgivings about Delhi-Washington ties, however, surfaced in one retired diplomat's comment that the U.S. was reinforcing India's unrealistic ambitions. The case he cited in particular was the statement by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 that the U.S. wanted to help India “become a great power in the 21st Century.”

It is noteworthy that Mr. Krishna's visit to Beijing coincided with U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's visit to Delhi, and preceded by a week his own trip to Washington for the Strategic Dialogue. The U.S. believes that India will be one of the powers that shape the next century, and that its contribution to Asian security and prosperity will be vital. The bilateral U.S.-India relationship is vibrant and growing, with some predictable speed bumps reflecting both India's internal challenges and the difficulty of meshing two stubborn bureaucratic systems and our different foreign policy traditions. India-U.S. consultations on East Asia have become a dynamic part of this relationship in the last two years, and other regional dialogues are getting started; global cooperation, on the other hand, has lagged. China has not yet accepted India's global role, and has kept India at arm's length when it comes to regional issues. Cooperation on multilateral global issues is valued both in Beijing and in Delhi, but does not seem to touch the core issues of India's role as a world power.

(Teresita and Howard Schaffer are former U.S. ambassadors, with long years of service in South Asia. They are co-founders of southasiahand.com. Howard Schaffer teaches at Georgetown University; Teresita Schaffer is a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution.)

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