Pace protestations from Delhi to the contrary, India’s relations with its larger northeastern neighbour China have at best been fraught with tension that have boiled over to outright hostility at the worst of times. Given Beijing’s consistent efforts to undermine Indian security and standing on the world stage, it is beguiling to see a not inconsiderate number of Indians expressing the hope that the 21st century will belong to a partnership between the two countries that will reshape the international order to the benefit of rising powers; with greater contacts through education, tourism, and trade, the border issue would diminish in salience.
Such aspirations are unrequited from the other side: it is a striking difference that Chinese businessmen returning from India are rarely as optimistic as their Western counterparts. Whereas CEOs from the United States, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere are enthused about India’s growing middle class, the improving regulatory environment, and the massive opportunities it offers in infrastructure, services, defence, and other sectors, the Chinese corporate class is more likely to complain about regulatory red tape, poor quality of human resources as well as material, woefully lacking infrastructure, and the culture of middlemen and rampant corruption. This difference indicates more than just the other side of the coin – it reaffirms that the Chinese do not see India as belonging, with themselves, to the first circle among nations.
The fundamental, unrecognised road block to India’s improved relations with China is that Beijing does not see Delhi as an equal. Incomprehensible to South Block’s mandarins confident in their own greatness, India remains for China a lesser power that could yet derail their aspirations for a Pax Sinica. Beijing, therefore, has never considered India in its own respect but as an appendix to its policies with other states.
A defining element of India’s self-projection on the world stage is the belief that somehow, it is an important nation. This could be seen in its first prime minister’s gratuitous commentary on international events at a time when India did not have the means to play a practical role in global affairs. In an audacious attempt, Jawaharlal Nehru tried to lead most of the world’s nations away from the superpower rivalry in a non-aligned third bloc. Delhi’s confidence did not come from its abilities but from a deep-rooted hubris that India simply was great; by virtue of its ancient civilisation, rich in philosophy, literature, science, architecture, and engineering, India deserved respect today.
Perhaps motivated by curiosity more than anything else, the world did accord India some attention in the early years of the newly-independent republic. With the passing of Nehru, however, so too did those giddy days. A planned economy that stumbled at every step, the constant moralising, and little contribution to alleviating the problems of the word soon put India back in the ranks of the “fly over” nations. Going by historic trends, India’s geographic size, population, and strategic location would have normally destined the country for an important global role but India’s leadership believe(d) that this was already so.
It is easy to bask in the praise of allies as India has done in recent years with the United States, and to a lesser extent, France, Israel, and Japan. However, much to Delhi’s discomfiture, it has not received the same deference from its unacknowledged rival, China. In fact, Beijing has studiously avoided reference to India in its policies except as a curt, off-handed afterthought. This disregard is apparent in the way Chinese policies are always presented as having their focus elsewhere but whose objectives may coincidentally impinge on Indian interests. For example, Beijing’s increasingly heavy footprint in Tibet has been portrayed as the integration of the forcibly annexed state into the mainstream of Chinese national life; however, the infrastructure, demographic transfers, and military deployments coincidentally put pressure on the Line of Actual Control with India. Similarly, China’s sudden activity on nuclear non-proliferation is couched in the language of creating a non-discriminatory regime though its real aim to stymie India’s admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Group is transparent.
After the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998, China was initially silent but later released a restrained statement expressing shock and urging India to disarm and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China’s official position on India’s nuclear ambitions is that it is unfortunate, wasteful, and that Delhi and Islamabad should sort out their differences peacefully; the China threat is a rumour of ulterior motives. Similarly, India’s missile tests have not merited a comment until the recent Agni V finally rattled China into seeking a hearing in the United Nations. Even then, Beijing’s greatest concern is Delhi’s cosying relationship with Washington – and perhaps Tokyo – more than anything it has been able to achieve itself. There is no acknowledgement of any consideration of India in China’s defence planning, perhaps studiously so. This has successfully de-linked the two Asian giants in most minds, though the yawning gap between the two states in terms of the size of the national economy, their militaries, and infrastructural development has also contributed in some measure.
It is natural that a rising power like China has expansive interests. Yet Beijing’s quest for influence has always tried to block Delhi’s gains – such as the recent interest in Chabahar – or undermine India – Pakistan is the most glaring example. Competition between powers is natural, and no one can deny China’s legitimate interests around Asia. Yet it is the tone in which they are pursued that ought to have clued Delhi in on its neighbour’s thinking.
Delhi may believe China’s indifference to be merely a psychological game but all indications suggest it is much more than that: Beijing does not see Delhi as its equal. This is why the response to overtures towards resolving the border dispute have been met with flippancy. In October 2013, as well as during Xi Jinping’s visit to India (September 2014) and Narendra Modi’s stop in Beijing (May 2015), the Chinese army intruded deep into Indian territory and remained for days.
Although the Line of Actual Control separating India and Tibet is quiet in comparison to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, there has nonetheless been constant friction. There have been three serious incursions in as many years during which the Chinese army camped inside India for weeks before finally retreating back to their side of the line.
There is also the matter of continued support for Pakistan – not just in terms of conventional military supplies, nuclear weapons, and missile technology but also in the form of substantial economic investments that could fundamentally alter Pakistan’s economic geography as well as support for Islamabad’s terrorist forces in the United Nations. This is not out of any shared worldview or camaraderie but is purely utilitarian – Beijing’s belief is that a lesser power like India can easily be distracted from global geopolitics by significant irritation from an even smaller state such as Pakistan.
The growing disparity in economic and military werewithal between India and China lends some credence to the latter’s attitude towards the former. More importantly, Indian leaders and society remain too focused on their domestic bickering to present a strong and unwavering image to the rest of the world. If Delhi truly wishes to improve relations with the dragon, it must do so from a position of equality. This means a far narrower difference in power and a demonstrated ability to achieve strategic goals – be they defence manufacturing or aid projects in the neighbourhood – in a timely manner. India must earn the respect of its opponent before anything fruitful may be expected of border talks and other summits.