Leadership: Why China And India Don't Get Along


January 4, 2011: India-China ties are set to enter treacherous waters in the coming months. This is clear from current Chinese attitudes, wherein China favors Pakistan at the expense of India. For example, China is selling a one Giga watt nuclear reactor to Pakistan and is determined to ink a civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement with the country which has for years indulged in nuclear proliferation. China has been demanding visa applications from Indians living in Jammu and Kashmir (wishing to travel to China) but not for Pakistanis in Pakistani Kashmir. This makes it clear on whose side China is.

Against the backdrop of many serious differences, the visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (December 15-17) was expected to lower the temperature. It did not; instead it only exacerbated the Sino-Indian fault lines. Wen’s talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on December 16 failed to produce any dramatic results. The good thing is that the two sides continue to stay engaged though both eye each other warily. This is demonstrated by the fact that this is the eleventh time the two leaders met this year alone.

They set an ambitious bilateral trade target of $100 billion by 2015, not an impossible task considering that India-China trade has trebled to $60 billion since 2002 and China has already become India’s single largest trade partner. The much-awaited PM-to-PM hotline has finally been activated three days before Wen’s visit. In addition, the two sides signed six pacts in areas ranging from media and cultural exchanges to green technologies, the sharing of hydrological data on the Sutlej River, and collaboration between their banks, though it must be said that it is unusual of China to sign so few agreements during its top leader’s foreign trip.

This is the half glass full picture. The half glass empty picture is more important. China did nothing with regard to major Indian concerns, among them:

-The issuance of visas to Indians living in Jammu and Kashmir

-Support for India’s candidacy for a permanent membership seat in the United Nations Security Council;

-The dam the Chinese are building on the Brahmaputra River in Tibet;

-The very close China-Pakistan defense relationship and the fact that the two countries are on the verge of signing a deal for the Chinese sale of one Giga watt nuclear reactor to Pakistan; and,

-China’s continued soft gloves treatment to the issue of Pakistani Islamic terrorist leader Hafiz Mohammed Saeed.

 And yet, Wen left India with business deals worth $23 billion for Chinese companies.

 For its part, India played hardball as well. The Indian delegation, particularly Home Minister P Chidambaram, told Wen and his delegates why it was imperative for China to take action against Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. China maintained a Sphinx-like silence on the UNSC issue and dispelled fears on the Brahmaputra dam. Earlier in the year the Chinese denied that they were building a dam on the Brahmaputra River. India too paid back in the same coin when it refused to say the usual in the joint communiqué issued after the talks: that India acknowledges Tibet to be an integral part of China.

 Two events in past decade or so have impacted Sino-Indian relations hugely: India’s second set of nuclear tests in May 1998 and the July 2005 India-U.S. decision to go ahead with a game-changer civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement. The first because a leaked letter of then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to then U.S. President Bill Clinton explaining reasons for the nuclear tests made it clear that India had taken the step mainly because of China. The second because China saw Washington’s intent to sign the nuclear power agreement with India as a counter balance to China and getting India into the nuclear weapon international community through the back door.

The deepening Indo-U.S. ties prompted a rethink in China’s India policy, evidenced in China’s hyperactive behind-the-scene lobbying against an India-specific waiver at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group in 2008. India got the NSG waiver though China did not want it, primarily because the U.S. lobbied very hard for it. A country that does not support India’s entry in a small cartel like NSG can hardly be expected to back India’s claim for the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. And China knows that it is not impossible especially when the other P4 members, particularly the U.S., have come out with strong and unequivocal support for India’s case. 

Since its reluctant support to India at the NSG in 2008, China has been accusing India of “befriending the far, attacking the near”. China itself can be held guilty of the same. For years China has been wooing its far abroad like Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, while ignoring its near abroad. It is not just India but almost all neighbors of China – Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Japan – have issues with China.

China gives respect to only those who stand up to it. India’s resurgence may or may not be a threat to China depending on how the Chinese respond to the rising India. One way is to categorize India as an enemy and take diplomatic and military steps to deal with India accordingly. In that event, India will inevitably put a diplomatic equivalent of Newton’s Third Law of Motion in practice: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The other way is that of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect. Indian Prime Minister has time and again said that there was enough space in the world to accommodate both India and China.

The coming few weeks may shed some light on what the inscrutable China is going to do with respect to India. China can make a new positive beginning by immediately scrapping its selective visas policy for Indians from Jammu and Kashmir. – Rajeev Sharma



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