The two nations that embody two of Asia’s oldest civilisations seem unable to sustain a civilised conversation. Last month, New Delhi and Beijing brought an end to an excited debate about border incursions by blaming the Indian media. The latest exchange of words, however, has its origins in the musty ranks of officialdom. Beijing made an unusually harsh and public criticism of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh — some 10 days after the visit. India responded by denouncing Chinese plans to build infrastructure in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Neither position is unusual. What is exceptional is the stridency and openness of the exchange. China seems to have fired the first shot in the latest exchange of unclear motives. Among the theories: the Dalai Lama’s planned visit to Arunachal, a desire to give troubled ally Pakistan a moral boost, and a general move to push the envelope with India.
All this underlines the shallowness of bilateral relations. Iron and steel may drive trade between the two, but political relations have all the fragility of porcelain. Small incidents, wild rumours and misinterpreted statements easily spark a frenzy of media speculation and even governmental tit-for-tat. It is a cliché to say that China is India’s biggest trading partner. But history is littered with cases of countries fighting their biggest trading partners. Better measures of confidence are the degree of bilateral investment, people-to-people contacts, military and technological cooperation. In all these areas, Asia has a continental divide.
No one expects India and China to ever become strategic partners. China’s focus is the Pacific; India has its own ocean to worry about. Perhaps, they are two countries emerging from the margins of history and now determined to make up for lost time. Both governments recognise that picking a fight would be at the expense of broader global and economic ambitions. The prime minister has expended considerable political capital pursuing Pakistan, a country that can barely keep soul and body together. He may be better off trying to work out a modus operandi with China, whose government is noted for its pragmatism and long-term view. At least then New Delhi and Beijing will have something positive to talk about.