India and China have to learn to get along with each other. India and China deeply distrust each other. The enormous gap between these two simple truths is why no one should expect smooth sailing in bilateral relations between the two countries. There can be no doubts that New Delhi needed to respond strongly to Beijing’s decision to disallow Lieutenant-General B.S. Jaiswal from visiting China. Especially given the specious argument that his command embraces Jammu and Kashmir. There should also be an acceptance that India cannot afford to put all of its exchanges with China in deep freeze for every bilateral infraction.
What is difficult regarding China is trying to understand the motives of Beijing’s actions and then calibrating a response. The Chinese leadership is not monolithic. It is also prone to factionalism and ill-discipline, more so than most outsiders realise. Beijing also responds to internal political pressures that resemble the short-termism and irrationality more often associated with democratic politics. Last year, China showed flashes of aggressive nationalism, at times in contravention of understandings it had worked out earlier, against many countries in the Asia-Pacific. Its denunciation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s electoral tour of Arunachal Pradesh was a reaction that seemed to emanate from the party hierarchy without the knowledge of the bureaucracy.
However, China is clearly becoming more assertive. It has the world’s second largest economy, is only a few steps short of superpowerdom, and is wooed and flattered by other countries in a way that Indians cannot conceive. Beijing is not a government that will be hesitant about exploiting an advantage. Which is why red lines must be maintained even while engagement is pursued. As the territorial dispute is the most tangible difference between the two countries, India must be very clear in broadcasting its sensitivities on this issue. It must also combine expanding its strategic partnership with countries like the United States with a degree of transparency with China as to India’s own motives. This is a fine balancing act. But it must always be remembered that the two Asian giants have a shared priority of ending centuries of humiliating poverty at home — and ensuring that external squabbles do not get in the way of this goal.