Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to China comes 60 years since the inception of India-China bilateral ties. Both nations have shown maturity in their relationship since Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988. The 90s and the first decade of the 21st century saw increasing contact between the two countries at the cultural, social, tourism and, above all, trade levels.
China is today the largest trading partner with most countries. That is the case with India too, with bilateral trade touching nearly $60 billion. However, the use of trade figures to speak of increasing bilateral ties is seen by some as misinformed since the balance of trade between the two countries is firmly in China’s favour, as is the composition of the trade basket. Mutual mistrust between the two and fundamental differences over the boundary issue, about regional and traditional spheres of influence, Beijing’s relationship with Islamabad and New Delhi’s respect for the Dalai Lama are all cited as areas of suspicion.
In both countries, there is no single opinion about each other. India attaches the greatest importance to security with regard to China and pays special attention to the Sino-Pakistani relationship. There is an opinion that China will never allow India to emerge out of the India-Pakistan hyphenation. While India mistrusts China’s motives in South Asia, China claims India should understand China has other friends in the region (read: Pakistan and Sri Lanka). China’s recent claims over Arunachal Pradesh as ‘disputed territory’ and its veto against a loan for development in this region, further increased mistrust.
Within China, there is concern that an India-US-Japan troika could easily turn into an anti-China front. China has tried hard to change equations within the region and push for a more China-centric Asia, with East Asia as its focus. Its attempts have been to curtail American influence in the region economically and strategically. China has also filled the vacuum left behind by the Soviet Union in Central Asia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as the name suggests, is a Chinese-led strategic and economic grouping. India’s increasing trade and security exchanges within East Asia, its naval exercises with Thailand and Singapore, also have the Chinese concerned.
Of late, the two countries have been able to cooperate in various multilateral fora and organisations such as the G20, the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit and they even hold joint military exercises. This degree of cautious but more nuanced engagement bodes well for the future.
The one issue that can derail this strategy is the rising nationalist discourse in both countries. India’s search for strategic depth or security in its neighbourhood should not be confused with narrow definitions of nationalism as has been concocted in the past. China is also pushing a ‘strong nation’ discourse internally, most evident in its relationship with Japan. The Chinese Communist Party has reshaped itself in the popular imagination as the representative of a strong nation State.
Nationalism, not communism, is the new impetus for unity. It is evident in a growing Han nationalism on Tibet and Xinjiang. This jingoism was evident on both sides during the issue of border incursions. Fortunately for both countries, the exchange of high-level bilateral visits, constant academic and people-to-people dialogue ensure that the establishments in both countries continue a mutually beneficial cooperation.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said often enough that ‘the world is large enough for both India and China’. Krishna’s ongoing visit will be extremely important in this context of determining future bilateral ties — not according to international opinion, but according to how India and China minimise their differences and work on their commonalities.
Ravni Thakur is Associate Professor, Delhi University
The views expressed by the author are personal