Partnership and competition between India and China - Hindustan Times

Partnership and competition between India and China

May 11, 2024 04:01 PM IST

This article is authored by Dr Sidhartha Tan and Dr Joe Thomas Karackattu.

The 100th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s first visit to China just passed in April even as we remained largely amnesic to the milestone. Tagore was the first to emphasise the concept of India-China affinity and the cultural integration of the two ancient cultures. Tagore’s prescient words still resonate: “Two leading races of that Age [who] met, not as rivals on the battle-field, each claiming the right to be the sole tyrant on earth, but as noble friends, glorying in their exchange of gifts.”

China India national flag cloth fabric waving on the sky with beautiful sun light - Image (Shutterstock)
China India national flag cloth fabric waving on the sky with beautiful sun light - Image (Shutterstock)

Currently, India-China relations are facing significant challenges. The existing state of relations can be described as a form of armed coexistence. The near-complete impasse in relations since Galwan 2020 makes it further difficult to expect a change for the better if the current strategy continues. Looking back in history, parallels can be drawn to the Franco- German enmity following the formation of unified Prussia, which endured for centuries, marked by numerous conflicts and two devastating World Wars.

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It is time to ask some fundamental questions: Who benefits from India and China being in a state of armed coexistence? The lessons learned from the war in Ukraine underscore the perils associated with nationalistic interests, the profit-driven nature of the military-industrial complex, the dangers of jingoism, and the resulting quagmire in conflict. While the two most populous nations on earth require every available resource to foster the economic, educational, and physical well-being of their citizens--valuable funds are instead diverted to militarise the borders with weapons that will inevitably become outdated and create intergenerational mistrust for years to come. Sustaining the status quo of armed coexistence comes at the expense of mutually beneficial cooperation, hindering economic, scientific, and cultural progress, exacerbating the climate crisis, and ultimately impacting the livelihoods of generations in both countries.

On the surface, the boundary dispute appears to be the primary issue, but deeper examination reveals a myriad of underlying factors rooted in human shortcomings. The tyranny of fixed maps has led entire generations to believe that national boundaries are immutable, despite extensive areas being subject to dispute. Secondly, nationalism and jingoism drive leaders to assert strength for self-preservation, fuelling a cycle of aggression that exacerbates tensions on both sides. Thirdly, and this is not limited to India, there is resistance and angst against China's economic growth, in part owing to the fusion of military and civil interests there, which fuel cycles of economic insecurity leading to mistrust. Fourth, ongoing border clashes perpetuate feelings of anger, escalating the conflict. Lastly, hubris on both sides fosters the illusion that one nation can reclaim all contested territories, further complicating resolution efforts.

The state of armed coexistence presupposes that either country can reclaim territory using force. This is an impossibility. There is a dire need to move away from reactive thinking on China, towards a more permanent solution. Could we learn from the ways countries around the world are dealing with the China challenge/opportunity? The decoupling attempts by the United States that encompasses overt recommendations to reduce supply chain reliance on China to outright prohibition on investment in Chinese companies can be contrasted to the German approach which does not involve decoupling of the two economies. It is time we acknowledge two things. Unlike other countries in the West, India and China have a long boundary and are neighbours. Competition with China is always going to be relational and the issues other countries have with China are not the same as our ongoing dispute. China will be indispensable while dealing with the many global challenges the world is likely to face, including issues relating to standardisation of technologies. Its economic footprint (and political clout) in India’s neighbourhood cannot be wished away. There is no better time than now to bring coherence in our strategy on China so that the subjective intensity of this political rivalry does not affect the societal / people-to-people understanding between India and China (ironically China was one of the top five destination countries for Indian nationals in 2019 as per the ministry of tourism).

There is a historic opportunity for both countries to look at how they want to shape their coexistence as neighbours. Boundary claims underwritten by weak (and transient) historical evidence have run their course and there is dire need for an acknowledgement of a genuine dispute. The narrow set of interlocutors mediating current interaction between the two nation-States have to allow other imaginations of coexistence besides armed coexistence. The concerns around the disputed boundary between India and China are not only strategic--but they embody bi-national concerns about ecology and the environment which ideally should involve multiagency collaboration. At one stroke of declaring the disputed areas as environmental zones, for instance, the entire boundary dispute could be viewed through an entirely different paradigm. Independent India and the People’s Republic of China have largely skirted direct questions on the tenability of boundaries drawn without joint surveys or mutual delimitation (prior to 1947, the two did not exist as cohesive nation-State entities). A fresh perspective on the longstanding border issue is sorely needed especially given the breakdown of border management protocols to maintain tranquility along the border areas over the last seven years (starting with Doklam in 2017). That would be a real test of courage for the political leadership in both countries. Any effective strategy under the current circumstances has to be based on a strategy of simultaneity--pursuing partnership as well as competition. This is possibly the only deterrent as well to unplanned consequences of unilateral actions by any one party concerned.

This article is authored by Dr Sidhartha Tan, tenured professor, paediatrics, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan and Dr Joe Thomas Karackattu, associate professor, HSS Dept, IIT Madras. Sidhartha Tan is the grandson of Tan Yun-Sha, founder of Santiniketan's Cheena Bhavana. This April was the centenary of Tagore's first visit to China.

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