India and China: Twain can never meet

The Chinese are extremely wary and suspicious of India's growing closeness with the US and feel that the US was seeking to "draw a line" around China, writes Tarun Basu for South Asia Monitor 

Tarun Basu Jun 18, 2020

The Chinese are by and large disdainful of Indians. They admire Indians for their brains, their IT power which gave them global renown, and for their culture, particularly the soft power of Bollywood films which are eagerly sought after in China. Many of them like "Dangal", "PK" and "Three Idiots" have become household names in China, so much so that they were brought up by President Xi Jinping during one of his many summits with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

However, they do not consider India a 'rival' power for global dominance.  In my many visits to China, including three with three different Indian prime ministers as part of their invited media delegation,  the impression one gained was that the Chinese think Indian democracy is too chaotic - and the country too ungovernable - to be able to achieve the status of 'great power' in the near future. Besides its military is a fifth of China and its economy - though growing second-fastest after China - is still a sixth of China. Gaggles of Chinese tourists, seen in most global tourist destinations, so far avoided India as Chinese considered it a 'rape-country' - an image fostered by Chinese media - and hence too dangerous for travel.

Their border standoffs, like the current one which erupted into a low-intensity but dangerous conflict with non-lethal weapons, are and likely to remain a recurrent phenomenon for the foreseeable future, considering the number of issues on which the two countries have potential friction points. The two countries are so fundamentally different in political models,  world views, institutional governance, cultural outlook, even social systems, that their ways of looking at the same issues are often antipodal despite occasional invocation to their centuries-old historical ties and multilayered commercial links.

When the Chinese smile and reserve comment on an issue under discussion, Indians interpret it as tacit agreement, when it can be just the opposite. One such recorded instance was the grave misinterpretation of Chinese silence by then Indian Ambassador to China, K. M. Pannikar, in 1952. After his conversation with then Premier Zhou Enlai,  Pannikar read in the latter's silence on the Tibet-India frontier as "acquiescence in, if not an acceptance of  India's position" that the "Frontier had been defined and there was nothing to be discussed".  Jawaharlal Nehru, in fact, overruled advice from G. S. Bajpai, then secretary-general of the Ministry of External Affairs, that the border issue should be part of the overall settlement and should be resolved at the earliest. 

"Thus, the border issue was not raised, nor was it linked to the settlement of India's rights in Tibet which was unilaterally given up, one at a time, salami style, to China's great advantage," says R. S. Kalha, former Indian diplomat  and a negotiator with the Chinese in his book "India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement" (2014). 

"This was a grave error of judgement. It showed what a poor reading Pannikar had of the Chinese mind, But Nehru, too, cannot be absolved of all blame." 

Many Indian analysts, who have closely studied Chinese history and culture, talk about how Chinese attitudes and responses are shaped by their interpretation of history and their place in it. Shyam Saran, former Indian foreign secretary who has long experiences in serving in China,  learning both spoken and written Mandarin, says in his book "How India Sees The World" (2017) that "China's world view is inherently hierarchical. It is a legacy of its history of relative pre-eminence in a neighborhood populated by smaller and, in Chinese eyes, less civilised countries". 

In a highly insightful chapter on China, Saran states that " China, deception is accorded a value more significant than in other cultures" and that "there is a subtlety to the Chinese use of deception which escapes most Indians." The Chinese don't see war as a necessarily a bad thing - Chairman Mao said as much to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when the two met in 1956 in Beijing - and see no room for sentiment or moral principles in interstate relations where only power is the decisive factor. 

Chinese strategy and Indian naivete 

The current border tension would appear to many observers not only as inevitable but certainly not the last. One, because of a gross misreading of the Chinese mind and their intentions - Kalha says Nehru had an "excessively simplistic and naive faith in Chinese motives" - the border settlement was left unresolved because Nehru did not believe that the Chinese posed a "military danger" to India because the Himalayas were too formidable a barrier "for any considerable body of men to cross to India."  

A great proponent of 'Asian resurgence' in a post-colonisation, post-imperialism world, an idealistic Nehru believed Beijing's verbal assurances and Indian goodwill were enough to ensure border peace and military equilibrium.

Seeing the present crisis through the prism of diplomatic history, it would seem that Nehru woke up to the Chinese danger finally, but it was too late for India to be militarily prepared for it. He said in 1959 that "the Sino-Indian conflict, even at the best of circumstances, will remain a frontier of dangerous potentialities." He recognised that the border dispute was "relatively easy to solve," but China deliberately kept it alive as part of a larger plan to humiliate India. Nehru finally foresaw the border dispute as a "long term affair" but could he have seen it festering for another six decades?  

The Chinese have been known to use military pressure, war rhetoric and draconian measures to fulfill larger political and strategic objectives. History has instances of China resorting to military action to "teach a lesson" to its adversaries and challenges - witness India in 1962, Vietnam in 1979 and more recently, in South China Sea, with Taiwan, and even to quell internal dissent, like in Hong Kong. 

The late Kalha, who retired as Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, surmises in his book that China would not like to resolve the border dispute for two strategic reasons - one, by keeping pressure on India, militarily and politically, it would keep India strategically confined to South Asia and prevent it from playing a larger regional role; two,  the border pressure is an instrument of coercive diplomacy that it would be chary of letting go when India is getting close to several Western powers, particularly, the US and Australia, and the Quad formation with Japan, with the unstated objective of being a bulwark to China's expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region,  particularly the Indian Ocean through which 50 percent of the world's container traffic passes. 

The Chinese are extremely wary and suspicious of India's growing closeness with the US and feel that the US was seeking to "draw a line" around China with countries like India, Japan, Australia, and others. 

The 'inscrutable' Chinese 

It is ironic that this week's bloody border clash over strategic terrain overlooked the crystal-clear waters of the serene Pangong Lake,  the scenic backdrop of the final scenes of the blockbuster film "Three Idiots" that was such a runaway hit in China. With the corona pandemic creating new suspicions about China in India amid calls for a boycott of Chinese goods, Beijing is visibly increasing its collaborative covert and overt activity around India - be with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan. Though New Delhi, battling with a raging virus that has become its topmost policy priority,  is trying its best to promote goodwill with its neighbours, India is in strategic danger of being caught in a pincer siege from the west and east. 

Shyam Saran, who has for long dealt with the Chinese, states that Indian leaders have often "failed to pick up cues and oblique hints" from China even as they in recent years stepped up their engagement with the Chinese on every front.  Modi has met Chinese leader Xi Jinping at least 18 times since the former came to power in 2014 and has visited China five times as the prime minister, the most by any Indian government leader in the last 70 years.  World leaders and China experts have all averred at different times that it is often hard to fathom the thinking and motives of the 'inscrutable' Chinese, though superficially they may appear extremely personable and courteous in their dealings.

India must remember that in 2011 then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had candidly remarked that "it may not be possible to ever fully solve the boundary question." If that indeed is the official Chinese thinking, which often finds unexpected articulation in such "cues and oblique hints",  it is worth examining what drives China to up the ante at their undemarcated 3488 km border with India every now and then and the larger regional and global geopolitics that may be playing into such actions.  But what is clear that after 70 years of their diplomatic relations,  which the two countries had decided to mark with "70 celebratory activities",  the two could not be further away from any celebration than now. 

(The writer is President. SPS who has been to China ten times. The views expressed are personal) 


1. India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement/ Ranjit Singh Kalha (ICWA/Pentagon)
2. How India Sees The World: Kautilya to the 21st Century/Shyam Saran (Juggernaut)