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Udhayan C C asked: Why are Indian foreign policy makers always apologetic in their approach towards China?

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  • Joe Thomas Karackattu replies: Posing a generic question on the issue of Indian foreign policy makers being “always apologetic” in their approach to China is problematic. Firstly, this is not a scientific conclusion. Unlike pure sciences, foreign policy is largely interpretive. We must understand that India and China are equals in a Westphalian setting, that both have their respective optics to view outstanding issues and that both need to use ‘reason’ more than ‘reaction’ while shaping the future of bilateral (and multilateral) ties.

    There are positive changes all around us. It is to the success of the top leadership in both countries that the India-China LAC remains, arguably, the most peaceful of all inter-state boundaries. Both countries have upgraded the level of engagement on the border issue. Pt Jawaharlal Nehru and Premier Zhou Enlai had agreed to have mid-level bureaucrats mediate border talks, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao reached an understanding in 2010 to have foreign ministers of the two countries deal with the vexed problem.

    In other areas as well, the progress should not be missed. Last year, the Annual Defence Dialogue (ADD) between the two countries took off after nearly two years. The progress on trade and economics is known well (as are the associated problem areas). Unfortunately, speculative commentary from some sections of the media and strategic community on either side would almost have us believe that the two countries are in preparation for war because that is what lies ahead.

    2011 was the “Year of China-India Exchange”. However, except for official visits by two state chief ministers from India, and the formal youth exchange programme, and a couple of provincial trade delegations from China, and the ADD, the interaction at the level of societies remained cosmetic. Of the total international arrivals in India, roughly 2 per cent are Chinese (both tourists and business persons). Cultural exposure to Chinese programming content (CCTV English) does not exist. Most Indians have exposure to ‘Chinese’ culture through Hollywood or Hong Kong movies, but rarely come into contact with mainland cultural content directly. Thus, even our imagery of each other is relayed largely via a third medium. You would therefore appreciate that it would take many more years for India and China to transform societal preferences by more engagement. Only then will there be fewer instances for the possibility of spurious inferences.

    However, try and visualize a scenario where population demographics, viz. the young structure of the Indian population, makes it suitable for Indians to find jobs in the other growth engine in Asia, i.e. China over the next two decades (similar to the out-migration that happened from India to the Gulf economies, Europe and America). Vice-versa, visualize a scenario for China where it needs to look to India to mitigate the imbalances of its export dependence on the West and the deficiency of consumption within. There are plentiful avenues that will have logic of their own to pull the countries towards a more cooperative direction.

    Indian policy makers have confidently highlighted areas where China has not shown sensitivity to our concerns, and India would continue to do so. Till then, there would be recurring problems over allocation and recognition of sovereignty, Tibet, China-Pakistan relations, India-US relations, energy, and maritime competition in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The challenge is to build trust so as to overcome these hurdles.