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Contradictory Tendencies in the India-China Relationship: Does it help the bilateral relationship?

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 10, 2010

    In the last one year, India and China have had a contradictory relationship. And in more ways than one, what happened in the last one year epitomises the future of the relationship between the two countries. On the one hand, trade and investment figures are touching a new high each year, bilateral visits and interactions at multiple levels have increased manifold, trust in each other’s activities and intentions in multilateral forums is at a never seen before high. At the same time, bilaterally, there has been a gradual downswing since the Chinese Ambassador to India claimed Arunachal Pradesh as part of China in late 2006 for the first time. Add to it the list of cross border intrusions by the Chinese forces, the media outcry in India over the intrusions, the role of Chinese media over the Dalai Lama and Chinese media’s ignorance about the nature of the Indian media, the picture becomes as grim as it could get.

    The argument here is that this could be a good thing to push for greater bilateral engagement despite the prevailing contradictions for the future of India-China relations for various reasons. First, decoupling from the past of the bilateral relationship is one urgent requirement as far as India-China relations are concerned if one seeks an imagined and positive future. There is a need to move beyond accusations about Nehru’s idealism on Mao’s China or the contested history of 1962 in order to form a strong basis for the future normalisation of the relationship. As long as one keeps looking at the historical events as the cause of the present state of affairs, one is likely to fail in gauging and planning for the future course of India-China relations. Contradictory trends necessarily force one to adopt a perspective that is essentially different from an idealised view or civilisational determinism; thus making it more grounded in reality as well as forward looking pragmatism.

    Second, the contradiction creates the rationale for greater engagement exactly like it has done in the case of US-China relations. There are many similarities here. The US and China have completely different views on many issues including Taiwan, Tibet, Human Rights, Democracy, and in the recent past over Xinjiang, Environment, Trade Practices and so on. However, this has not stopped them from greater engagement and benefiting from each other’s capabilities. And even when voices continued to be raised over these issues, it did not prevent the US from getting cost effective business out of a communist, non-democratic state. For its part, China did not mind accepting investments from a neo-imperial power. In short, neither was apologetic about the contradictions, and after three decades of engagement one sees the theory of complex interdependence in action, which is at its peak at the moment. Similarly, India and China will have to learn to live with the contractions they face and engage because they face these contradictions. Thus, the contradictions will and should create the raison d'etre for a deeper and more neutral understanding of each other.

    Third, contradictions will be the defining feature of the future of the bilateral relations between India and China. India will rise to a significant power status in the international order and China would like to avoid having India competing for strategic space in any field. At the same time both have much to gain from each others’ economic experiences. Besides their obvious rise and competitiveness over shared strategic space there are other compelling reasons why both will not be able to ignore each other. India’s democratic experience will be the biggest attraction for the Chinese people and a worry for its leadership, while the Chinese growth rates will be equally attractive for India. This is perhaps the biggest contradiction. Yet, undertaking a policy aimed at engagement is the best possible way forward.

    Fourth, India has more to benefit by managing the contradictory relationship as by this process it will create a stake in the Indian growth story among Chinese entrepreneurs, which could then in turn compel the leadership to re-look at some of its other policies in the South Asian region; China-Pakistan relations for example could take a different shape if Chinese perceptions on the India story changed along with its engagement of India. However, this is going to be a necessarily long term process.

    The first step towards creating engagement amidst contradictory interests would be managing the trust deficit and reducing it gradually over a period of time. India can try and create bridges between the economic and political aspects of the relations, between bilateral and regional issues as well as between bilateral and multilateral issues. Thus, India should take the contradictions in its stride and design a forward looking China policy.