India and China: How Not to Build Trust

While responding to questions after delivering a lecture on “India’s Vision of the Indo-Pacific” at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok on August 18, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, emphasized that the “Asian Century would not happen if the two neighbors could not join hands.” He also reiterated these remarks on August 29 at the launch of Asia Society Policy Institute in New Delhi. According to him, the “pre-requisite for an Asian Century is India and China coming together. Their inability to do so will undermine it.”

Jaishankar’s remarks received wide publicity in China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin said at a regular press conference on the 19th that “China and India have the wisdom and ability to realize “mutual accomplishments” (实现相互成就) instead of “mutual depletion” (彼此消耗). Nonetheless, there is a huge difference between the rhetoric and the ground reality. Such a debate needs closer strategic and intellectual deliberation.

A Contested Interpretation?

While the Chinese government and its media lauded Jaishankar’s vision of the Asian Century, however, the media was quick to blame India for what had happened at the border in June 2020 and thereafter the state of bilateral relations. The Huanqiu Shibao argued in a commentary that it was “India’s deliberate provocation” (蓄意挑衅) that led to the conflict. It further said that the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly emphasized that the “right and wrong of the situation on the Sino-Indian border is very clear” (是非曲直是十分清楚), and that the “responsibility does not lie on the Chinese side” (责任不在中方).

This obviously was in response to what Jaishankar has said in Chulalongkorn University that “the [India-China] relationship is going through an extremely difficult phase after what China did at the border.” Now, the answer to the point about the “right and wrong” of the situation along the border can be found in questions such as: who mobilized the troops first; who changed the status quo in certain points along the LAC; and, who is reluctant to restore the status quo that existed before April 2020? If China didn’t change the status quo, what was the need to withdraw from Galwan Valley, Gogra Heights, and from Finger 3 to the east of Finger 8 in the Pangong Tso? Also, why should then both be talking about disengagement and de-escalation in 16 rounds of tedious talks at the Corps Commander level? It is the new modus vivendi, often disseminated through the proposition that India must put the border issue at an “appropriate place” (适当位置) that India finds problematic and unacceptable, especially when over hundred thousand soldiers are engaged in a prolonged standoff.

The Usual Narrative and Geo-political Ambitions

Away from the Himalayas, India and China engaged in another diplomatic spat in the Indian Ocean on the question of Chinese satellite tracking vessel Yuan Wang 5 docking at the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota on August 16. India’s harsh response could have been avoided had the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenghong not linked Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and “One China Policy” with the docking of the ship, seeking to prove the point that “China and Sri Lanka having altogether resisted the rude and unreasonable interference from third parties.” The Chinese envoy further said that “External obstruction based on so called “security concerns” but without any evidence from certain forces is de facto a thorough interference into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence.” He also made mention of China’s “century of humiliation”, but forgot that the 99-year lease of Hambantota could not be construed as an act of safeguarding territorial integrity by the Sri Lankans.

In a strongly worded Twitter thread, the Indian mission in Sri Lanka lashed out at the Chinese envoy by saying that “His view of Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. India, we assure him, is very different. His imputing a geopolitical context to the visit of a purported scientific research vessel is a giveaway. Opaqueness and debt driven agendas are now a major challenge, especially for smaller nations. Recent developments are a caution. Sri Lanka needs support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies to serve another country’s agenda.”

Chinese scholars have admitted that “India’s broader geopolitical ambitions have to an extent been held in check by its rivalry with China and Pakistan”, fundamentally implying the containment of India by China as clearly spelled by Ye Hailin in his contributory chapter written in Chinese entitled “Development and Challenges of China-Pakistan Relations”, for an edited volume by Zhang Yunling titled China and its Neighboring Countries: Building New Partnerships. Conversely, when India engages regional and resident powers in the Indo-Pacific, it has been pronounced as containment of China. So much so, most of the Chinese intellectual discourse revolves around the same theme. For example, the China Going Global Think Tank (CGGT) posits that under the influence of geopolitics of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” of the United States, India has increasingly viewed India-China relations from the perspective of “competitors and even adversaries” (竞争者甚至对抗者). It is this approach of India, which according to the think-tank is responsible for “putting China-India relations into an ‘extremely difficult’ stage. It further says that “If China and India want to “truly set aside the estrangement” (正放下隔阂) and “boost their sanity” (健全双方思维), the onus is on India.

Irrespective of such divergences and deep rooted mistrust, there are other multilateral forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS, etc., where India and China are collaborating, even sending troops to Vostok 22 joint military maneuvers between the SCO nations from August 30. Meanwhile, Pakistan is expected to send its armed contingent for a counter-terror drill in India in October. Since last year, both have been dispatching troops for such exercises, even as the military standoff between India and China continues. Last year, India, China and Pakistan also took part in the Zapad drills in Russia. Here again, China believes, India’s opposition to the BRICS expansion, was due to India’s “sitting on the fence diplomacy” (骑墙外交) and not wanting to “offend” (得罪) the U.S. Another reason, a commentary in offered was that “India cannot compete for influence with China and Russia (无法跟中俄争夺影响力) within the BRICS” because of its weaker comprehensive national power. India’s entry into the SCO with Russian support and China countervailing it with Pakistan is no different a case.

Given such a state of affairs between India and China, building trust would be a herculean task. It is a paradigm where China looks down upon India, and India doesn’t think big of China. This ought to change for good if they wish to realize the Asian century.