“Never forget that the basic challenge in Southeast Asia is between India and China. That challenge runs along the spine of Asia,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Often charged with having soft-pedalled the threat to India from China, he was not oblivious to the competitive, often contradictory impulses that have driven India and China in their encounters with each other in modern times.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping are no strangers to each other. They have met on a number of occasions over the past four years. During that period, the India-China relationship has been on a roller coaster, culminating in the near-death episode at Doklam. This is now a relationship in therapy. Modi’s summit meeting with Xi in Wuhan is significant because it represents a serious move by both governments to set the bilateral relationship in better order, and to define a long-term strategic perspective for both countries that has many points of convergence. Sustaining this process through further leadership-level meetings is bound to have a positive impact regionally and globally.
Media in both countries have been hyperbolic in their reactions to the Wuhan summit. Words like “reset” and “reboot” have been used to describe the process – both hardly fit. The historical burden and legacies from the past cannot be erased. The outstanding problems that complicate the relationship between the two countries, as well as their competitive coexistence in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, will not go away because of one handshake in Hubei.
Even as the two countries speak of strategic partnership, coming to terms with the unhappy past in their relationship is a must if they are to learn from history. Even if they are not enemies (as the relationship between India and Pakistan is often described), there are adversarial characteristics to their ties. The Canadian writer, Michael Ignatieff once described the difference between enemies and adversaries by saying that “an adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy”. With adversaries, “compromise is honourable. Today’s adversary could be tomorrow’s ally. With enemies, on the other hand, compromise is appeasement.”
China and India are not enemies, they are adversaries. With strategic patience, there is room in the relationship for mutual accommodation and adjustment. “We cannot march to Peking,” former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once said. It will take years of joint effort and perseverance to build a harmonious India-China relationship.
A veteran Singaporean diplomat spoke recently on how, when it comes to the South China Sea, both the United States and China need to “rationalise their opposition to each other”. China has to accept the fact that the US will continue to exercise its rights, including freedom of navigation, in the region. Similarly, short of war, no country can force the Chinese to dismantle their artificial islands in the South China Sea. That is what rationalisation of opposition implies.
India and China, too, need to rationalise their opposition to each other when it comes to rival boundary claims, and addressing differences on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). There are certain realities that cannot be changed just by going through a ritualistic and formulaic repetition of positions. Resolution can be reached only through quiet and painstaking diplomacy that enables a gradual reduction of differences through realism and pragmatism. The manner in which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has balanced its relations with both India and China offers many lessons for the two Asian giants. Asean have learnt to do business with China when needed and stand up to China when the occasion requires them to do so. Differences need not become disputes through a level of conscious escalation, led by chauvinistic voices in both countries.
Modi’s Wuhan visit has drawn comparison by some observers with the visit of Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988. That is not a perfect analogy. The world of 1988 was very different. The world today has power and influence dispersed along many radials. The US is not the triumphant entity it was at the end of the cold war; while her military strength is indisputable, her economic paramountcy has been overtaken by the dramatic rise of China. China is no longer lying low or biding its time or hiding its capabilities. It is far more stridently nationalistic on territorial issues and it is far more venturesome and less risk averse when it comes to staking out its military strength and advancing its business and commercial interests. It has become the most favoured partner for many of India’s neighbours, and this is not just for Pakistan alone.
India, which is endowed with great geopolitical assets by virtue of her geography and the open and unhindered access to the ocean around her peninsula, has not fully reaped this natural advantage. Furthermore, South Asia is an integer and India and her smaller neighbours in the region are meant to be much more integrated than they are today in terms of connectivity, markets, intra-regional development and people-to-people interaction.
The raised profile of China in South Asia today should only spur India to craft a more effective neighbourhood policy tied to deliverables and projects promptly completed. At the same time, China needs also to be more sensitive to Indian concerns and interests in the region. A lack of transparency and a tendency to provoke India by promoting projects that are in disputed territory or making moves in the region that impinge on India’s security interests only reinforce the trust deficit. China should also understand that India’s improved relationship with the US and Japan are all an intrinsic part of a new 21st century Asian balance, as India is today a multi-aligned country. Yet, there is still room and scope for India and China to grow their relations.
India and China together constitute 40 per cent of the world’s population. If they do not cooperate or understand each other, we cannot mitigate the challenges that confront our planet today, such as climate change, terrorism, energy security, equitable development, education and skill development and the empowerment of women. That is the main reason why Xi and Modi’s meeting and their resolve to conduct a regular and sustained dialogue must be applauded.
Nirupama Rao is a former foreign secretary of India. She served as India’s ambassador to China and the United States