Baggage of history: India and China need to dump this so they can both rise, without friction or fire
The two words that have driven India and China into an unusual summit in Wuhan are “fear” and “trust”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is apprehensive that an uncontrolled event on the border could undermine a sure-shot reelection in 2019. President Xi Jinping fears that an increasingly confrontational US could disrupt his second term and undermine the Chinese economy at a critical transition point. New Delhi reached out and Beijing reciprocated and hence the summit.
Chinese and Indian leaders must ask themselves as to why they are locked into the kind of relationship they are in. History, of course, has played a big role. But if history alone were to decide foreign policy, the world would forever be a Dar-ul-Harb (House of War). More important, in the Sino-Indian context, the processes that kept peace between the two sides since the Rajiv-Deng meeting of 1988 have run out of steam.
The succession of confidence building measures on the border beginning 1993, failed to prevent the Depsang and Chumur incidents in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The high special representatives of the two sides finished the technical work of defining a mutually acceptable border. But their respective political leaderships have been unable, or unwilling, to make that final political push towards the final settlement.
Chinese activism in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, the 2017 Doklam crisis, India’s enthusiastic participation in the revived Quadrilateral Group, showed that the simultaneously rising Asian giants were rubbing against each other in dangerous ways. This negative drift could escalate to a larger confrontation shattering their respective dreams of national rejuvenation.
Both sides have lamented the lack of trust and the need to enhance “strategic communications”. Even so they have attributed the worst motives to the actions of the other and ridden roughshod over each other’s sensitivities. China has blocked our membership to the NSG and the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist in the UN, and India has feted Dalai Lama and campaigned against BRI.
They are not unaware of the opportunity costs they are paying. China is ideally suited to fulfill India’s pressing need for investment and infrastructure. Indian and Chinese companies do good business in each other’s territories, trade is booming, but the economic relationship remains well below its potential because of issues of trust.
Things began changing after the Xi-Modi meeting at the Brics summit in Xiamen last September. There has been a surge of “strategic communications” – high level meetings of top ministers and officials in New Delhi and Beijing. The most significant was the one between Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi, the designated point men of the relationship. Their meeting was held after a gap of 20 months and they spoke of the need to resolve their differences “with due respect for each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations.”
That phrase captures what the Modi-Xi summit is all about – the need to do all those things listed, so as to enhance that elusive thing called “trust” which would, in turn, allow the two rising Asian states to rub against each other without the friction that could touch off a fire. But to build that trust, they need to dump the baggage of history – the border dispute and 1962 war, China’s use of Pakistan to contain India, New Delhi’s own alliances, first with Russia, now with the US.
India has to accept that China has interests in “our” region but, in turn, Beijing should know that India has a heft and will stand its ground on its key interests. Latin phrases remain irreplaceable because of their precision. That’s why the phrase that comes to mind is ‘modus vivendi’. That’s what India and China need across the Indo-Pacific. This can’t be achieved overnight, but as the Chinese saying goes: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.