When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in 2005, the ‘Chindia’ story – which summed up the economic re-emergence of the two ancient civilizations – was just taking off.
Both countries were tracing their distinctive path up the economic ladder. China was the “factory floor of the world” and the manufacturing capital, and the Made-in-China label had become affixed to everything from underpants to consumer goods. India, on the other hand, was the infotech giant, and a giant back-office for the world’s leading businesses.
In a speech in Bangalore, Premier Wen referenced this complementary yin-yang nature of the rise of India and China to signal that there was room enough for both countries to grow. Cooperation between the two countries, he said, was just like two pagodas (temple towers) – one hardware and the other software.
That reference to two pagodas, as it turned out, was more than just a colourful turn of phrase from the Premier. Since the Chinese name for the pagoda is ta, the “two pagodas” was a veiled allusion to Tata, which was looking to expand its footprint in China. The Premier was tangentially endorsing the Tata brand, and was using it as a symbol for the larger India-China relationship.
For the house of Tata it was a PR coup of enormous proportions: it’s the kind of thing that brands pay pots of money for to get “product placement” positions in key places – in films and in the real world. And here was the Premier of one of the world’s biggest economies endorsing it – for free!
It was a measure of the enormous goodwill that the Tata brand enjoys overseas including in China. And, as the group patriarch Ratan Tata signalled, in a recent interview to television journalist Charlie Rose, it is a sentiment that he warmly reciprocates.
Asked about India’s relationship with China, Tata noted that it was “not adversarial, but not the best” either. China, he added, had been arming Pakistan “which is like a red flag to India” – and that alone makes China a “second-class enemy”.
But other than that, China “has never done anything adversarial” to India since the war of 1962, Tata claimed. It is India that is “more concerned about China’s economic strength overpowering” it. Instead, he added, India should “find a way to be allies with China… I would prefer to use China as a strong ally and to forge a relationship…. which could be a sustained.”
On the face of it, those are admirable, diplomatic sentiments. But they reflect the upbeat sentiment of a business tycoon for whom sourcing from China – and the size of the market there – make a compelling case for political engagement.
Yet, Tata’s characterisation of the Chinese as “never having done anything adversarial” to India overlooks some of the instances of egregious provocation by China – from branding the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as disputed territory to questioning India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir to making provocative border incursions to issuing stapled visas to people from Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.
Tata’s claim that India has little to fear from China’s economic rise also overlooks the many ways in which China leverages its commercial and economic clout to secure political ground against India. For instance, in 2009, China was able to leverage its economic muscle within the ADB and block the disbursement of a loan to Arunachal Pradesh on the claim that it was “disputed territory”. In response, India withdrew its loan request, which effectively concedes China’s point. In other words, China was able to establish its case over Arunachal Pradesh with the international community – without sending a single PLA soldier across the LoAC or firing a single missile.
There are other instances where China has won diplomatic victories over India without use of military force. As columnist Ajai Shukla observes in Business Standard, in 2008, the then British foreign secretary David Miliband diluted Britain’s long-held position on the status of Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion of 1950.
Britain had all along held that Tibet was autonomous prior to 1950, and that while China had a “special position”, it did not have sovereignty over Tibet. India’s position in its border dispute with China – and the validity of the McMahon Line that the British demarcated on the Sino-Indian border – derives from a 1914 Simla Accord between Britain, China and Tibet. China subsequently reneged on that accord – and contests the validity of the McMahon Line – effectively knocking off one of the legs of the three-legged agreement.
Now, Miliband has effectively knocked off another leg too. Effectively conceding China’s official position, Miliband said that the concept of “Chinese suzerainty” over Tibet prior to 1950 was “outdated” and an anachronism. “Like every other EU member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China,” he added.
This knocks the stuffing out of India’s position on its border dispute with China. As Shukla suggests, China’s economic muscle is probably reformatting foreign policy hard drives in Western Europe in a way that compromises India’s claims in its dispute with China.
All this isn’t just about arcane history. Diplomatic decisions such as these have an impact in the real and contemporary world, and India is losing political ground to China largely on the strength of the perception of China’s ascendance.
Tata’s wish to have China as an ally too ignores the reality that China does not see India as an equal but as a lesser power. As strategic analyst Bhaskar Roy observes, the unstated message from China to India, which is being reinforced in this 50th anniversary of the 1962 war, is: Be my friend, or else…
India isn’t alone in feeling the malefic effect of China’s rise: virtually every country with whom China shares a maritime boundary has in recent years felt the full force of China’s muscle-flexing – to the point where doubts are being raised about China’s rise will be as peaceful as promised.
The Tata group has, of course, generated enormous corporate goodwill in China – both for itself and for India. That has counted for a lot in the dramatic improvement in trade and commercial relations between India and China in recent years. And that good work ought to continue.
Ratan Tata himself is worthy of enormous respect for many things that he has done to put Brand India on the global stage.
Yet, his perspective of India’s relations with China, and particularly his characterisation of China’s economic rise as benign and non-adversarial, does injustice to the complexity of the relationship and China’s demonstrated intent in leveraging its economic muscle for political and diplomatic gains. Given Tata’s stature, there is a risk that his somewhat simplistic prescription on India-China relations may be taken more seriously than it deserves to be, and could shape the contours of a public debate. That is a risk that India cannot afford to take.