Frenemies forever: Can China and India ever get along?

The high Himalayan mountains that serve as a natural “fence” between India from China inhibit the two countries’ leaders from reaching out a hand of friendship. Bu t in practical terms, they aren’t as much of a hurdle as the barriers of the mind.

In recent days and weeks, there have been a flurry of messages from official China that seem calculated to ease India’s concerns vis-à-vis China. China’s top Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who will formally take office as President in March, recently conveyed warmth of sentiment in a letter he wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That letter was delivered through State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who has in recent times been steering the course of the Sino-Indian border talks, who was recently in India for a BRICS meeting.

A Chinese honour guard stand in front of a painting depicting the Great Wall. Reuters

A Chinese honour guard stand in front of a painting depicting the Great Wall. Reuters

Although such communications rarely, if ever, go beyond the proforma expressions of mutual friendship, taken along with other straws in the wind, it appeared to signal an earnestness on China’s part to convey a tone of diplomatic solicitude that is not always manifest.

Also in January, Chinese defence interlocutors conveyed to a visiting Indian Defence Ministry delegation their keenness to see the Indian side put behind the “unfortunate” experience of the 1962 war between the countries – and instead strengthen military ties and finalise a settlement of the border dispute, which has dragged on for too long.

In words that are uncharacteristically solicitous, the Chinese asked Indians to “forget” the 1962 war and instead focus on shaping the relationship of the future.

Of course, that sentiment is easy to channel if you’ve won the war. David Malone, a Canadian diplomat who served in New Delhi, has pointed out  that the difference between India and China is that while India hasn’t forgotten the 1962 war even today, the Chinese have “largely forgotten about it.” But then, he adds, “it’s easier to forget a war you’ve won than one you’ve lost.

Official India’s conduct of its diplomacy vis-à-vis China in recent times has been characterized by much caution, for fear of risking Chinese ire even on issues that have sounded alarm bells among the strategic affairs community.

For instance, recent reports of China’s securing operational control of the strategically located Gwadar Port in Pakistan, which some analysts see as a game-changer with global ramifications (but of particular significance to India’s security), has not invited any comment from anyone beyond strategic analysts.

As this commentary observes, India is in many ways the most affected party from the Sino-Pak move, given that it would acquire unprecedented strategic depth to Pakistani naval power and simultaneously giving China a key listening post from which to observe Indian naval activities around the Persian Gul and the Gulf of Aden.

Strikingly, although the Indian defence ministry delegation to China was received with unusual warmth, the Chinese side continued to deny internationally verified reports of the presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

More recently, as this report observes, China gave the all-clear for the construction of three new hydroelectric dams on the Brahmaputra river, which had been put on hold for two years. The development has the capacity to alter water flows in the river, which sustains lives on the Indian side, and for that reason has the potential to generate concerns. Yet, the move has not occasioned any official response from the Indian side.

Curiously, the perceptible warmth in official-level interactions has not influenced the tone of the discourse in the official Chinese media on relations with India. As this analyst points out, the official Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces continue to echo a line that emphasizes the challenges to normalization of Sino-Indian relations, and place much of the blame for the slow progess on this front at India’s door.

A recent People’s Daily commentary, for instance, claimed that “some media, political parties and military sources of India often made discordant voices on issues of borders and cross-border sources, interfering in normal development of bilateral relations.” It also implied that Indians were being influenced by the West to seize the “China Threat” theory, and the India-China competition theory, in order to provoke contradictions impacting the development of India-China relations.

But as analyst Bhaskar Roy reminds us, Beijing has failed to convince India that its policy of “encirclement of India’, which had caused misgivings in India for long, is a thing of the past. Actions such as the takeover of Gwadar Port, which holds strategic implications, tend to speak louder than the soothing words to “forget the 1962 war”.

In fact, there may be reason to believe that China is momentarily looking to calm nerves along the Indian flank largely because it is preoccupied with its problems in the South China Sea and East China Sea, with the ratcheting up of tension with Japan, on the one hand, and with countries in South East Asia, on the other, with whom it is engaged in an assertion of what it claims are its sovereign rights.

So, while the current atmosphere of calmness provides India some welcome respite, the case for eternal vigilance remains as high as ever, given that China is proceeding regardless with its strategic outreach into India’s immediate neighbourhood.