India-China relations: Tangled web of intangibles

India-China relations: Tangled web of intangibles

The senior most Chinese leader, Xi Jinping’s visit next week provides an opportunity to take stock of the India-China equation from a forward looking strategic standpoint, for charting the way ahead. The relationship has come a long way in recent years as a result of over three decades of painstaking diplomacy for ‘normalisation’ of relations, beginning with resumption of ambassadorial level ties in 1976 and the bold ice-breaking February 1979 visit of former prime minister Vajpayee as foreign minister (the first after 1962). Since 2005, the two countries are in a declared “strategic and cooperative partnership”, with regular exchange, Summit, other high level visits and wide-ranging engagement in a host of areas, including defence. Economic interaction has soared to make China India’s largest trading partner but is still nowhere near potential.

While the key task for the future naturally is to work for early realisation of the potential through diversification and intensification of ties, tapping all possible complementarities through imaginative arrangements and programmes, it is the political relationship that has naturally to be centre stage as the driver, and determinant of the reach, of the former. Here a historical perspective may be in order for the strategising exercise.
There can be no denying that Sino-Indian relations have been volatile, mercurially so, deteriorating dramatically from a euphoric ‘bhai-bhai’ phase to a ‘bye-bye’ mood within a remarkably short span of less than a decade in the pre-1962 period. Not as severely, but the fluctuation characteristic continues to plague the relationship even after ending of charismatic leader dominated decision-making in China post-Deng Xiaoping, reflected in huge chasms of mistrust showing through periodically. Better that the nation accept it as a given, as if embedded in the DNA of its redoubtable neighbour, and brace itself up for the best of times being followed by downturns sporadically.

Likewise, a word of caution is in order about China’s diplomacy, which enjoys a formidable advantage in politico-diplomatic interaction because of systemic factors (their closed system, above all, vis-à-vis India’s notoriously noisy and open one). It is the Chinese diplomatic design, disposed towards generalities and formulations long on lofty rhetoric and abstractions (that invariably lend themselves to conflicting interpretations) and short on unambiguous specifics, that has prevailed (in the corpus of Agreements/Communiques/Declarations/Statements issued over the years). An alternative, Indian, template seeking to cast common understandings and shared agreements in tangible terms instead, needs to be imagined to avoid unpleasant surprises, gaps and misunderstandings appearing all out of nowhere, as it were.

The basis for this (seemingly) iconoclastic reading of the state of play in the political relationship can be seen from an examination of the two high points in the relationship, neither of which can be flaunted for perspicacity. The Panchsheel Agreement of 1954, which both countries propounded together at the very outset of their interaction as independent nations and championed as a model for inter-state relations in a world afflicted by cold war between clashing ideologies and political systems, became a laughing stock world-wide after its cardinal tenet – ‘non-aggression’ – was trampled over by one proponent over the other. (The government’s decision to mark its 60th anniversary jointly with China, with high level attendance from India, was maladroit. The Vice-President’s tactful allusion to the incongruity on the occasion was a saving grace but propaganda advantage was handed over to Chinese diplomacy nevertheless by Indian acquiescence in the very design of the event.) In retrospect, it should be clear that the Agreement did not rest on solid foundations.

Unfathomable justification
So also the ‘Strategic and Cooperative Partnership’ of 2005. Its justification is even more difficult to fathom, given that the difficult diplomatic exercise of a dignified ‘normalising’ of relations with the country that gave the nation an unforgettable 1962 was yet a work-in-progress. And a settlement on the border still outstanding. And the anti-India edge of Sino-Pak strategic collaboration far from blunted.

Especially so in advance of Japan (which had to make do, in that same month -- April 2005 -- with no more than a ‘strategic orientation’ to its ‘Global Partnership’ with India established much earlier, in 2000, and wait another year and a half, till Dec. 2006, before it could secure a full-fledged ‘Strategic and Global Partnership’ with India). Two years earlier, a ‘constructive and cooperative partnership’ (without capitals, most importantly, i.e. without a label directed at watchful eyes across the globe) had been agreed to during the visit of then prime minister Vajpayee; leaving it undisturbed might have served the nation better for consolidating the gains from normalisation of relations.

A close reading of the documentation of recent high level visits, described hyperbolically as ‘transformational’ in the official narrative, underlines the point about the need for circumspection in diplomacy with the Chinese. They seek to lock India in an embrace cheap, with little more than professions of good intent and normative unexceptionable (i.e. without any price paid by China by way of real – substantive -- ‘gives’ to India) By subscribing to clichéd concepts and phrases conveying only a connotation, not any clear meaning, the Indian side ends up tying itself in knots, trapped in a web of words to Chinese advantage. Including in sensitive references to the boundary issue, where intentions are catalogued repeatedly in inane terms such as ‘encouragement’ and exhortations to appointed officials (subordinate to the leaders) to do better (as if they were an independent agency not subject to their direction) – what are, at best, ‘means’ seem to have become ‘ends’ in themselves.

Sardar Patel’s prescient letter of 1950 to Pandit Nehru commends itself as a model of realism, and safeguard against symbolism scoring over substance, while strategising (with any nation).

Given the little time left now before the visit, a fundamental relook may not be practical for evolving a ‘doable’ -- in terms of a text (draft) for a document to be signed. A way out of this dilemma would be to openly declare to the Chinese side the desire of the new government to take measure of the voluminous documentation and state of play in the relationship, admitting lack of time to apply its mind to the task of delineating the contours of the ‘strategic partnership’ afresh.

And meanwhile to restrict all understandings reached during the visit to the oral level, i.e. to not sign any document anew, not comment on or reiterate any previous understanding and leave it to each side to brief the media on the tenor and content of the discussions. The desire, and determination, to start afresh with greater clarity of purpose than hitherto would be manifest in such a course of action – and that should be enough of a gain for the present.

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