Hindi Chini Shy Shy
Hindi Chini Shy Shy
Policy hawks in India have already declared that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the country was a failure. Reports of border incursions by Chinese troops that overshadowed Xi’s visit and the fact that the Chinese committed to substantially less investment in India than the much-hyped $100 billion were enough for the hawks to reach this conclusion.
One could also note, if one wanted to quibble, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slip-ups about the historical relations between India and China. He is clearly unaware of the fact that the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang called some ancient Gujaratis “stingy by custom and deceitful in disposition”. Modi also mistakenly credited the Chinese with transmitting sugar-making technology to India, when it was actually India that introduced the technique to China.
All of these aspects — apprehension over the border issue, overhyped business prospects and even seemingly trivial unawareness of past relations — are symptoms of serious structural problems in India-China relations. If these symptoms are not treated expeditiously, the long-term prognosis of bilateral relations could indeed be as grim as policy hawks have always predicted.
There are two disconcerting ailments that get obscured by hoopla over border stand-offs and visits of state leaders. The first has to do with policymaking. Not only does India lack a comprehensive China policy, but there is also a glaring dearth of competent policymakers.
Diplomats, intelligence officers and military generals of course do offer their views and draft policy papers to the leadership. But, given that the Indian diplomatic corps is one of the smallest in the world and continuously on the move, it is doubtful they will be able to design and implement a long-term master plan for dealing with a changing and complex China.
Intelligence officers, who toil in the backwaters reading and analysing only one type of material, have limited opportunity to scrutinise issues that go beyond national security. Military generals, who vie for budgetary needs, are also driven by a single agenda. Indian think tanks often are places to recycle these bureaucrats and officers, many of whom only have their obstinate, dogmatic and narrow viewpoints to offer.
There seem to be few in this elite circle of China advisers who can exploit Chinese archives or read documents that predate the founding of the PRC. Both these skills are essential for establishing a credible stand on the border dispute and for negotiating with the Chinese. However, most of these “China hands”, in fact, don’t even read or speak Chinese.
It is distressing that whoever advises Modi on China failed to point out that the poster of Xuanzang’s itinerary in Gujarat that the Indian prime minister proudly tweeted during Xi’s visit had horrendous translation mistakes. In the absence of competent translators, analysts and innovative policies, Indian governments since the 1962 war have been only reactive to steps taken by China, always trying to catch up to its neighbour without comparable dedication, resources or skills.
The Chinese have their own problems. For long, India was seen through a Pakistani prism. Suspicion of Indian leaders and their Tibet policies, Cold War geopolitics and a fixation with the US and Japan have also prevented the Chinese from formulating a meticulous policy to engage with India.
Also of some relevance is the sudden removal, a day or two before Xi’s visit, of Wei Wei, the former Chinese ambassador to India who held the position for less than two years. The Chinese ambassador to Chile was also fired at the same time. It seems that the Chinese foreign ministry may also be in some flux as Xi Jinping continues his anti-corruption drive and consolidates his power.
The second issue of profound concern relates to growing negative perceptions between Indians and Chinese. This is despite the fact that bilateral trade and people-to-people interactions have reached record levels. There are historical reasons for the formation of these perceptions.
While the 1962 war was the clear trigger for Indians, negative perceptions of India in China have a more deep-rooted legacy from the colonial period. For many Chinese, colonised India symbolised a failed and enslaved civilisation. The presence of Sikh soldiers and guards in China who served as part of British forces stationed there hardened this view.
In the 1990s, when China emerged as an economic powerhouse, these views re-emerged and combined with a strong sense of nationalism and a newfound pride among the Chinese. India was (and still is) seen as a backward, dirty and chaotic place.
Reports in Chinese media often highlight these aspects and perpetuate the stereotyping of India and Indians. In recent years the situation has worsened to such an extent that some of the web postings by Chinese netizens about Indians are outright racist in content.
It is reported that during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had expressed his intention to leave the settlement of the territorial dispute to a “future generation”. A quarter century has passed since that meeting and a future generation has now ascended to the leadership role. If ailments of the India-China relationship are neglected and allowed to deteriorate it could have significant consequences for both the region and the world.
Tansen Sen is professor of Asian history and religions at City University of New York.