At a recent Conference in Shanghai discussing ways in which bridges could be built to span the 'trust gap' between India and China, a visibly perturbed Chinese scholar felt that there was more that was negative about China in the Indian press than the other way round. Having assured him of the freedom of the press in India, the Indian side responded with equal concern at the spate of virulent articles on India in the Chinese media. There has been, of late, a spurt of articles critical of either country, and while many of the views from India do not reflect the government's position and the Chinese articles might, the possible reasons for the recent increase in these adversarial verbal exchanges need to be addressed.
Since the consequences of the '62 war still remain, the relations between the two countries have been stable but fragile. The Chinese attempts to block the waiver to global civilian nuclear cooperation at the NSG, the objection to a Chinese visa to an official from Arunachal Pradesh and more recently, the ferocious Chinese opposition to a development project in Arunachal Pradesh at the ADB, strained relations already tenuous with the unending border talks, China's nuclear assistance to Pakistan whose nuclear doctrine is purely India-centric, China's plans regarding water diversion in the Himalayas acting as major and almost permanent burdens in need of discussion if not resolution. At the same time, government to government relations move cautiously ahead with high level visits and increasing trade and economic relations. In fact, President Patil is scheduled to visit China shortly, and there has apparently been an agreement between India and China and other Asian countries to fight protectionism at the global level.
On the Chinese side, and one can only speculate: the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement has caused concern; if a country like the US, which has non-proliferation as a major element of its foreign policy could change its domestic laws for India, a non-signatory to the NPT, the reasons are likely to be more far reaching than immediately apparent. Clearly, China does not object to India building more nuclear reactors! At the same time, China feels it has not been able to make the kind of inroads into the Indian market as it would like. Of course, the continuing irritant of the respect which the Dalai Lama receives in India remains. Most important, however, is perhaps the fact that India is rising economically in global perceptions. India's 'Look East' policy and the slew of pacts signed with ASEAN would seem to China, to infringe on China's own sphere of influence.
The days when enthusiastic young Indian politicians spoke of Chindia are long over. There is space for both countries to grow together in cooperation, said the Indian government. Interestingly, China did not respond in kind, either then and certainly not now. On the other hand, with the global economic recession impacting the developed world, dependence on China's growth has made it 'the indispensable country' to quote a mesmerized British politician. The US has maintained that Sino-US relations are the most important of bilateral relations. All this has led to a spring in China's step, a gleam of satisfaction in China's eye and a confidence that today it is part of a G-2 condominium which would lay the ground rules for the rest of the world. It is also leading, unfortunately, to a flexing of muscle, particularly in its neighbourhood.
A sobering assessment of India-China strategic relations was made by the former Indian Chief of Naval Staff. We need to cope with the new-found assertiveness of the emergent China, and not only in the strategic field. It is undeniable that China, economically, is in another league; it is more organized , appears to have been able to give most of its peoples the basic needs, and as a member of the UN Security Council, feels that it cannot be restricted to a region- it sees itself as a global 'stakeholder'. All of this would be admirable, if India, too, in her own way, did not have the same aspirations. A hegemon, regional or global, does not brook even the semblance of challenge. In the midst of India's chaos, accurately portrayed in devastating detail by her own media, her achievements in IT, in Space technology, in the unveiling of the Arihant, in her ability to (somehow) cope with the global economic down-turn, all must act as unpleasant reminders to an almost smug China, that India exists and has ambitions. China would see its interests in ensuring that those ambitions were kept within bounds.
Do these hiccups presage more serious developments? At the governmental level, it would appear not -- the Chinese suggested the 'hotline' between the two Prime Ministers and India's President visiting. While the latest round of boundary talks produced little that was concrete, the atmospherics appeared cordial enough. The 'trust deficit' remains, however, and at the people to people level, there is either indifference, apprehension or outrage at every critical incident or article.. As the stronger and more prosperous country, it would be in China's interest to start a process of winning friends, or if that is not desirable, influencing a sceptical Indian public.
Arundhati Ghose is a former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, Geneva. A Hindi version of this appears in Outlook Saptahik that is currently on the stands