Trade blooms, but China threat strong

Fifty years after the 1962 war, India has fashioned a pragmatic model of cooperation with China, placing economics above politics, but it has to bolster its diplomatic game and military capability to deal with an assertive Beijing.

The bitter memories of the 1962 war, in which India was humbled, still loom over the strategic community and the collective public consciousness. But that has not stopped the Indian establishment from following a multi-faceted policy of engagement to deal with Beijing.

“2012 is not 1962. India and China have come a long way as nations and in their bilateral relations. The situation on the ground has changed,” said Nalin Surie, a former ambassador of India to China when asked about the prospects of a conflict between India and China.

“Both have a much greater salience in the world which too has greatly changed since the end of the Cold War and in the international economic crisis,” he said.

Indeed, the dynamics of trade in a globally connected world, more so now with the developed world suffering an economic downturn, has made cooperation and competition more viable than rivalry and temptations to military adventurism.

Bilateral trade has grown manifold to $75 billion, making China India’s largest trading partner, and is set to exceed $100 billion by 2015. India is pitching for greater Chinese investment in infrastructure, which has exceeded $40 billion, despite some security anxieties in India.

This economic model has not precluded off and on tensions over a host of issues including border incursions, Chinese visa policy for Indians from Jammu and Kashmir, and Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh.

The scenarios of rivalry, mostly emanating from Western think tanks, have found greater amplification in the media and strategic communities of both the countries which see each other as a principal strategic threat.

Surie agrees that the “trust deficit has not been wholly bridged,” but cautions against the tendency to project Sino-Indian relations as “a zero sum game”.

“India and China are not in competition on every issue. Competition in several areas is inherent given the objective political and economic situation in our countries, in the Asia Pacific and the world.”

Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary, feels that the China threat is more real, specially in the last two-three years, when New Delhi has been facing the heat from Beijing on a range of issues.

“We have seen a growing number of Chinese incursions and China issues belligerent statements. China’s military, nuclear and missile cooperation with Pakistan continues. We have to see Pakistan and China as a combined threat,” said Mansingh.

“Most important, the Chinese have abandoned their policy of neutrality on Jammu and Kashmir. They have hiked their massive investments in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Gilgit-Baltistan,” he said.

Mansingh wants India to review its China policy and suggests it should revive the Tibet card and start a dialogue with Beijing on Tibet.

“We recognised Tibet as an autonomous part of China but China has not extended the reciprocity vis-a-vis Kashmir. We have been sensitive to China’s concerns. It’s time for China to be more sensitive to each other’s concerns,” he said.

Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, rules out a military conflict with China but advises enhanced military and strategic capabilities to deal with Beijing.

“India and China are both nuclear-armed powerful economies. The costs of war will be too huge for both. At best, there could be a highly localised border skirmish,” he said.

Looking ahead, India needs to understand the Chinese strategic culture better. Both nations need to bridge the perception gap among their influential sections.

“What’s more worrying is the overall growth and influence of the People’s Liberation Army in decision-making, specially in areas relating to foreign policy,” said Ravni Thakur, a China expert at Delhi University.

Describing deception as an integral part of Chinese culture, Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, said recently that avoiding a conflict with China will require India to fashion a strategy based on a familiarity with the Chinese strategic calculus.

The perception gap also needs to be bridged.

“The elite is predominantly negative about each other; the business community and middle class have negative perceptions,” said Kondapalli. A recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Research has revealed that less than 25 percent of Chinese like India.


Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.