When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988, ties between India and China finally began to improve after twenty-six years of strain. During the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, visible transformation in the interactions between the two countries was seen. Several confidence-building measures were implemented, trade expanded phenomenally and educational exchange and tourism began to grow. At the political level, visits by top leaders, including heads of states and governments of each country, began occurring regularly. Since 1976, the border has been peaceful, and not a single shot has been fired by either side. Governments on both sides consider relations cordial and peaceful, aside from a handful of minor hitches.
Although no one refutes the clear advancement of the bilateral relationship, a strong trust deficit continues to plague the two nations, evidencing that relations have still not completely normalized. In both India and China, the public perception of the other tends to still be flavored by suspicion and mistrust. The free media of India and popular social media platforms in China play major roles in preserving the negative perceptions. Large numbers of Indians still believe that China betrayed their trust in 1962 and will likely do so again. Because China has grown economically into a major power and now commands the second-largest military in the world, apprehensions about the nation are greater.
Conversely, the Chinese fear that India is waiting to play the Tibet card. With the Dalai Lama residing in India and a few hondred thousand Tibetan refugees taking shelter there, China is continually wary of the possibility of India using the Tibet issue to manipulate China. Chinese apprehensions about India have increased since the nuclear deal between India and the United States in 2008. China perceives the deal as an attempt to contain it. India’s efforts to strengthen ties with Japan also threaten the Chinese because of the history of bitter relations between those two countries.
From India’s perspective, three issues need to be settled before relations can normalize: the border dispute, China’s silence and support of Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, and the Tibet issue. None of these are likely to see resolution any time soon. They are not, however, problems necessitating the abatement of engagement with China.
Recently, China’s obstruction of India’s bid to join the NSG and refusal to label Masood Azhar a terrorist have exacerbated the trust deficit, but many still hope that the situation will soon change. India’s reservations about the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) must also be addressed by China because the project goes through territory that India claims is unrightfully occupied by Pakistan.
The CPEC is considered part of China’s big policy drive called the Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese government aims for increased connectivity, trade and tourism by developing infrastructure in the region around China, primarily along the traditional routes of the Silk Road. Several countries in the region have shown enthusiasm for the massive initiative.
India, however, is still apprehensive about certain parts. It is primarily concerned that the project is more than just an economic policy – it also plays to China’s strategic objectives. As I understand it, China’s recent economic downturn is the primary inspiration for this initiative, and it will certainly help stabilize the Chinese economy while promoting growth in other participating countries. If India does not seize opportunity that others do, who loses? In the end, everyone does. India has a robust security and intelligence apparatus and does not need to worry about China as a threat.
There is another side to the story. Today, approximately 14,000 Indian students are pursuing higher education in China, thousands of small and medium businesses have boomed thanks to Chinese trade, and Indian films are making inroads into the Chinese entertainment sector. The popularity of both yoga and Ayurvedic medicines are on the rise in China. An impressive volume of Chinese officials, academics and business delegations visit India each month to work with their counterparts in India. With the Indian government’s decision to grant e-visas to Chinese tourists making short visits, even greater cross-border exchange is being promoted. The personal bond between many Chinese and Indian individuals who do business with one another is often very visible.
We must not forget that India and China are two ancient civilizations that have existed in harmony for millennia. A wall has never divided the two civilizations. Only after both India and China emerged from development as major global nation-states was an explicit border – a narrow line dividing people – even necessary. The nation-state syndrome is rooted in the colonial experiences of both India and China. As long as the two countries pursue only nationalist agendas, relations will remain static. However, despite all the constraints, better and greater people-topeople contact is still possible. We can only hope that one day such contact will melt feelings of mistrust and help both countries reach their highest potential, together.
The author is the head of the Department of East Asian Studies and dean (Social Sciences) at Delhi University. She is also vice-chairperson and honorary fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.