India and China: Profound Mutual Understanding

The Wuhan meeting has provided rich dividends to India and China in terms of charting a new course to improve bilateral relations across the board.
by Srikanth Kondapalli
October 23, 2018: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Chinese State Councilor and Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi in New Delhi, India. VCG

To promote better mutual understanding, India and China have launched several initiatives including an agreement signed by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on high-level people-to-people exchange and cultural interaction in December 2018. The agreement aims to enhance mutual interaction between the two peoples, which is expected to improve mutual understanding down the line.

Many nagging problems continue to plague bilateral relations such as the unresolved territorial dispute, Tibet, trade deficits, mutual perceptions related to relations with Pakistan or the United States, the Indian Ocean and others. However, since the Wuhan meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2018, several initiatives have been undertaken to reduce the influence of such problems and adopt a forward-looking posture on improving bilateral relations.

The Wuhan meeting resulted in emphasizing “strategic communications” between the two sides, enhancing stability in border areas through confidence building measures (CBMs), reducing trade deficits, supporting a multipolar world and exploring possibilities to work on economic projects in war-torn Afghanistan.

High-level Interaction

Since the Wuhan meeting, a series of high-level interactions have happened in the realms of foreign affairs, defense, public security, national security establishments, armed forces, finance, trade representatives and others, in what seems to be an unprecedented wave of interaction at all levels. In the words of China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, these efforts aim to “constantly accumulate positive energy.”

First were visits by foreign affairs and defense ministers to attend preparatory meetings in the run up to the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Qingdao. Prime Minister Modi visited Qingdao in June 2018 and signed two agreements with President Xi on hydrological data exchange and non-Basmati rice exports to China. They also agreed to raise bilateral trade to over US$100 billion by 2020. Modi’s observation on “inclusivity” in the emerging Indo-Pacific architecture was well received in Beijing at the Shangri-La Dialogue a week earlier.

General Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, visited New Delhi from August 21 to 24, 2018, and discussed ways to establish a hotline between the two military commands, implement CBMs, re-commence counter-terror Hand-in-Hand joint operations between the two armies (later held successfully from December 3 to 23, 2018 in Chengdu) and open two more border personnel meeting points (in addition to the current five already existing in border areas).

Another high-level meeting was held by China’s Public Security Minister Zhao Kezhi and his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh during the former’s visit to Delhi on October 23, 2018. Both agreed to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation, improve institutional mechanisms to counter organised crime and drug and human trafficking and further exchange of information.

Chinese State Councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi also made a major visit to Delhi. During the visit from December 21 to 24, 2018, a “ten pillar” agreement was signed with his counterpart Sushma Swaraj on furthering high-level people-to-people and cultural exchange. The pillars include youth exchange, tourism promotion, museum management, film and TV joint production and sharing, expanding the sister cities network, increasing language education, enhancing professional translation and interpretation and promoting educational exchanges, sports, medicine and Yoga.

As civilizational states, India and China know the importance of soft power. However, the visit provided a new twist to enhance mutual understanding at the popular level. Many such issues are not new to the bilateral relations. Indeed, several MoUs have been concluded over the last three decades between India and China including on 1,000-plus youth exchanges, 32 annual scholarships, “friendship year,” book fairs, film distribution, yoga and Gandhi centers, Nalanda University, sports and other sectors. Bollywood movies, specifically Aamir Khan’s recent blockbusters, have carved out niche market in China. Despite the introduction of e-visa facilities, tourism between the countries remains relatively low with 240,000 Chinese visiting India (mainly to Buddhist sites) in 2017 compared to 1.4 million Indian visitors to China.

In the current round of discussions between the foreign ministers, over 40 items on which some progress had been achieved in the past were merged in the new format to provide a new boost for the bilateral relations.

Influencing Mutual Perceptions

Alongside frequent visits, a second recent trend has been expanding institutionalization of sectors with mutual understanding. Mutual perception matters. This pertains to the media and think tank forums that both started seeing more emphasis. In the light of the intensification of globalization, specifically in terms of new technologies, human communication has increased exponentially. Digitalization, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, e-commerce and other technologies have opened new vistas for large countries such as India and China. Indeed, with massive numbers of consumers and ever-expanding markets, India and China are at the cutting edge of the information and communication technology age.

Also, the sinews of these communications—the discourse systems—are predominantly shaped by Western discourse with most countries left with no option but to either follow such discourse or evolve their own voice on several emerging issues. The latter, sometimes dubbed “Eastern” discourse, is informed by Asian values, resolution of issues through dialogue and consensus, multipolarity and other traits. 

Certainly, India and China have pursued their own methods of building such discourse systems but find it mutually beneficial to collaborate on such issues. China operates Confucius Institutes around the world while India has Tagore chairs and Gandhian centres alongside the popularization of Yoga.

In the media industry, the structures of ownership, operation and dynamics are different in India and China. Today, along with thousands of print and electronic media outlets, China has bourgeoning social networking sites that have become popular and indispensable due to integration with e-commerce trends.

Globalization is also affecting the Chinese media in many ways. In December 2016, China Global TV Network (CGTN) was launched. To mark the occasion, President Xi Jinping declared: “The relationship between China and the world is undergoing historic changes. China needs a better understanding of the world, and the world needs a better understanding of China.” Then, in late 2018, China Central Television, China National Radio, and China Radio International were all united under the “Voice of China” banner.

Indian media has not been immune to the winds of globalization either. Print, electronic media and social networking sites in India have all recently experienced major transformations. With its federal, multiparty democracy and negotiating with each constituency, Indian media is self-supportive and regulated by the professional Press Council and Broadcaster’s associations.

Nevertheless, despite these differences, the roles of traditional and new media in both countries are changing fast with globalization. Both India and China are entering unchartered waters and plan to synergize their advantages as economic growth rates in the eastern hemisphere continue to far eclipse those of the western hemisphere. The Media Forum is a result of this deep thinking in India and China.

The first India-China media forum was held in New Delhi on September 16, 2013 with participation from 40 media organizations and 80 professionals from both sides. Speaking on the occasion, Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid stated that this event would go a long way in enhancing communication, exchange, mutual understanding and cooperation between media of the two countries to create a sound public opinion that fosters further development of bilateral relations.

The second India-China media forum was held on February 1, 2015 in Beijing. Jiang Jianguo, minister of the State Council Information Office of China, and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj addressed the gathering.

The third forum was held in New Delhi on December 21, 2018. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stated that “until we enhance our people to people relations, it will be hard to further intensify our cooperation.” Three themes emerged from this meeting: enhancement of media understanding, promotion of a closer development partnership and brainstorming a roadmap for future media cooperation. Joint film production, content sharing and other potential activities were discussed.

A second initiative launched to address mutual perceptions has reached the think tanks level. Both China and India now have hundreds of tanks that provide policy options to various powers. Their role in shaping perceptions of the elite cannot be underestimated. While think tanks in both countries have been interacting with each other, such networking has been predominantly on a one-to-one basis.

Flowing from the agreement between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping at their meeting in Beijing in May 2015, the first think tank forum was held in New Delhi from December 9 to 10, 2016 under the theme “Towards a Closer India-China Developmental Partnership.” According to the agreement, these forums are intended “to provide structured advice and recommendations to governments on both sides.”

The second India-China think tank forum was held in Beijing from June 24 to 25, 2017, under the theme “India-China Strategic Cooperation and Developmental Partnership.” Chinese Academy of Social Sciences President Wang Weiguang emphasized building a multipolar world order.

The third think tank forum was held from December 20 to 21, 2018 in New Delhi under the theme “Civilization Connecting Towards an Asian Century.” For the occasion, foreign minister Swaraj stated that the event would reinforce “our belief in the inherent intellectual connection between our two countries. With our relations deepening and our regional and international role evolving, the world expects our two countries to lead Asia and usher in an ‘Asian Century.’”

Thematic appreciation

If high-level visits and enhancing mutual perceptions through building elite consensus are to be effective, India and China also need to work concretely on certain themes closer to them. The commonality of interests is emerging as seen in joint statements and positions of these countries on a number of issues.

Today, India and China are key advocates of globalization. As beneficiaries of globalization in terms of market access, investment flow, exports and imports over the course of reform and liberalisation, India and China have articulated such positions in G20, BRICS and other international forums. Their emergence coincides with threats of increasing tariffs and potential restrictions on markets and financial access.

Since the 1990s, both have been advocating a multipolar world considering the uncertainties in international politics following the outbreak of the Gulf Wars and the Afghanistan campaign. The resultant missile strikes, deployment of troops, regime changes and emerging “borderless” phenomenon in North Africa and the Middle East were major concerns for India and China. Both were also concerned with the potential for a spill-over effect of such incidents in their domestic situations. On this issue, both have coordinated their positions in the United Nations and other multilateral institutions such as Russia-India-China triangle, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and others.

Through BRICS, both India and China have highlighted the need to reform and reorganize the Bretton Woods institutions to reflect changed times. Since 2010, their efforts have succeeded marginally in enhancing their voting shares in the International Monetary Fund.

India and China, as with Brazil and South Africa (in the BASIC format), have articulated “common but differentiated responsibilities” in addressing climate change. Despite the intransigence shown by developed countries in addressing the cumulative emissions over two to three centuries of industrialization and despite the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, BASIC countries rallied positively by capping their own emissions albeit in a cascading manner.

The outcomes of the Wuhan meeting have provided rich dividends for India and China to chart a new course of action to improve bilateral relations in several fields. The direction of such cooperation has been positive as reflected in several high-level visits in quick succession and the recent expansion of the cooperation agenda. “Permanent peace” between these nations is possible if they resolve core issues, and they are trying to move in that direction by influencing mutual perceptions. 

The author is a professor in Chinese Studies at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.