Bilateral relations

India-China relations: Looking forward

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the second informal summit held at Mahabalipuram near Chennai on October 11, 2019. Photo: AFP / PIB

October 21, 1954: Mao Zedong, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, in conversation with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Peking (now Beijing). Photo: The Hindu Archives

The future of India-China relations in the wake of the Galwan Valley clash is not only a historic challenge to both countries but also our responsibility to future generations.

The Galwan Valley clash of June 15 is believed to be the first incident in nearly 45 years along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in which the armed forces personnel of both India and China were killed. Although Chinese officials have not disclosed the number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) casualties, the personal losses suffered by the soldiers’ families are the same, whether Indian or Chinese. In this regard, no one wins the clash; we all lose.

Along with talks through military and diplomatic channels, both India and China have emphasised the need for an expeditious and phased de-escalation as a priority. Currently, the Chinese frontline troops have disengaged on the ground. But we are probably still some way from reaching a complete understanding on the solution to the tension.

Fortunately, peaceful dialogue, and not confrontation, is under way. Talk benefits both sides while confrontation serves neither. Looking into the future of India-China relations, we have to find answers for some important questions. What kind of relationship should we build together in the interests of both countries as well as of the world? Will conflict and confrontation be unavoidable between the two? Can they “decouple” from each other? This is not only a historic challenge to both our countries but also our responsibility to future generations.

Seventy years ago, on April 1, 1950, India established diplomatic relations with China, thus becoming the first non-communist nation in Asia to do so. Photographs that capture the historic moment of the top leaders of both countries shaking hands still adorn my office wall. However, what I observe when I watch the debate taking place in Delhi is that India believes it faces a new China which has become more assertive, more expansionist and more aggressive. I appreciate all constructive thought and reflection. However, I believe that tactical conflict should not affect strategic judgment or shake our mutual trust and established policy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the second “informal” summit held in Chennai in October 2019 that as important neighbours, “China and India are the only two countries with a population of more than one billion”, and also noted that maintaining and developing good relations between the two countries was China’s unwavering policy. China’s policy has not changed either before or after the stand-off in Ladakh. Therefore, the choice for us is clear. India and China have to work together to build a strong and stable relationship which is based on cooperation, peace, mutual trust and which looks forward.

To return to the tactical issue, besides the boundary conflict, India and China have a lot of points of friction which are sensitive and complicated. We need to find a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution through equal consultation and peaceful negotiation. That India and China differ on some issues is nothing to wonder about, nor does any disagreement not justify confrontation. We need to discuss the issues, but more importantly, we need to understand the whole picture, which is that both countries need a peaceful and stable neighbour policy, and that no tactical accident should interrupt it.

Mutual dependence

Some people are trumpeting the so-called decoupling of India-China relations in the spheres of economy, trade and even diplomacy. While it is undeniable that the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan emphasised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a smart policy, it is not a good excuse for decoupling, banning Chinese companies and rejecting their investments. India’s imports from China in 2019-2020 were $65 billion of $81 billion worth of bilateral trade. India exports raw material and intermediate products, and imports finished products, key components, and so on. According to recent reports, Chinese investments in the Indian economy total nearly $8 billion in myriad sectors, including Indian start-ups and tech companies. Chinese smartphones such as Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Xiaomi command a lion’s share of the Indian market, and have also created a large number of local jobs. Just as Chinese companies have become dependent on the Indian market, India, too, relies on the China for many vital goods and services. Generally speaking, the decoupling of two countries in trade and economic development goes against globalisation and the tide of history. Personally speaking, considering China’s advantages in costs, markets, supply chains and its growing edge in innovation, to decouple from China is to decouple from opportunities.

Certain experts on diplomacy and strategy suggest that the Indian government play the Tibet, Hong Kong or Taiwan cards to balance or redefine India-China relations. On such issues, the one-China principle forms the political foundation of India-China relations. It would be unwise for India to touch the red line as it will cause long-term damage to our relations and even get India embroiled in an unwanted conflict. It is indeed harmful and not helpful.

It is fully understandable that there may be temporary jitters about a fast-developing China. But it is extremely dangerous and irresponsible to base Indian policy on protectionism and label China as a strategic rival or even as an adversary. Can a major adjustment of China policy, as touted by some, favour India? While I agree that all reactions and reassessment caused by the border clash be considered in a calm, rational, positive manner, so that we come to a right choice, we also need to think about how to develop together along with others. India and China, as great powers with responsibilities not only towards themselves but also to the world, have to base their policies on a good perception of common interests, on growing regional and global challenges. Do not allow suspicion, fear or hatred to hijack foreign policy.

Bofeng Hu is associate senior journalist of People’s Daily of China and a Fellow of Taihe Institution. Email: barryhbf@hotmail.com

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