Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit signals that China and India’s relationship may not be doomed after all.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is coming to India later this week to inaugurate the India-China High Level People-to-People and Cultural Exchange Mechanism, along with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. In the wake of the Wuhan meeting, both countries are clearly hoping to improve and insulate people’s matters from heavy-duty political issues.
Certainly, there are more than enough negatives to occupy both countries over the next century if they are determined to go down that road. There’s the unresolved Chinese push to build a road in the Doklam plateau in Bhutan, which comes dangerously close to the Indian border. There is the ‘all-weather relationship’ between China and Pakistan, which means that Beijing supplies Islamabad with all its nuclear and missile needs – primarily, to deter India. There is the protection of China’s Security Council veto for Pakistan-based terrorists like Masood Azhar, which means he cannot be sanctioned. And there is Beijing’s intrusive expansion into South Asia, which India resents because it considers this region under its own sphere of influence.
Does all this mean, therefore, that the India-China relationship is doomed from the start? Or can the two ancient civilisations find other ways to look at and understand each other, warts and all?
Jiang Yili, a Chinese scholar of philosophy, offers one journey. She has written many books on Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. She loves the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. In 1992, a student of Delhi University’s philosophy department, she travelled all over the Buddhist sites of north India, in sleeper trains and ordinary buses, braving the end-of-winter-chill and welcoming small pleasures like hot springs where the Buddha is believed to have once bathed.
Jiang Yili is also the wife of China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui.
A recent book by her called ‘Fond Memories on the Campus-Stories of Chinese and Indian Exchange Students’ on her years in Delhi is likely to be released during Wang Yi’s visit to Delhi.
It is worthwhile recalling here that within a few years of Jiang Yili’s return to China, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government ordered nuclear tests, triggering huge criticism from both the US and China. The New York Times leaked a letter written by Vajpayee to then US president Bill Clinton referring to India’s relationship with its “bitter neighbour” as the primary reason for going nuclear.
Clinton slapped sanctions on India after the tests. Wang Yi, then in charge of the India portfolio, was particularly trenchant in his critique. India saw a US-China compact (along with Russia, UK and France) in creating and keeping a special place for themselves – five nuclear states with a permanent veto in the Security Council – and not allowing any other country to break through.
Twenty years later, India and China are still circling each other warily, while China and the US have declared a fragile truce over trade. However crazy some Americans or the rest of the world believe Donald Trump is, the fact is that his bull-in-the-China-shop method of taking on Xi Jinping has given Delhi some respite.
Commerce minister Suresh Prabhu, keenly aware that the trade deficit with China had more than doubled from 2006-2016, from $16 billion to $51 billion, in written replies to Bloomberg said, “The ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China may have positive impact.”
Prabhu admitted that India hoped to take advantage as Chinese products become unattractive amid a trade war between the world’s largest economies. Trump was expected to go ahead with another round of tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports in January 2019 and India hoped to “gain from opportunities from the dispute”.
The Chinese reacted strongly. “India’s intention of gaining from the trade dispute between China and the US will likely prove to be a pie in the sky, as the South Asian nation isn’t ready to take advantage of any such opportunity,” an article in the Communist Party newspaper, Global Times said.
For the moment, though, Trump and the Chinese have realised they have far too much to lose if they continue their fight. Some compromise will no doubt soon be reached. The Americans and the Chinese both know that the Chinese own a trillion worth of US Treasury bonds and neither can afford to stoke tensions beyond a point. The economic equivalent of nuclear deterrence seems to have been reached.
As for India and China, both know they must settle heaps of differences. By holding firm in Doklam, Delhi declared it was no pushover. Beijing will apply other means to keep the pressure – refuse to settle the boundary dispute, upgrade infrastructure at Doklam, expand its presence in other parts of South Asia and most importantly, outwit India on trade.
So when the Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) recently stated, in the wake of demands by RSS affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch, that the government was planning to impose restrictions on the online purchase of goods from Chinese e-commerce platforms, Beijing saw red. Reportedly, such purchases would be capped at four per buyer.
“Indian consumers are buying Chinese products out of their own choice and unreasonable limits on these purchases will bring costs up for India’s consumers and hinder its newly emerging economy,” the Global Times said in an article titled, ‘India mistaken in blocking Chinese e-commerce’.
Still, Wang Yi’s visit is acknowledgement that India and China have much to talk about. The boundary dispute, for example, seems to have gone nowhere despite 20 rounds of talks between Special Representatives Ajit Doval and Wang Yi. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese travellers have discovered the world, but the truth is that they still hardly know each other.
Perhaps Jiang Yili’s book will open one window to this complex relationship. Beyond Doklam and the 1962 border conflict and the Dalai Lama, it is important for the two Asian powers, indeed civilisations, to sit across the table and talk to each other.
It is time to let a thousand flowers bloom as well as a thousand conversations begin.