‘‘Elephant Dragon Tango’’?

India doesn’t claim to be anti-China. Nor does China propagate Nehru’s expansionist philosophy any more. And yet they continue to manage their bilateral relationship through the ‘handshake diplomacy’ that won’t turn truly warm and meaningful in the near future despite their rising global importance in the changed geo-political context. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and China. Exactly after six months of the founding of the People’s Republic of China both India and China decided to formally announce their diplomatic relations. True, the Chinese never forget to reiterate the fact that India was the first country from the non-socialist bloc and tenth country in the world to recognise new China and support its legitimate status in the United Nations and criticised the policy of obstracising China by some western countries. But that is one aspect of diplomacy. All friendship talks and much euphoria over the famous ‘‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence’’ vanished from diplomatic vocabulary after the 1962 border war in the Himalayas. Tibet, rather undefined border between India and Tibet, was the issue and it continues to be a thorny issue in India-China bilateral relations, albeit New Delhi no longer shows any overt enthusiasm over the Tibetan cause.

The ground reality in the changed international power equation, particularly since the demise of Soviet Union and ‘end’ of Cold War, seems to have compelled both India and China to soften their hard stands on a number of contentious issues, including border disputes. Whether they admit it or not, for China there cannot be no India and for India there cannot be no China. Not that they are not carrying the baggage of 1962 legacy still but they have meanwhile, traversed across the vast expanse of time and space, slowly recognising their common goal of interests. The spirit with which diplomatic relations were established 65 years ago is yet to be regained, notwithstanding periodic swan song about the strategic importance of India and China in the era of rapid globalisation. The unanimous resolution in Indian parliament on the India-China boundary question is still there. Nor does China see any valid reason to revise its own stated position on the boundary despite its oft-repeated sincere stance on what they call peaceful development of ‘neighbourhood diplomacy’.

No doubt both India and China at the moment express their ‘strong’ desire to play dominant role in global economy but the Himalayan divide continues to pose a serious obstacle in furthering joint manoevring.

Their idea of win-win situation in the economic field is one thing. But they cannot enact any win-win drama on the vexed question of border, a bitter episode left by history. It’s next to impossible to settle the border dispute to the satisfaction of all and pacify public opinion in two countries unless they agree not to disagree to talk for the sake of talk. Sweet words sell in diplomacy but diplomacy in most cases is an art of pursuing the strategy of inaction while keeping the game going.

While China strives for the early settlement of boundary dispute, India is not in a hurry. So it seems. The reason is simple : In any settlement if historical past is honoured India is almost certain to lose in certain sectors because the line of actual control doesn’t mean the line of control as it is the case with Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan know ‘line of control’ will one day become the permanent border. China’s People’s Liberation Army quite often shows impatience in changing the line of actual control, sometimes resorting to some juvenile exercise like painting some boulders red. But what their Indian counterparts do along the shifting line of control, does hardly get reported in the media.

Boosting people-to-people exchanges is one area that is still neglected as political leaders in both countries don’t show any strong determination to push diplomacy beyond five-star hotel culture. True, things have changed a lot over the years, particularly during the last 20 years. So Amir Khan’s ‘‘Three Idiots’’ is a box-office hit and crowd-puller in Beijing as once Raj Kapoor’s films were in Russia. These days many youngsters in China are said to be taking interest in India through the looking glass of Amir’s ‘‘idiots’’. Friendship associations are there but they in both countries just parrot official jargons as part of business as usual diplomacy.

What matters in China’s India diplomacy is how to capture Indian market without budging an inch from their stated position on the boundary demarcation. India-China trade reached $40 billion in 2007 and broke through $70 billion in 2014—not a quantum jump but a jump still. If anything Chinese products are everywhere, even in rural India. And India’s trade deficit with China is agonising.

Politicians in China have developed a habit of linking the past with the present in almost every sphere. Their idea of ‘‘Silk Road Economic Belt’’ is strategically aimed at spreading influence in more than 50 countries along the Belt. Modi being the representative of Indian corporates won’t be happy to see China’s all-encompassing shadow over the region. Faced with the challenge of China’s ‘Silk Route’ business onslaught, the Modis are trying to counter it by floating a not so cohesive regional economic initiative called ‘Spice Route’. Whether ‘Silk’ and ‘Spice’ can do regional business without competition remains to be seen. The Chinese think they can. They also think ‘‘Despite their distinctive features, the ‘Chinese Dragon’ and the ‘Indian Elephant’, both cherish peace, amity and justice’’. In diplomacy and public relations exercise these words sound fine. But mere sweet words cannot make ‘‘Elephant Dragon Tango’’ possible.

Vol. 47, No. 41, Apr 19 - 25, 2015