India and China must think outside the ‘bureaucratic box’

Author: Tansen Sen, City University of New York

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s forthcoming visit to India will achieve nothing unless the new leaders of India and China can overcome existing inertia and seriously start revamping their bilateral relations. It is true that the two sides have managed to avoid a repeat of the 1962 armed conflict, and that diplomats have to be credited with limiting the border differences to a few ‘incursions’ and a tense standoff at Daulat Beg Oldi near the disputed Aksai Chin region in May 2013. But, as these episodes accumulate and are sensationalised by the media and dramatised in the blogosphere, they perpetuate mutual distrust and harden negative public perceptions.

Clearly the policy pursued during the last two and a half decades of emphasising trade while taking incremental steps towards managing, without resolving, the border issue has not worked.

Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi have to take prudent steps to move from just managing the relationship to making it truly open and trustworthy, something that was envisioned in the Panchsheel Treaty of 1954 but never attained, despite the celebratory events marking the 60th anniversary of the treaty this year.

The problem lies in the bottom-up policymaking that has defined the post-1962 relations between India and China. Mutually suspicious bureaucrats have hesitated to facilitate people-to-people, industry-to-industry or sub-region-to-sub-region exchanges and collaborations. This is clear by the limited educational interactions between the two countries due to the Indian Ministry of Home Affair’s reluctance to issue visas to Chinese students and instructors and the failure of the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar sub-regional collaborative initiative.

There are contradictions between the India–China joint declarations about promoting people-to-people exchanges and the implementation of these measures. Intra-ministerial disagreements, mystifying constraints, narrow visions and a reluctance to involve competent people often render these processes ineffective. These initiatives are usually categorised as ‘public diplomacy’ and epitomised by heavy handedness and restrictions imposed by bureaucrats who treat them as no more than symbolic gestures. In fact, free interactions at the grassroots levels — that could potentially advance mutual awareness and knowledge — have never been fully encouraged seemingly for ‘security’ reasons. Consequently, the rhetoric and false narratives of friendship get recycled while the general public remain in the dark and utterly confused about the actual policy goals.

For Xi and Modi to redefine the bilateral relationship, the existing policymaking structures and thinking have to be discarded. These leaders are the ones who should outline the relevant policies and order the bureaucrats to implement them. Their aim should be to dilute the dogmatic thinking of the respective diplomatic corps, military commanders and intelligence chiefs so that they become decisive and committed to the long-term prospects of India–China relations.

A first step could be for the two leaders to be frank about the historical ambiguity of the territorial claims and acknowledge publicly that there is no other option for resolving the border issue other than recognising the Line of Actual Control. In the short term, such a joint declaration might lead to condemnations by a few members of the public and — especially in India — political factions. But after numerous rounds of border talks without any substantial outcome, this might be the only way to come to terms with the legacies of colonialism and imperialism, and heal the scars of the 1962 war.

The persistent lack of mutual trust and the continued suspicion of each other’s wider geopolitical intentions are apparent in China’s failure to unequivocally support India’s aspiration to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and India’s resolute efforts to keep China out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Xi and Modi could unreservedly support these ambitions and wishes of the other side — not as quid pro quo steps but as gestures of genuine confidence-building.

Even at the early stages of their careers as national leaders, Xi and Modi already have firm standing in their respective countries. They may not be able to resolve the border issue immediately, but the two leaders have enough political capital to at least be magnanimous in backing each other in the wider global arena. In order to redefine the bilateral relationship, they have to go beyond the usual auguries of the bureaucrats about possible repercussions for national interests. Trust between India and China needs to be built on confidence and convictions, not on the computations of career bureaucrats.

President Xi Jinping will mostly likely try to entice India to join his so-called ‘Silk Road’ project. Xi must understand that he will be unable to draw India into a cookie-cutter plan given the existing scepticism in India about Chinese soft power schemes. Any utterings of support from the Indian side during Xi’s visit will be superficial and are unlikely to yield any substantial breakthroughs in bilateral relations. Likewise, Modi must refrain from his own pet proclamation of ancient Gujarat-China relations through the visit of the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang, who merely traversed through the present-day Gujarat region. Instead of highlighting this historically irrelevant episode — Xuanzang passed through several other Indian states — Modi could elucidate his success in bringing Chinese investors to Gujarat — about 20 companies as of last year — and make a commitment to allow such investments in the ‘sensitive’ northeast regions of India.

The India–China relationship is already brimming with rhetorical pronouncements. What it lacks is concrete steps towards building better awareness and eradicating undue suspicions and scepticism. It is time for the two leaders to lay a new foundation not only for the improvement of bilateral relations, but also for reshaping intra-Asian connections and exchanges.

Tansen Sen is an Associate Professor of Asian history at Baruch College, City University of New York.

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