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India-China relations are complex and will be getting even more complex as time passes by. For a successful engagement, a nuanced and cool-headed handling of this relationship is needed. This is primarily because the nature of relationship between India and China will determine the future of Asian security and the architecture of the Indo-Pacific region.


In today’s context, there is uncertainty in the global order; the world’s only superpower – the U.S. – is withdrawing from its global leadership and responsibilities like climate change and the question of stability in West Asia; the global financial system remains biased and hugely favoured towards the developed world; globalisation has been challenged by the new U.S. President; and macroeconomic stability remains to be achieved nearly a decade since the 2008 meltdown. Within this context, India-China relations could be a factor of stability and a beacon of hope for other large and small developing countries. However, there are bilateral issues between the two that need to be addressed urgently to achieve greater bilateral stability and engagement.


The first and the most significant factor is the lack of adequate strategic trust. The absence of strategic trust does not automatically translate into strategic mistrust, which is a far worse scenario than a lack of strategic trust. However, it creates space for double check, and in effect weighs down the relationship. The most important element of the strategic mistrust, in the public perception as well, has to do with China-Pakistan friendship; and at the core of it is the Chinese approach to Pakistan vis-à-vis terrorism. India faces the challenge of cross-border terrorism and has made numerous efforts to designate certain organisations and individuals operating from Pakistan as terrorist organisations. India has done this at the level of the United Nations and each time China has stood in the way of passing of those resolutions citing some technical reasons. This has created a lot of negative public sentiment in India about China and may be rightly so. This raises questions about China as a responsible great power and its future power posturing. 


On top of this question comes the issue of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which China has proudly made a flagship project of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To do that and then to complain that India did not join the BRI is a huge diplomatic gaffe! China has been appraised via various Indian presentations, speeches and meetings that trans-border projects, while useful, but cannot go on if they violate sovereignty of the stakeholders. How does China then expect India to join BRI project when the CPEC not only violates Indian sovereignty but also creates additional strategic uncertainties for India in the region?


At the same time, on the economic front, there are challenges. India has created an equal playing field for all companies including for those from China. However, many of the Chinese companies have dragged their feet on their promised, agreed as well as approved investment projects. For example, various automobile projects have not started despite first set of land parcel being allocated as early as 2010.  Issues like Railway University, which are of capacity-building nature, are dragging on whereas China is keen to get high-speed railway projects from India. On the other hand, the issue of market access for Indian companies entering China remains unaddressed despite numerous rounds of talks and negotiations. India is the biggest exporter of rice and mangoes to the world but not a single gram of these goes to China. This is when China itself is one of the biggest importers of rice in the world.


The issue of access for Indian pharmaceuticals companies along with Information Technology (IT) and Information Technology enabled Services (ITeS) industries is a big challenge too. China, with its growing ageing population, needs to think of affordable medicine and healthcare, but mysteriously remains closed for Indian companies in this sector. It goes for the IT sector too, which can ideally partner China’s “Made in China 2025” for mutually beneficial cooperation. The economic front could help China in transforming the nature of the bilateral relationship from being simply transactional, i.e. buy and sell, to that involving investments, engagement, and joint R&D and manufacturing. That is also not happening adequately as yet.


On the social level, there is a huge curiosity about India and China in each other’s country. The recent Indian Bollywood movie, Dangal was a superhit in China and while it touched people of all ages, it was especially a rage amongst the youth. Similarly, Yoga is becoming more and more popular as the burgeoning middle class searches for alternate ways of achieving inner peace.


However, India-China border settlement remains to be achieved. There are numerous agreements and protocols for long-term processes and for handling the day-to-day situations on the border. It has been seen that these protocols have stood the test of time. All actions that violate the letter and spirit of something that has worked so well in our mutual interest must be avoided at all costs; and all efforts must be made to maintain peace and tranquility, pending the ultimate resolution of the outstanding differences.


What is changing between India and China is the self-perception of power and interests. It is important to have a continuous and candid dialogue on these to avoid differences from turning into disputes. Perhaps a new template to dialogue and engagement can be looked into since we are in the technology era and distances have shrunk due to advanced capacity and proactive interests. The general tone of messaging and media is another issue that needs to be addressed in this context. Hyper-nationalist hijack of the media for posturing would create deeper mistrust that could wipe out benefits of years of constructive engagement.


In all, the present day India-China imbroglio should not lead to a war; but more needs to be done to review the current situation along with developing a critical thinking of whether an entire redrawing of bilateral dialogue is necessary.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.