Are ‘war-mongers’ narrating the China-India story?

(This article, on how ‘war-mongers’ in India and China are hijacking the bilateral narrative, was published in DNA edition dated September 10, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

Recently on the Chinese Internet, there surfaced a thrilling account of a naval war scenario involving China and India. “It was a vivid rendering of how Chinese navy vessels entered the Bay of Bengal and, in just a few days, destroyed the entire fleet of Indian warships,” recalls Prof Liu Jian of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), one of China’s most influential policy thinktanks.

The narrative, it turned out, was a work of fiction, the product of a fevered imagination. And although such “crazy stories” aren’t representative of how most Chinese leaders and ordinary people perceive India, says Liu, it was a manifestation of the “antagonism and hostility” towards India that resonates among small sections of Chinese military circles and “extremely nationalist youth”.

A similar China-directed hawkish streak is discernible in the public discourse in India, points out Dr Jagannath Panda, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. In recent times there have been countless “alarmist narratives” about China in the media and among sections of the strategic thinktank community, which offer no “constructive insight” on China but only feed a “nationalist” sentiment, he adds.

Recent manifestations of strains between the two giant trans-Himalayan neighbours – over China’s denial of a visa to an Indian Army General serving in Kashmir, and the reported presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir – have accentuated the ‘trust deficit’ engendered by the unresolved Sino-Indian border dispute, which led to the war of 1962. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent (off-the-record) comments about China seeking “a foothold” in South Asia have disconcertingly escalated the ‘war of words’ to the highest rung of the ladder of policymaking circles.

Is all this unchecked nationalist ‘war-mongering’ rhetoric in the media and strategic thinktank space now distorting the tone of the official narrative? Will such narratives harden public and official attitudes on both sides – and make it harder to resolve long-pending disputes?

“Media headlines shouldn’t be allowed to make policy,” asserts former foreign secretary Salman Haidar, who served as India’s ambassador to China in the early 1990s, when the P.V. Narasimha Rao government formulated its ‘Look East’ foreign policy. “Of course, we can’t ignore the things that divide the two countries, but while some watchfulness may be warranted, we shouldn’t get swayed by alarmist media reports or give them undue importance.”

To the credit of policymakers and diplomats on both sides, Haidar sees Sino-Indian relations as “equable, despite the frictions and problems.” War, he adds, is “inconceivable” and there is a “basic good sense and stability” in the relationship.

Liu of CASS shares that sentiment, and points to a changing perception of India among Chinese leaders and scholars. “Chinese leaders’ attitudes and mindset towards India today are very reasonable: more reasonable than was the case with leaders in the Mao Zedong era,” he says. And even in the media discourse in China, “positive coverage” of India outweighs the negative reportage, he adds.

Dr Zhao Hong, a visiting Chinese scholar at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, too points out that whereas Indian perceptions of China as reflected in official trade policies and the popular media discourse are “generally negative and suspicious”, Chinese public perceptions of India are “benign”. In fact, he adds, some Chinese scholars argue that India’s economic growth and development model is more sustainable than China’s because it is driven by “investment efficiency, a stable financial system, and favourable demographics.”

If that’s true, what accounts for what IDSA scholar Panda calls the “fragmented dialogue” vis-à-vis China among the Indian strategic elite, including the government, the media and policy thinktanks? He points to several reasons. “The strategic community in India seem to be struggling between conceding and apprehending China’s rise,” he notes.  Additionally, difficulties in ‘China-watching’ persist in India, given that there aren’t enough China scholars and most students who learn Chinese language opt for better-paying corporate careers rather than join the government, thinktanks or the media. “There is limited policy discourse in India about China, and the alarmist media narrative has confused India’s China policy at a broader level,” he adds.

In Panda’s opinion, “outdated impressions” of China’s progress as a state can lead to “poor policy formulations.” As Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox, analysts at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), point out in a recent report, new “foreign policy actors” are emerging in China on the margins of the traditional power structure in China, and foreign governments must take into account these multiple agencies that have a say in any given foreign policy decision.

Other scholars point to a more fundamental problem in the Sino-Indian discourse. Despite occasional incantations about a ‘Chindia’ framework, “mutual mistrust” between the two countries cannot easily be overcome so long as the relationship is driven only by a strategic elite community, without much grassroots-level people-to-people interaction, reasons Dr Renaud Egreteau, who heads the China-India project at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Indicatively, he adds, the US-India relationship and the US-China relationship are influenced or “mellowed” to an extent by the Indian and Chinese diaspora in the US, which act as lobbying groups. But China and India don’t have similar deep civil society interactions. India is perhaps the only big country without a ‘Chinatown’ today: even the Chinese settlement in Kolkata was dispersed after the 1962 war. Likewise, the Indian diaspora in China is fairly insubstantial; even student exchange programs are thin on the ground – although that will be addressed by Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sabil’s upcoming China visit, during which agreements on mutual recognition of degrees will be signed.

So, how can the tone of the Sino-Indian narrative be changed from hysterical ‘war-mongering’ – on both sides – to finding the pragmatic balance of “competitive cooperation”? Haidar, the distinguished diplomat, recalls the counsel he received, ahead of his China ambassadorial appointment, from renowned political strategist P.N. Haksar. “He said that the border dispute and other political issues weren’t going to disappear overnight and that the two sides could begin by understanding what their societies were about: how are they advancing, what are they doing to make better lives for themselves.” Perhaps, muses Haidar, that’s ultimately where the two countries’ peoples can relate to each other.

The trick, adds Egreteau, is not to have a “naïve” notion of friendly relations, but have a more “pragmatic” discourse – having a dialogue, while recognising there are differences and disputes that can be discussed without derailing the entire process.

‘We’re stuck in an unproductive discourse’
Interview with Salman Haidar

Former Indian foreign secretary Salman Haidar, who served as ambassador to China in the early 1990s, spoke to DNA’s Venky Vembu on the artful management of Sino-Indian relations. Excerpts:

On the gravity of reported Chinese troops’ presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. We don’t know the facts on the ground. But it’s worth recalling that the Chinese built the Karakoram road as a strategic artery. Perhaps they’re now making it a more significant artery – not just for trade with Pakistan but to the Gulf region. The strategic link within the military parameters has already been made, and it’s not unusual that there are many Chinese there: in fact, some people in Pakistan objected to Chinese presence in Gwadar too.


On the Sino-Indian border dispute resolution. The border dispute is a complex issue, but we have to find different areas of cooperation. However, it seems to me that we’ve gotten stuck in a rather unproductive discourse. I think we have to renew and refresh that.

In 1996, China and India had an agreement on the ‘Political Parameters and the Guiding Principles’ for the settlement of the border dispute. The next step from that should have been an agreement to reduce troops on the border: that would have been a powerful demonstration of intent and a confidence-building measure. The two sides have agreed to work on it, and although it’s not easy, it can be done. It’s worth revisiting.

On the lessons from Rajiv Gandhi’s breakthrough visit to China in 1988. Rajiv Gandhi came at a time of crisis: relations had deteriorated dangerously in Arunachal Pradesh. He had the strength of purpose, and the nerve, and it was an act of leadership on his part to travel to China. And it was a very successful visit, as a result of which relations were placed on a different basis. Likewise, today, you need leadership. These are matters on which you cannot advance without a desire to come to grips with issues.

On China’s wariness about India’s ‘Look East’ policy. The policy was developed in order for us to have access to the ‘Tiger’ economies of Southeast Asia and East Asia. It worked brilliantly – and immediately. Over time, our role in ASEAN has become strengthened. We were not – and are not – aiming to balance or counterbalance China. Our policy is to maximise our economic potential in that area.


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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One Response to Are ‘war-mongers’ narrating the China-India story?

  1. Pingback: Wen a neighbour comes calling… | It's only words…

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