China’s perceptions of India have remained and will continue to be a key factor in the matter of understanding Beijing’s overall policy approach towards New Delhi at any given time; it goes without saying that a correct appraisal would provide a solid ground to the analysts of the subject, more importantly to the authorities in India responsible for making China policy. Conversely, it is true that a sound evaluation of Indian perceptions of China would be of help to Beijing in formulating its India policy. At a time when an atmosphere of trust deficit, contributed mainly by the existing divisions on strategic issues, is affecting their ties, it becomes necessary for the two simultaneously rising Asian giants, to narrow down the prevailing perceptional gaps among them and work together in creating regional stability and prosperity amidst expectations that the 21st Century will be an Asian century. Wishes apart, it cannot be denied at the same time that for India and China, realization of this task is not going to be easy.
A discussion on Chinese perceptions of India should start with a look at Beijing’s traditional view. China considers India as ‘Western Heaven’ while seeing itself as ‘Eastern Heaven’ and placing other parts of the world ‘under the heaven’. How such a ‘partnership in heaven’ concept of China compares with its current formulation, jointly made with India, of a ‘strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity in the 21st century’ between the two sides? The answer is simple; the first is derived out of Chinese philosophical roots, providing for treatment of India at a high cultural pedestal, while the latter reflects China’s view of how the ties between the two modern states should develop.
For China’s neighbors like India, notable also is the second traditional aspect relating to China’s perceptions of the outside world; it is rooted in China’s tendency to ‘judge all other states at various levels of tributaries, on the basis of approximation to Chinese cultural and political forms’, as Dr Kissinger puts it in his book “On China”. A valid question is whether or not such traditional ‘tributary’ mindset continues to influence China’s approach toward India in the modern era.
A third Chinese traditional view which may also be relevant pertains to territories. The Chinese have no sense of ‘territories’, perceiving all of them as belonging to the Emperor, called ‘son of Heaven’. One needs to correlate this with China’s ‘territorial ambition’ as being felt in rest of the world. In its ‘Historical Atlas’ series, published in late eighties by the Cartography Publishing House, Beijing, it lamented on ‘historical’ loss of territories to neighboring regions , which included parts of modern India’s Northeast region and even Andamans. Mao had termed Tibet as the palm of China’s hand and its five fingers as Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and NEFA. What can be inferred is that Beijing, under the influence of its traditional thinking, may not be feeling guilty in a contemporary sense for making territorial claims against neighbors.
Chinese perceptions of India can be gathered from a variety of sources – statements of leaders and officials, pronouncements in official documents, comments of official media and opinions of authoritative think tanks and military personnel. What the micro-bloggers and common man feel about India can also be the tool for analysts. Taking the first category at the outset, some recent statements of top leaders convey the general trend – utmost importance being given by China to ties with India, in spite of existence of serious issues, mostly strategic in nature, dividing them. President Hu Jintao at the BRICS Summit has focused (Sanya, 13 April 2011) on the ‘global and strategic significance of Sino-Indian relations’. Premier Wen Jiabao remarked (Bali, 18 November 2011) that ‘peace and common development are in the common interests of China and India’. Secondly, no leader or official document in China has so far directly mentioned about ‘Southern Tibet’, they only referred to the ‘border issue’ with India. Thirdly, Chinese officials have stated that Beijing will take care of India’s ‘core interests’ and so should New Delhi. Fourthly, on India’s agreement with Vietnam for oil exploration in South China Sea, the response from the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has been measured. Lastly, the statement made by the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi prior to Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India that China-India ties are ‘fragile’ and need special care, has indicated the Chinese cautious attitude towards issues dividing India and China.
Coming to the Chinese official media, what the party Chinese language journal ‘Liaowang’ (Outlook’) stated appears important. It observed that “India’s place in the international system cannot be ignored given its economic, demographic and historical strength as well as the increase in its global status in the post-financial crisis period”. The party-affiliated Huan Qiu, the Chinese language version of the Global Times, carries a regular column on India , a treatment given on par with the cases of the US, Russia, South Korea and Japan; it showed how India occupies a prominent place in Chinese calculations.
Look at the contrasting treatment to India coming from some other party and state-controlled media in China. They have not hesitated to vehemently criticize India, deviating from the cautious official positions seen. Their harshest criticisms were on India’s dispatch of additional troops to the Northeast, New Delhi-Hanoi oil exploration in South China Sea, Border Issue, the Dalai Lama activities, India-US strategic ties and India’s missile programme. What follows is a sampling in this regard.
On Indian additional troops, the Chinese language edition of the party-run Global Times, Huan Qiu described (21 October 2011) India’s ‘military build up in the border’ as a ‘threat’ to China. The party’s main mouthpiece, People’s Daily called (10 November 2011) Indian troop deployment in the northeast as ‘second phase of border build-up’ and commented that India has begun to treat China as an ‘opponent’. The same daily had earlier warned (29 November 2009) about the ‘consequences’ for India of a potential conflict with China and attacked India of having a desire to start an ‘immediate war’ with China. Ya Dong Junshi website (Chinese) alleged (16 October 2010) that India is turning its attention to ‘Southern Tibet’ taking advantage of China’s pre-occupation with South China Sea.
On India’s role in South China Sea, the Global Times comments are worth noting to New Delhi. It alleged (14 October 2011) that India has deeper strategic considerations, its role amounted to ‘serious political provocation’ to China and that India wants to use it as a ‘bargaining chip’ on issues with China. The journal went further and observed (30 November 2011) that India is becoming ‘increasingly bold and assertive with interest to develop a face-off with China and China should take this trend seriously’. Xinhua (25 November 2011) found an ‘inferiority complex’ on India’s part and its subsequent commentary found India being ambitious and acting in ‘immaturity’ while cautioning India against ‘crossing the insurmountable red line’.
On the border issue, the Chinese official media are adopting positions, further elaborating the official stand. While at official levels, China is desiring to reach a ‘fair, reasonable, solution acceptable to both the sides on the basis of peace, friendliness, equal consultations, mutual respect and understanding’, Huan Qiu (Chinese,21 October 2011) criticized India for its ‘stubbornness on recognition of the status quo on the boundary problem, deviating from the spirit of the mutually agreed political parameters principle’. A scholar representing an official South Asia think tank in China, Professor Wang Hungwei wanted India to make practical concessions to China in the Eastern sector.
On the Dalai Lama issue, Huan Qiu ( 9 November 2009) directly accused India of ‘coveting the Dalai Lama’ and the ‘China-Tibet Online’ edition quoted a Chinese scholar as warning India that if it does not abandon its ‘political manipulation of the Dalai Lama’, the Chinese government will give a ‘blow’ to India.
On India-US strategic ties, the party theoretical organ Qiu Shi (14 September 2009) stated that the US-India military cooperation will change the strategic situation in South Asia.On India’s missile development programme, the People’s Daily (19 December 2011) characterized India’s ‘Agni’ missile tests as reflecting its ‘regional strategic ambitions’.
The Chinese official media criticisms against India’s stand on China-Pakistan ties come out as important indicators to Beijing’s thinking. The China Youth Daily (Chinese, 27 November 2009) through an article written by Hao Ding,a scholar of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, alleged that India’s new defence strategy treats China, not Pakistan, as a military target. A Chinese scholar, Prof Zhao Gancheng of the Shangahi Institute of International Studies revealed (10 May 2010) that China is reassessing its South Asia policy in response to India’s practicing hegemony in that region without paying attention to the strategic autonomy interests of other South Asian nations.
What the Chinese bloggers say on India, mostly in Chinese language, are also to be considered in assessing the Chinese perceptions of India. On many occasions, they have been abusive and aggressive, for e.g they talked about a ‘partial war’ with India on the border issue and an individual writer, even advocated for ‘spitting India’ into independent parts. As far as common man in China is concerned, their view is to ignore India and look toward the West as a model. This is not to deny the recognition among Chinese entrepreneurs to India as a software giant.
In a nutshell, what can be seen is that China is speaking in two voices in its assessment of India. Official perceptions are generally warm and restrained, understandably in diplomatic interests. In contrast, is the strident tone with which the party and state-controlled media, scholars of strategic think-tanks and some retired military officers are coming out with their opinions on India. How to explain this phenomenon? It can safely be assumed that the voices of the party media and of government come from the same source- the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee which is the final foreign policy authority. The party-government dichotomy is also unmistakably being seen in the matter of China’s policy approach to its other neighbors like Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. What should be remembered is that the CCP is supreme in China and its views, often expressed through its media, prevail over those of the government.
Since Middle 2008, China is showing a great degree of assertiveness in international relations, especially on ties with neighbours including India; its assertiveness is basically on sovereignty-related issues, on the basis of perceived ‘core-interests’. It is not difficult to see that the party and government positions, including those of the military being commanded by the CCP, are one and the same on ‘the need to protect the country’s identified core interests’. Safe to thus assume that the scenario of China speaking in two voices with respect to its foreign policy, one official and other non-official, is only apparent, not real. India on its part, as it continues with ‘engage China’ policy, should develop a composite view of what looks like Beijing’s ‘double speak’. Day to Day diplomacy with China is no doubt important for it, but New Delhi must realize that its long term interests demand a deep understanding of China’s evolving bilateral, regional and global strategies.
( This formed the basis of a talk delivered by D.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, at a National Seminar on “Rise of China: Indian Perspectives”, organized by the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, on 20-21 December 2011. email:firstname.lastname@example.org)