In the year gone by, the leader of the Free World, Barack Obama, the Premier of the super-power in waiting, Wen Jiabao and the President of a resurgent Russia,Dmitry Medvedev, sought out India almost back-to-back.
But of the three, the Chinese Premier’s visit was the most microscopically analysed. Not because New Delhi fought a war in 1962 with Beijing on border issues, most of which still remain unsolved, but because China has emerged as a regional and global power which India fears might be used to contain or even prevent the latter’s rise in the world order.
New Delhi’s concerns are not entirely unwarranted. China has run into the world community too many times and has emerged unscathed thanks to its economic and, more recently, military muscle.
According to the International Monetary Fund, China’s Gross Domestic Product has surpassed Japan at $4.98 trillion to become the second largest in the world after the United States at $14 trillion.India, in comparison is a $1.2 trillion economy and number ten in the world.
On the military front, in 2009, Chinese spending unofficially stood at around $100 billion dollars while New Delhi’s was close to only $4 billion, ranking second and ten respectively in the world defence expenditure.
BLOW HOT BLOW COLD
Though both countries have had high level formal contact or Track 1 diplomacy for over six decades, tensions have once again built up in the past years.
India has termed China’s recent policies on Kashmir, including placement of military personnel in Gilgit, a part of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, and issuance of stapled visas by China to Indians from Jammu & Kashmir as aggressive since New Delhi has maintained that Jammu & Kashmir is a bilateral issue between itself and Islamabad.
Beijing’s increasing arms build-up and modernisation of armed forces along with heating up of competition between the two countries over energy resources have been tagged as important stress points.
Simultaneously, China considers India’s support to the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet as a destabilising factor.
The often alarmist and rhetorical media reportage from both sides has only added to the complexity of Sino-Indian relations. Inject into this mosaic the almost every day report by some Chinese websites or map makers to show some part of the Indian border territory as China’s, and the true underlying currents in the relationship become difficult to gauge.
Importantly, China did not make an issue out of India’s decision to participate in the ceremony at Oslo to award Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the Nobel peace prize. The fact that Premier Wan Jiabao visit to India quickly followed New Delhi’s decision, has indicated Beijing’s desire to show caution while dealing with New Delhi.
Taking stock of all these often conflicting signals, the time may be ripe for focussing on the thoughts of the people to decide the course of relations between the two.
WHY TRACK 2 MAY WORK?
In recent years, the informal or Track 2 diplomacy has regained acceptance in the political arena, especially amongst the former Cold War blocs.
It, however, is not new to India. Since antiquity, India along with China has practised statecraft of diplomacy at various levels.
So, not surprisingly, even at the height of Cold War created ‘Fleet Diplomacy’, India was on Track 2 diplomacy with its neighbours, including Pakistan, a nation with which it has fought four wars in 60 years and where a large section of the populace openly supports the idea of wiping India off the map.
Interestingly, despite questionable success in peace talks and continued hostility, New Delhi has maintained contact with pro-democracy Pakistani groups.
So, in a similar vein, if informal diplomacy is given a shot in the case of China, whose rise is apparently far more worrying for New Delhi and where any success of such a policy may bring windfall gains, is logical and undeniable.
However, clarity over the likely success of such a mission would not be immediate, but should not cause India to forsake this path.
The reasons which may contribute to make a success of such Track 2 mission are many. Foremost is the absence of any instinctive mutual mistrust amongst the people. Indian monks had crossed into China before the birth of Christ and Chinese had welcomed them and their knowledge. In fact, some monks even rose to become teachers to the then Chinese kings.
The warm and cordial relations can be traced into the 20th century as well with Rabindranath Tagore’s three visits to China in what were tumultuous times in China’s history. The Boxer Rebellion had ended and the New Culture or May Fourth Movement was in sway.
The history of Ancient India too lays bare the fact that states felt danger from barbarian hordes of Middle Asia tramping in from Punjab. Fear of Han invasions was nonexistent as China was long considered as a civilised society.
In the current context, increasing the level of social contacts between the two nations may be very helpful to both. Besides the interaction between the two governments, relations between Chinese Communist Party and its counterparts in India are also being strengthened. Such engagements may help both societies gain valuable insight into each other’s nuances and quirks.
Track 2 diplomacy at the current juncture may also prove crucial, as India would stand to benefit greatly from the growing and inevitable movement of Chinese society towards greater freedom brought on by penetration of technology and the resultant global outlook.
The turmoil which is likely to take place in the Chinese society during this period may prompt Chinese intelligentsia to look for guidance from India whose society despite the economic and social inequalities for centuries has maintained an instinctive equilibrium.
There will for certain be pitfalls in these efforts given the woeful lack of knowledge amongst the two societies about each other. India will have to tread a very bold yet careful path.
But then it may be the time for change and diplomacy will have to be based on ground realities and not lost in fog of lofty ideals.
United States’ pragmatism in such pursuits, which Wikileaks has laid on the table for all to see, is worth learning from.
After all, as they say, diplomacy is about lying for your country.
(The writer, Mr Aditya Phatak, is a financial reporter and an analyst of strategic issues. Views expressed are his own. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)