Focusing on the positive and playing down the negative have been the defining characteristic of the bilateral relations.
Only last year, while addressing a gathering at Mumbai, then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee (who has since become minister for external affairs) had stressed the importance of our not forgetting in our policy-making that India had once been invaded by China. The Chinese consul-general in Mumbai, who was present at that meeting, strongly objected to the remarks of the defence minister.
And yet, within a few months of that, Mukherjee himself seems to have forgotten what he had told the Indian public not to forget. His totally positive projection of China in every manner during his recent visit to China has come as a pleasant surprise to some and disquieting to others.
Those who have welcomed his observations, see in them signs of a greater maturity and a better balance in our attitude to China, with the focus on the future than on the past. Those who have been critical, see in them disturbing signs of our continuing inability to learn lessons from the past.
In China, the Defence Minister was Beijing's guest. As such, he had to be pleasant to his hosts. One could not have expected him to say anything negative about China. But, when he reiterated his observations on his return to New Delhi, one realised that his earlier observations in China came out of conviction and not out of a sense of politesse to his hosts.
It is worthwhile quoting from The Hindu of June 14, 2006, about what he told the media after his return:
- 'The possibility of an armed conflict with China has receded thanks to several confidence-building measures (CBMs) being implemented by both countries to improve defence relations and eliminate tension on the border. The latest CBM agreed to by both sides during his recent visit was an institutional arrangement to deepen defence cooperation.'
- 'India is aware that China is a source of arms supply to Pakistan. It also recognised that China is interested in building good relations with India. Neither do we consider them a threat to us nor do they consider us a threat to them. There is enough space for both to grow in their own areas. The basic objective of the CBMs is that both sides want a tension-free border. The CBMs will enable both countries to utilise their energy for the over-all development of people. If that fact is recognised, then I don't think they are or we are trying to outmaneuver each other.'
- 'The strategic space is not limited. It is also not correct to say that the entire space is occupied by China. I agree that China's economic growth and economic strength are more compared with India's, but the impression that they have outpaced us in the region or on the world stage is not correct. They are playing their role and we are playing ours.'
The increasing comfort level in the bilateral relations, as evident from Mukherjee's remarks, is the outcome of a number of significant developments. Among these, one could mention the Chinese initiative in giving up its oft-reiterated claims to Sikkim, the decision to restore trans-border trade across Nathu La in the Sikkim area, which is being implemented next month, the galloping bilateral trade, which has increased nine-fold during the last 10 years to touch US $ 18 billion both ways last year, the increasing interest of the business world of the two countries in each other and in investment and business possibilities and the growing multi-dimensional contacts, governmental and non-governmental.
While these developments have been rightly highlighted, the proverbial Chinese firmness in sticking to what they consider to be in their vital national interest, as seen from the slow progress in the talks on the border dispute, has not received the attention it deserves. Neither government has been communicative as to why the border talks are moving slowly, with no solution yet in sight, despite the spin put out periodically by the two sides.
According to some reports, the very slow movement in the border talks is due to the fact that the Chinese are adamant in insisting that the Tawang area in India's North-East should be transferred to them in any border settlement. India is stated to be opposed to this demand. India is reportedly not prepared for any border adjustment in populated areas.
No satisfactory explanation has been forthcoming for the Chinese insistence on the transfer of Tawang. One reason, advanced by some, which seems credible, is that the Chinese suspect that it was from Tawang that the covert operation of the United States' Central Intelligence Agency to help the Khampa revolt of the 1950s against the Chinese occupation of Tibet was mounted. The failure of this operation led to the exodus of the Dalai Lama and his followers from Tibet into India.
In our keenness for better relations with China, we seem prepared to forget what happened to us in the past. The Chinese are not. They still remember the externally-mounted attempts to undermine their control of Tibet in the 1950s and are determined not to let this happen again. For them, control of Tawang is necessary for the definitive control of Tibet. If they give up their demand for Tawang, that could be an indication that they are no longer worried about their control of Tibet.
Despite the undisputed economic and social progress in Tibet, it remains Dalai Lama land. Reports from many reliable sources say that even 50 years after the flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, the Chinese have not been able to stamp out his memory from the minds of large sections of the Tibetan people. The Chinese are determined that the next Dalai Lama would be a man of their choice. They would not accept any incarnation as determined according to the Buddhist tradition by the Tibetans in Tibet and abroad.
If and when they try to impose their own Dalai Lama on the Tibetans, what would be the reaction in Tibet? Would there be violence? What would be the reaction of the large Tibetan refugee community in India? Would they help the revolting people of Tibet? What would be the attitude of the US? Would it try to create trouble for China in Tibet? If so, where from would its operations be mounted? These are the kinds of questions and scenarios worrying their mind.
The furious pace at which the Chinese have been strengthening their strategic infrastructure in Tibet -- roads, railways, airports etc -- is not meant only to make life more comfortable for the Tibetans. It is also meant to protect themselves from any future threat to stability in Tibet. In their calculation, if there is such a threat it would most probably arise from India, with the Tibetan Diaspora in India and elsewhere playing an active role, with the covert blessings of the US and its supporters in India.
To be able to meet such a threat, should it matetrialise, they would need not only military strength, but a pressure point on India. A pending border dispute gives them such a pressure point.
The Chinese may not talk about it in public, but they are concerned over the emerging close relations between India and the US -- not because of the military potential of an India-US axis, but because of its moral potential. They fear the likely infectious effect of our democracy in their border areas more than our nuclear weapons.
They fear the US ability to use the people's power as it did in East Europe, Ukraine and Georgia more than USA's military strength. In reality, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is not meant to protect the member-countries from external military threats. It is essentially meant to protect them from sections of their own people in the form of what they project as extremism and separatism.
They may outwardly project themselves as unconcerned over the implications of the India-US relationship for their stability, national security and regional pre-eminence, but they are. In our understandable keenness to see only the positive in China, we should not overlook certain constants in their policy.
One of these constants is to give Pakistan a psychological feeling of parity with India militarily and economically and to buttress the self-confidence of Bangladesh vis-a-vis India. China is not a South Asian power, but look at the way they have built for themselves a growing South Asian presence.
They did not create the difficulties which we have been facing in our relations with our neighbours, but they have been skillfully exploiting them for strengthening their influence in the countries around us. China does not pose a threat to us today, but it has the potential to pose a threat to us tomorrow should relations sour for any unforeseen reason.
We have to constantly assess that potential and be prepared to face such a contingency should it arise. Before 1963, we had to worry only about the Chinese to the north of us, but today we have to worry about the Chinese to the West and East of us. See how successful has been their Look South policy as compared to our Look East policy.
The Chinese leadership of today wishes well of India. It wants India to progress and take its due place in Asia and the world, but in its view, the due place of India is one rung below China's. Hence, their reluctance to support our permanent membership of the UN Security Council and their likely opposition in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group to the Indo-US civil nuclear deal.
The Chinese are far-sighted in their strategic thinking and planning as seen from the way they have been protecting their energy security, for example, and built up a network of political and economic relationships with the oil producing countries of the world. Compare the attention which they have been paying to the Islamic world and Africa with the attention which we have been paying to these regions, which are equally important for India if it has to reach its full potential as a major power on par with China.
One has reasons to be gratified by the way our relations with China have been improving, but that doesn't mean we close our eyes and ears to what China is or may be up to.
Our over-fondness for China and over-faith in its protestations of goodwill in the 1950s landed us in 1962. We should not repeat that mistake.