Getting Our China Story Right.
He surprised me by saying that there were no real problems between India and China. He explained that he had attended several rounds of border talks between the two countries and he had found the Indian side genial and unbothered by the topic of discussion. He dismissed that there was any real hostility and suspicion between the governments of India and China.
Like many other Chinese I had met, he said the source of hostility to China in India was the media and other parts of civil society. At the official level, things, he implied, were going swimmingly.
It has been noticeable how dismissive Beijing has been of the recent Depsang border intrusion. The border is in dispute and that sort of thing will happen, has been the Chinese view. The fact that it was resolved quickly and peacefully showed that the two governments have worked out ways to handle such eruptions - and these structures work. Again, the Indian media is the one that is overly excitable and making things difficult for New Delhi to be rational about the relationship.
This could be a crude spin on how things actually exist between India and China. Or it could be a serious misreading of what India, official or otherwise, is starting to think about China.
One, the Depsang intrusion was a crisis that went to the brink. Beijing was complacent to the point of dysfunctionality - some reports indicate it took a few days for the foreign ministry to even determine that an intrusion had taken place. It took threats from New Delhi to effectively kill two state visits and possibly a third before China pulled out. Fortunately, most of China's bordering nations know that even when Beijing is in the wrong it will still ask for some concession - however minute or meaningless - before walking away.
Without that face saver, gridlock sets in. And that face-saver India had in place within a few days of the crisis breaking out. If it hadn't been there, the two countries would have been in a very very torrid zone.
Two, whatever Chinese officials believe, there is widespread distrust if not outright hostility to their country within the Indian establishment. This is strongest with a generation that remembers the 1962 war and commonplace in the Indian military services and intelligence agencies. But many Indian diplomats and bureaucrats in general see China as a belligerent, expansionist neighbour. I once said, looking at the troubled trajectory of India-China relations the past several years, that the yo-yo nature of China's policy towards India meant it was difficult to ascertain what exactly Beijing's true colours where. A senior diplomat came up to me afterwards and said, "You're wrong. They've shown what they are really about every time - and its always negative." In other words, belligerence is Beijing's default mode is increasingly the default view in Delhi. During the Depsang incident, the Indian bureaucracy, including the diplomats, were deeply divided on how forcefully India should respond - and the hawks eventually won out and their views were closer to the view of the political class.
This is why the Chinese border official's view that his Indian counterparts were happy with the relationship was worrying. It indicated India was failing to send a clear message to China that its actions, erratic and opaque, were arousing not merely the Indian public but ranks of the government into bouts of Sinophobia. it also means that Beijing is living in a bubble about its relationship with India, believing that television anchors are the problem and not its own policies.
The predominant school of thinking in the Indian system is that Depsang was really about the People's Liberation Army sending its own message to the new Chinese leadership. But the view is also, increasingly, so what? The Indian response must be the same either way. Even if the army is running amok. The Indian system needs to pressure the Chinese foreign ministry because without that pressure the civilians will not be able to stand up to the military. The message India needs to send is clear. The manner of its dissemination is clearly faulty and holds the seeds of future calamity.
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