India’s relationship with China has never been an easy one with frequent border incursions along the 3500-kilometre border between the two Asian neighbours and tensions on the Doklam plateau. But, there’s something interesting happening. Beijing has just reached out across the fence to New Delhi to ask for a dance. But like the proverbial crocodile and monkey in the Indian collection of children's stories, the Panchatantra, will India be the crocodile or the monkey? Will it glide into a waltz with the other big Asian superpower? Or will it first wait for its favourite song to play?
Senior Foreign Editor Padma Rao examines the question.
Whether it is the tense standoff between the two Asian superpowers on the Doklam highland or the frequent forays by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into Indian territory, China has always employed a tone that resembles a patronizing, scolding, relative towards a poor country cousin – in this case, India.
Perhaps for the first time in the history of India-China relations, China's foreign minister Wang Yi struck an astounding note on the subject of India. 2017 had been a particularly tense year between the two neighbors. At his annual press conference, the Chinese foreign minister was asked what he thought of China's relations with India.
Here’s what he said:
"Despite some tests and difficulties, the China-India relationship continues to grow. Chinese and Indian leaders have developed a strategic vision for the future of our relations.”
Come again? That was the reaction Mr Yi’s remarks evoked across the border, even as India was waking up to a new day of — possibly — fresh tensions with China over some border or land issue or another. But there were more surprises in store. While acknowledging that there were contentious issues, Mr Yi said, ‘’China is upholding its rights and legitimate interests and taking care to preserve the relationship with India.”
Then gushed forth what could have been written off as stream-of-consciousness-babble, were it not for the fact that this was the foreign minister of the mighty People’s Republic of China speaking in public, to the media. In essence, here’s what he said:
-- Chinese and Indian leaders have a strategic vision for the future of their relations.
-- China and India must do everything to support each other and avoid mutual suspicion.
-- With political trust, not even the Himalayas can stop our friendly exchanges.
-- Our common interests far outweigh our frictions.
-- If China and India are united, one plus one will become eleven instead of two.
-- Dragon and elephant must not fight, but dance with each other.
Babble or brotherhood? Such ardent declarations of eternal friendship from China? By now, either most readers have moist eyes or are rolling them at what expansionist China could possibly have meant by ''united'' India and China and the startling mathematics behind "one plus one will become eleven". But look at it with a cool head and consider what it could possibly mean.
No matter what the foreign minister also said about China’s Belt-and-Road-Initiative, China's brand of debt-trap diplomacy that has ensnared nearly 100 countries is under sharp criticism. Europe has refused to be part of the Silk Road. India, the United States, Japan and - possibly Australia have come together in a strategic grouping known as the 'Quad' to counter China's aggressive land-grabbing – both in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. And now, China’s closest trade partner, the United States, has issued dire warnings.
The Trump administration is preparing to throttle Chinese investments in the United States and slam tariffs on imports from China. It is going to act firmly against intellectual property theft by China. And most of all, President Trump plans to cut the 620 billion dollar annual trade deficit between the two countries in half and create 2 million jobs for Americans in America.
China is finding itself increasingly isolated in the international arena. India’s 1.2 billion-strong market beckons as an attractive alternative, despite India's stern measures against dumping by Chinese companies. And India is fast emerging as a close strategic ally to the United States than China, especially in matters Pakistan and Afghanistan. What better time for an invitation to the dance floor to New Delhi than now? However, and in the corridors of South Block, Indian diplomats are nobody’s fools. They will have long read the fine-print and will tango only if it’s a dance between equal partners.