Speech by FS on Prospects and
Challenges of India China Interactions in the 21st Century at New York
February 12, 2011
Thank you Prof. Van Zandt for those words of welcome. Thank
you Ashok, it is wonderful to be back here, wonderful to see Jianying , my good
friend, and I remember the many occasions we met in Beijing when you brought
the scholars over from the India China Institute and the discussions were
fascinating because we got to see a cross section of Chinese scholars, that we
normally would not have interacted with within the normal government to
government situations. I also see a lot of old friends in the audience and it
is wonderful to be back in New York to meet with all of you and to speak on
My good friend Tansen Sen is here and I think the inspiration for this lecture
draws in many senses from a speech I gave in Singapore less than a month ago on
Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of India-China with a 21st century perspective. So
when I spoke to Ashok, the impression I got was that you would like me also
take a cue from that lecture and speak to you on what the scholar Tan Chung has
called the geo-civilization paradigm of India-China relations.
Let me first start by saying that just in the last year,
2010, India and China have commemorated the 60th anniversary of the
establishment of their diplomatic relations. In December 2010, at the fag end
of the year, Premier Wen Jiabao was in Delhi to participate in the closing
ceremony of the Festival of China in India and this brought to a close, a
calendar of activities organized in both countries, to commemorate the occasion
of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations.
Of course the relations between the two countries date back many millennia and
that’s where the Tagore aspect comes in because when I spoke in Singapore I
drew reference to the fact that Tagore saw this relationship in civilizational
terms. He made that visit to China 87 years ago and he went to China with a
message of brotherhood and of fraternal partnership which he felt symbolized
the relations between the two countries.
His vision was of a mutually beneficial interactive relationship between two
great civilizations and he passionately advocated the opening of a path between
the two countries. So in a sense what we try to do today and the path we seek
to chart in the relationship can I believe draw inspiration from the work of
scholars like Tagore. Tagore is important also because it was his effort that
really initiated a more scientific study of China and India. He set up the
“Cheena Bhavana” in Shantiniketan, which is the university town where he
established the Vishwabharati, literally a world Indian university.
Something of that spirit we try to revive today when we look
at the re-establishment of the Nalanda University in Bihar. Nalanda University
again was the world university in the Buddhist era of our history and was
destroyed a few centuries ago and out of the East Asia Summit, in which India
is involved, has come this idea that we should revive the Nalanda University
and make it once again the world centre of learning.
The Chinese scholar Ji Xianlin, who died two years ago, and one of China’s most
famous modern Indologisst, spoke about “lives being mortgaged to pilgrimage”,
and the pilgrims of the Buddhist era between India and China did just that -
they mortgaged their lives to pilgrimage, to scholarship and to debate. When
you talk of today, it is fashionable to talk about the competition between
India and China. But when you look back at that time, the centuries of contact
at that particular period of history, it was more defined not so much in terms
of contest or conflict or competition but in terms of debate and the traffic of
That is really what Tagore and his outlook on China was all about. In fact, I
would like to also quote something that Ji Xianlin said when he spoke of China
and India standing simultaneously on the Asian continent with their
relationship created by heaven and constructed by earth.
So I thought I would speak about the interactions in the
21st century but before that I wanted to give you an idea about the matrix in
which this relationship is placed today and for that you really have to go back
to the fifties of the last century when India was newly independent and the
People’s Republic of China had just been established and this was the time when
both our countries in the sense re-discovered each other seeking to grasp the
sense of synergy between two of the largest populated countries in the world on
a global stage.
This sense of developing a synergy is an unfinished agenda because today as
India and China regain our place in Asia and the world as leading global
economies, we are trying through the relationship that we have, to craft that
sense of synergy while being aware constantly of the complexities in the
relationship and the unfinished agenda when it comes to complete normalization.
There is awareness of course of the muffled footsteps, as
Tagore said of historical contact between our two peoples. The fact was this
inspired the well intentioned efforts in the fifties to build the Panchsheela
or the five principles of peaceful co-existence, an attempt that was star
crossed in many senses, because it faltered and telescoped into the troubled
phase which enveloped our relationship in the sixties and up until the
mid-seventies because of the conflict over the boundary.
Through those difficult days, however, the leadership in both countries, in
essence understood the untenability of protracted estrangement between India
and China. And so in the last three decades, we have made concerted efforts to
establish a framework for a stable, a more productive and a multi-sectoral
relationship between India and China; where we have sought to manage
contradictions and where differences have not prevented our expanding bilateral
engagement and the building of congruent scenarios where we can build such
congruence. So, in a sense, the warp and weft of the relationship, have
elements of cooperation and elements of competition. And let me speak to you a
little about the specifics of that engagement.
Why I think it is important that we focus more intensively
on this relationship between India and China is because also today there is a
very heightened sense of awareness of what Asia’s identity can be in the 21st
century. When it comes to focusing on Asia, you are bound to focus on these two
largest countries of Asia, India and China. And there again, I think, ancient ideas
don’t need to be antiquated and the sense of Asia, the Asia of the past where
people spoke of literally a common economic space, where you had an approach
that was defined by secularism and a complementariness of interests, a balanced
commercial equilibrium, enhanced by a concept of spiritual unity, this is
really what our forefathers engaged in when they looked at the interactions
between countries in Asia; marked by a sense of tolerance, openness and lack of
prejudice to outsiders, a spirit of enterprise and absence of trade barriers.
In a sense, the past should serve as a rough guide to the future. That is
exactly what people like Tagore had in mind when they spoke of India and China
Let me come back to the current relationship between India and China. When you
look at the challenges between the two countries that confront us, we also see
opportunities. As our Prime Minister said, “you have an image before you of
India and China continuing to grow very fast simultaneously and our policies
will have to cater to these emerging realities of the rise of these two
countries, just of the two countries themselves”.
For us, the situation is definitely complex since China is
our largest neighbor and also because China is today a major power in the
world, both from the traditional geopolitical point of view as well as the more
current geo economic point of view. In the world of today, China is a factor in
several equations and, therefore, it is intellectually satisfying, once again
let me comeback to the subject of scholarship, to look more closely at all
facets of China.
As a nation we therefore believe we would like to encourage more efforts to
accelerate an intellectual drive to understand China better. In fact when
Premier Wen Jiabao came, one of the announcements that is reflected in the
joint statement, issued at the end of that visit, is that Mandarin Chinese will
be taught as a subject in our schools from middle school onwards, commencing
with this year. So this is a reflection of the interest that Indians take in
China today and the desire to understand China more comprehensively and more
Now we all know China’s rapid economic growth over the last three decades has
been spectacular and riveting. It is now the second largest economy in the
world with a huge GDP of roughly 5.5 trillion US Dollars and its youth,
particularly, among its people seem focused on improving their living standards
in the quest for a more prosperous future and certainly politics does not seem
to define their everyday if you look at the contrast between India and China.
China has, of course, begun to deal in the currency of
global power and its economic success is impacting its foreign defense and
security policies. Now the appellation of assertiveness is frequently applied
to China’s global profile today. The question that I’m always asked is whether
our relationship with China will be one dominated by increasing competition for
influence and for resources as our economic needs also grow. But I really
believe that neither of us have a luxury of seeing each other in purely
antagonistic terms. The view that India and China are rivals to me is a over
generalization as well as an over simplification of a complex relationship
which encompasses so many diverse issues.
I believe that the proposition of competition and rivalries should not be
exaggerated in a manner that it over shadows our genuine attempts to manage and
transact a rationally determined relationship between India and China. The
reality is that both our countries have worked hard over the last two decades
to enhance dialogue in a number of fields and we must maintain and build on
that trend. At the same time, it is true that divergences persist, and that
there is no denying the fact that we have a disputed border. There are legacies
as well as lessons bequeathed to us by history.
The boundary question is a complex problem. The cartographies that define
national identity are internalized in the minds of people of both countries. At
the same time, we are making a serious attempt to arrive at a fair, reasonable
and mutually acceptable solution of the boundary question as the recent
fourteenth round of talks of the special representatives, appointed by both
governments, will testify.
The absence of a solution to the question is not due to lack
of effort; instead it arises from the difficulty of the question itself, as any
analyst in the audience would surely appreciate. What also needs to be
appreciated is that the India-China boundary is, one of the most peaceful of
all borders. We have in place an organized set of measures or what we call the
confidence building measures, or CBMs, to ensure peace or tranquility in the
border areas. We are currently talking to each other on establishing more such
mechanisms. I believe there is maturity on both sides to understand the
complexity of the issue and to insulate it from affecting our boarder
relationship. I believe this policy has paid dividends and has contributed
towards reducing the possibility of conflict.
I would like to delve briefly on defense exchanges between India and China
because when you talk about the boundary question, you also dwell on the role
of what the respective defense establishments would be. We have had defence
exchanges between India and China, including small scale anti-terrorism related
military exercises. At present, our high level military exchanges are on hold
and I do not know how many of you are following this debate in the media, of
late, but some differences have arisen over the fact that China recently did
not accept an army delegation from our northern command. The northern command
covers Jammu and Kashmir and the Chinese said that they would not be in a
position to accept that delegation which was a point of view that we did not
agree with. So consequent upon that, defence exchanges have not moved forward
because there has been a certain trough that has been created by this. But, all
the same, flag meetings of border personnel along the line of actual control have
continued. So, the situation in the border areas remains tranquil.
So, when it comes to defence exchanges I believe it would be
right for me to say that there is desire to slowly expand these exchanges that
there have been limits to this process. And, I think that a question here again
which is debated quite often these days is about the role of the Peoples
Liberation Army. Is it more assertive than before? What is the contribution it
makes to the formation of foreign policy vis-à-vis China’s neighbours? I think
this is a subject we can talk about at length but if I were to dwell on it for
longer my speech would be too extended.
Talking about brighter spots in our relationship I would look at the economic
interaction or commercial interaction. China as you know is now India’s largest
trading partner. Trade was 61.7 billion US dollars at the end of last year,
2010. There is an imbalance in trade, however, our exports were 20.8 billion
dollars to China while our imports from China were 40.9 billion dollars. So the
trade deficit is a worrying. Given the composition of our trade, we export a
lot of raw materials and raw commodities to China and China exports a lot of
finished goods, machinery and huge infrastructure related machinery to India.
We would like to sell more value added products to China
including pharmaceuticals and computer software. However, the Chinese
Government, in our view, will have to dismantle non-tariff barriers to such
trade and provide us greater market access. Challenges in the medium term
include attracting Chinese companies to invest in and manufacture from India.
This will provide jobs and this is a huge thing in India as it is in the United
States. I think this would be a good move for the Chinese to make in order to
address some of the misgivings we have as far as the imbalance in the business
and commercial relationship is concerned. We would like to see greater Chinese
participation in building infrastructure in India including financing of such
Similarly, science and technology exchanges are not very vibrant and both sides
again have much to learn from each other. There is potential for the future,
here I would just like to dwell on something that would be of interest. When
Premier Wen Jiabao was in India last December, he met with a section of media
and academic and cultural personalities on how to improve perceptions of
Indians and Chinese about each other. You see there is also an information and
perceptional gap between the two countries. When you talk to the average
Chinese, they do not know very much about India and the idea of Indian
democracy and the seeming chaos that they associate with Indian democracy seems
very foreign to the Chinese mind and that, I think, comes from a lack of
understanding of the way these processes work and a distance in terms of really
seeing India up and close, visiting India more often and trying to engage with
I think there is a gulf to be bridged there and I think this
is what Premier Wen set out to do when he met with a cross section of these
people. One of the ideas that came out from that meeting was that we should
really be looking at more interaction between the two countries in innovation
in technology and cientific exchanges which we are not doing very much at the
moment. For instance, India and Japan cooperate now a great deal in this area.
Not just in infrastructure creation but also between scientific and academic
institutions. Japan is setting up a new IIT in India in Hyderabad. So there is
a lot of interaction that goes on with many of our other partners. With China
that has not yet taken off.
Similarly, people to people exchanges are not very sizeable at present and we
should expand these contacts. Tourism from China is still very small. However,
there are 7000 Indian students studying in China today and most of them study
medicine, what’s interesting is, apart from the fact that they are studying
western medicine in China, they are located all over China and they come from
every part of India. It is not that they come from the big cities of Delhi,
Mumbai or Chennai or Calcutta. They come from the small district towns, small
provincial areas and they are in the heartland of China, right in the interior
studying and spending four to five years there. So there is a whole new
generation of Indians being exposed to China in that way.
Similarly there are a number of Chinese students in India but nowhere near the
numbers that we have in China. As I mentioned we’ve also introduced Chinese as
a foreign language for study in our schools and we want to prepare our younger
generation for this new relationship that we are building with China.
Similarly in the global area in organizations such as the
Brazil, Russia, India, China, BRIC forum, which will soon be expanded to
include South Africa when the BRIC countries meet in China two months from now,
and also in the BASICgroupn the field of environment in the Conference of
Parties on the environment, China and India have been cooperating very closely
as also in the G-20 where we are both important member countries that discuss
and influence reform of international financial institutions.
So, here again, multilaterally the scope for cooperation has broadened and
deepened and at the leadership level, it may or may not come as a surprise to
you that our leaders have been meeting very frequently. In fact, Prime Minister
met Mr. Hu Jintao twelve times between 2005 and 2010 and he met Premier Wen
Jiabao eleven times, in that same period. So there is very frequent communication
and contact between the two sides.
Today we are called strategic and cooperative partners for peace and
prosperity. That is how India and China define their relations and the
relationship as I said has become increasingly multi-faceted where closely
interacting with each other in a number of areas and also as I said on issues
concerning the global economic situation.
Just recently as a follow up as a result of Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit in
December, our two Governments have decided to institute a strategic economic
dialogue, as a measure of the increasing complexity and sophistication of the
dialogue on economic issues. So we will just commence that new dialogue this
year. This is a new addition to what we do in the relationship.
The challenge I believe in this century, when it comes to
India and China, and this is a relationship that is really going to be, I would
not be exaggerating when I draw reference to what a Chinese scholar Tan Yun
Shan said about Sino-Indian relations being “the most important of the most
important”. I think when it comes to the relationship between these two big
Asian giants, a lot of what happens in this relationship will impact the
situation in our region and particularly when it comes to the economic strength
the rising economic strength of both these countries the world certainly is
watching and assessing the impact of this relationship.
Before I conclude, I should also refer to the fact of China’s relationship with
Pakistan. There is also that question that comes up and most people who follow
this whole issue would be interested in hearing our views on it.
Pakistan is one of our important neighbours and we believe that a stable
Pakistan, a prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. And we are not against
Pakistan’s relations with other countries. We do not believe relationships with
countries are zero sum games. At the same time we do not hesitate to stress our
genuine concerns regarding some aspects of the Pakistan-China relationship
particularly when it comes to China’s presence in Pakistan occupied Kashmir,
China’s policy on Jammu and Kashmir and China-Pakistan security and nuclear
relationship. Here we have welcomed a more open discussion with China on these
issues and I believe as mutual confidence grows in this relationship we will
have more opportunities to discuss these issues and also to seek more clarity
and more transparency in regard to the concerns that we have raised.
The issue of giving stapled visas to Indian nationals from
the state of Jammu and Kashmir also arises in a similar context. So these are
issues that are of concern to us when it comes to the China-Pakistan
relationship. Because when China gives the stapled visa to an Indian living in
Jammu and Kashmir, the inference that we draw out of this is somehow the status
of Jammu and Kashmir is being questioned by China. The issue of Indian
sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir is being questioned by China. This is an
issue that we need to resolve. The Chinese Government has told us that they are
giving serious attention to this and they would like to see this resolved and
we are hoping that there would be satisfactory resolution to this.
We believe that the India-China relationship will grow even stronger once China
show more sensitivity on these core issues that we feel impinge our sovereignty
and our territorial integrity and we hope that this can be realized.
Finally, what I would like to say is that, people talk about security
architectures for Asia. Here again there is immense scope for India and China
to engage in closer dialogue with each other. Because there are issues of
maritime security, the issues concerning global commerce in our region, the
issue of terrorism, the issue of just ensuring that we have a peaceful
periphery; all these we share common concerns. We have stressed rather than
excluding China from any debate or discussion on security in our region, it
would be rational to follow up more inclusive approach that involves more
engagement with China, more discussion, more exchange of ideas with Chinese
stakeholders, so that we have a balanced and inclusive security architecture in
our region. And this will support India and China.
As India and China pursue their interests, so long as their
overwhelming preoccupation remains their domestic transformation, both of us
will understand that the realization of this goal requires a peaceful
environment around us. As I said before, there will be elements of competition
in our bilateral relationship but these can be managed so that the are elements
of congruence or common ground, as Permier Chou en Lai said so long ago, can be
As our interests gets progressively more complex, at the same time the costs of
any withdrawal from engagement will also rise. So, I believe ultimately that
this is a big relationship with the clear possibility of both sides pursuing an
ambitious agenda for mutual engagement that will make this relationship one of
the most important bilateral equations of our century. It is in our interest,
therefore, I believe to view it in a more wide angled and a higher definition
manner than we have never done before.
I will stop here and take questions.
Question: you gave a wonderful description of the India and China relationship starting
from before Christ. In the beginning, it was a very good relationship between
India and China. and now we are making effort to get back to that stage. In
between, the friction, I think, occurred due to the border problem started in
the early 60s. That was because General Mac Mahon drew up a line between these
two countries. When he drew up, was China aware of the problem that it was not
acceptable to them? If so, why suddenly did this issue come up later and even
when Nehru was talking to Chou en Lai, Hindi-Chini bhai bhai, did they bring up
this issue at all? If you can throw some light on this.
Answer: I will try to answer this as brief as I can because it is a
subject of very lengthy expositions of who is right and who is wrong. But as
far as the MacMahon line is concerned, this is something that goes back to
1913-14. It was a line that was drawn on the map in the eastern sector of the
India-China border in the early years of the 20th century. When India became
independent that was recognized as the border in the eastern sector between
India and China. Now, it so happened that in the 50s was India and China began
to talk about these issues for the first time, previous to that, in the British
colonial period up until 1947, China and India had never spoken about these
There was some correspondence that was exchanged with the Tibetan establishment
in Lhasa between the British Indian Government and the Tibetan establishment in
Lhasa, but not really with the Chinese Government to discuss how they saw this
particular delineation of the boundary in the particular location I referred
In the 50s when it began to be discussed for the first time
that is when the Chinese ventilated their objections, or their views about this
section of the bou,nndary saying that it would not be possible for them to
accept it. But, however, let me add that at that time when we discussed it,
between the two sides the impression or the indication given by the Chinese
were that they were prepared to take a realistic view of the situation and they
did that, in fact, with Burma. The section of the Mac Mahon Line that covers
the Burma-Tibet frontier was in a sense settled on the basis of that Line in
the discussions held between the Burmese and the Chinese Governments in the
late 1950’s and signed, sealed and settled in 1960 when they had their boundary
agreement. But when it comes to the Indian section of that Mac Mahon Line it is
still to be recognized by China. China has said that they do not accept the Mac
Mahon Line in the eastern sector.
Question: I am the faculty member who teaches the course on Indo-Chinese interactions and
I have many students here and I can tell you each year I teach the course more
and more students attend of their interest in this relationship. Of particular
concern in this relationship as you mentioned is the border war. In trips to
both India and China I’ve heard the members of the military establishment,
particularly in India take a very hawkish stand on this border issue. Given
your commitment to the fact that there are segments of Indian and Chinese
leadership who see this border issue in broader terms and do seek the
possibilities of reconciliation, I wonder how much has the Indian Government as
well as the Chinese Government put money to the fostering a new generation of
thinkers about this border war. Because if there is no commitment by the
governments to develop this new generation of thinkers then the leadership
establishment will continue to think in old terms. And we will just be talking
past one another.
Answer: I think you have raised an extremely important issue and how do you break down
certain approaches to a very difficult and complex problem. Obviously it will
not go away easily, you have to find a way to not allow it to acquire
dimensions that will only aggravate tensions between the two countries. So the
challenge is to manage this problem and manage the situation in a manner that
enables you to broaden engagement in many areas and to encourage scholars on
both sides to discuss and to come out with solutions that take into account
current realities and make it possible for relationships that have existed for
centuries between the border communities on both sides to be revived once
And in fact I don’t know if you know Dr Patricia Oberoi. She
had a very interesting take on this very recently. Right now the institution of
the nation state is defined by territorial boundaries. Patricia talks about
this, “how with this concept, come notions of center and periphery, mainland
and margins and the justified use of force in their defence”. As she says,
maybe somebody like Tagore, would have thought of frontier zones between the
two countries as revolving doors as creative spaces where civilizations meet,
not as troubled spots of contemporary geo-politics. So with this sort of
sustainability if we can create a relationship would be I think useful, but it
will require immense rethinking for both our countries to look it that way.
That will be the challenge. When you talk about the military establishment in
India, I would hesitate using the word hawkish, as I deal with them constantly.
They are committed to an engagement with China that enables the better
understanding of each others positions, with the goal being that we do not
allow tensions to escalate along our common borders.
We have many ideas that I think if were put into practice,
which involves a pragmatic recognition of realities as they exist today - how
can we improve communication, how can we strengthen border trade, how do we enable
contact between communities on both sides and how do we put in place confidence
building measures that enables the armies of the two sides to be able to
operate in a manner that does not increase tension.
It is a question of management of border regime that is effective and enables
normalcy to prevail even if you have not really drawn a line on the map that is
mutually agreed between the two countries which may take time.
Question: This is Betwa Sharma from the Press Trust of India. Madam,
could you speak a little bit about how China feels about India becoming a
permanent member of the Security Council and also last year President Obama was
very forthright in his endorsement of India. Does India want such an
endorsement from China? Is it forthcoming and what is the current status like?
Answer: Since this question is from PTI, I am sure that you are looking at the next
newspaper headline. But I would answer in as matter of fact manner as I can. Of
course, it will be useful for China to endorse India’s desire and claim to be a
permanent member of Security Council. What China has said so far is that it
understands India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations
and it has basically stopped there.
Following President Obama’s endorsement of India’s candidature, you had Premier
Wen Jiabao come to India. Let me say that the discussions we had with Premier
Wen on that occasion were useful and certainly I think there is much greater
awareness on China’s part about India’s aspirations to become a permanent
member of the Security Council. Indeed, the ground swell support within the
United Nations -we were just doing a tally the other day that, I think, 128
member countries of the United Nations have expressed their support for India’s
candidature in terms of just India’s candidature. Of course, I am very
conscious about the realities and much more work has to be done in this regard
and it is not going to happen tomorrow or day after tomorrow. But my own
feeling is that when it really comes, and I am accused of being unduly
optimistic, but if it comes to the decision making point, where it is the
question of the Security Council being expanded and India being admitted, I
doubt very much if China would oppose that move when it comes to that. But as
of now, China is not expressing itself openly in favour of India’s candidature.
Question: One of the faculty here and also an India-China fellow. I visited Yunnan last
year and I was quite struck by the senior policy makers and their eagerness to
improve their ties with the border regions of India. At the same time within
India, there has been some muted disappointment on our improvement in
interactions across North-East India. Perhaps our expectations were too high.
My question is can you tell a little bit about the challenges in the
normalizing the situation in North-East India.
Answer: When I look at North-East India, I say India is a South-East
Asian nation. Honestly, because South-East Asia begins in North-East India
because of the similarities between the eight states of North-East India and
the South-East Asia. When you look at Yunnan, it is still a little distant.
Yes, in history, there have been a lot of cross cultural links, ethnic mixtures
between North-Eastern India, South-East Asia and South-West China. Geo-politics
has today created a lot of distances - political, geographic and emotional.
There are a lot of gaps that we need to bridge, that may not happen
immediately. But let us start with closer linkages between North-East India and
South-East Asia, for instance. Already to link Burma with Manipur, we are
talking of better roads, border trade and connectivity through Myanmar, through
Burma to Thailand and then onwards to the rest of South-East Asia. If relations
between India and China, particularly on the boundary question, improve and
there is greater level of confidence, one can think of more communication with
those parts of China that are close to South-East Asia and to North-East India.
But I do not believe it is going to happen immediately.
Speech by Foreign Secretary on “Prospects and Challenges of India China
Interactions in the 21st Century” at the India China Institute, The New School,
February 12, 2011