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Speech by Ambassador Dr. S. Jaishankar at Institute for South Asian Studies, Sichuan University
Time:2009-12-17 Visited:3077

It is a great pleasure for me to speak today at the Institute for South Asian Studies.   Having taken up my responsibility as Ambassador to China in August this year, it is my first visit to Chengdu and Sichuan province.    Addressing one of the key Chinese centres for the study of India and the broader region is obviously a priority.   I thank the organizers at the Institute, the President in particular, for making this possible.   Allow me to share with you some of my initial impressions of the state of the relationship so that we could discuss the challenges and prospects that lie ahead. 

2.    My first few months as Ambassador in China were more than a little perplexing.  Rarely a week went by without an alarmist or negative story about India-China relations.   The People’s Daily   had its most commented story on “India’s unwise military moves”.   It had been preceded by a commentary titled “Veiled threat or good neighbour”.   Its views on the activities of its Indian counterpart were carried as “Indian media stinks up public opinion”. The Global Times was even harsher, with articles and commentaries amongst others on India’s “hegemonistic thinking” and “big power dreams”.   My first interview with China Daily ended up focusing on reports of incidents on our border.    Even the Beijing Review questioned the basis of our expanding economic ties.  In fairness, I must state that media coverage in India at this time also portrayed transgressions on the border with some even suggesting a larger incompatibility.  It did not take much for the international media to highlight these themes.   Think-tanks and academic institutions in both countries and then internationally began to follow suit.  Conversations with my diplomatic colleagues in Beijing indicated that they also were obviously influenced by this turn of events.  

3.    Yet, when I put down the newspaper or logged out of the computer and went to work, I was confronted with a very different picture of our ties.   The challenge, in fact, was to keep up with the increasing engagement between the two nations.   Ironically, the very period that saw such negative depiction of our ties witnessed positive meetings of our Prime Ministers at Hua Hinh and of our Foreign Ministers at Bengaluru.    Our Trade Ministers met to discuss Doha and Asian integration while our Environment Ministers were fashioning a common approach to Copenhagen.   An unprecedented engagement between our armed forces was also underway, including visits by India’s Eastern Army Commander and the PLA’s Deputy Chief of General Staff.   The Tibet Military Region Commander has just completed his first visit to India two days ago.  Bilaterally, there were trade, investment and finance conferences galore and a regular stream of visitors assess each country’s progress in virtually every sector to seek new opportunities.  Indian delegations were in China to discuss issues ranging from anti-piracy operations off Somalia to UN Peace Keeping Operations.   Our officials were interacting at a host of global events and we are having more conversations on more subjects than ever before. As the year draws close, we are actually looking at ambitious plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. 

4.    So, the question that I ask myself is how can there be such disconnect between the substance of the relationship and its projection.    Is one real and the other a concoction?  Is something getting ‘lost in translation’?  Let me attempt an answer, however tentatively.  To me, one seems to reflect our hopes and aspirations, taking into account the enormous strides we are making daily in our engagement.  The other appears more rooted in our fears and anxieties, possibly derived from past history, and prone to exaggerating our divergences.   It is easy to dismiss the latter as lacking a sense of responsibility.  But its persistence and intensity is difficult to ignore.  Perhaps, we policy-makers could have been more alert and generous in sharing our assessments.  Possibly, we have been complacent, believing that policies are self-explanatory.  The fact is that there seem to be factors of unease in our ties which need to be addressed. As the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire.  The lesson for those of us charged with building this relationship, therefore, is to pay greater attention to public perceptions of its state.  With that in mind, I thought that it would be appropriate to discuss in a spirit of candor how we can better serve our interests.  

5.    A starting point may well be the question what does China mean for India today.   I would be safe in asserting that most Indians regard China with respect for its achievements over the last three decades.  Beyond that, for some, let me be honest, China could be a source of anxiety.   For others, it could well be an opportunity.  Whichever way, China’s remarkable progress has been a strong inspiration for reform and change in India itself.    It is not an easy relationship to describe, characterized as it is by both similarities and distance.    History has been a mixed blessing and a re-discovery of affinities is long awaited.    Whatever the sentiment, there are two sharp realities about the relationship that cannot be ignored.  One, we are seeing the parallel but not congruent rise of China and India which makes an already complex matrix even more dynamic.   Second, and again this too has a time differential, we are witnessing changes on a scale that has not been seen since the rise of the US and the USSR.  It is fundamentally altering our economic, political and cultural thinking.   Whether we like it or not, India and China will necessarily have more to do with each other. We will not only be bigger in absolute terms but also each has a larger global presence.  The past, therefore, cannot serve as a guidance for the future.   Ideally, we should be shaping our ties; at the least, we should managing them; clearly, we do not have the option of neglecting them.  

6.    What could be a viable strategy in this regard?    I would venture to suggest a three-pronged strategy not just to build stronger ties but to create at the same time wider public support for that endeavour:

 

i)       Enhancement of trust and understanding is the most urgent requirement.  Our leaders have a vision of our ties that does not necessarily seem to have percolated down uniformly.  Both sides have an interest in building stakes for the other to ensure stability and growth.    We need more contacts at every level, between the bureaucracies, the military, business, academic institutions, the media and in mass perception. 

 

ii)      Differences where they exist, such as on the boundary issue, will have to be managed and not allowed to impede either functional bilateral cooperation or convergence on global issues.    In other words, activities like trade or hydrological cooperation or forums like Doha or Copenhagen should go forward on their own merit.  

 

iii)     Given the progress in our ties, we must ensure that third parties do not come in the way of further improvement.   Both sides need to be realistic as well as mutually sensitive.    When I came to China for the first time last year, I was questioned at length about Indo-US relations.  This seemed strange coming from a country whose own relations with the US were more advanced.  But it does tell us that there are still doubts to be addressed and changes to be explained.  I am sure the Chinese side would appreciate that there are similar questions about its policies in India too.    

7.    Indeed, as we set about our business, it is important to keep asking ourselves what shapes our approach to each other.   One, are our interests better served by more cooperation?   Two, do we each have a stronger hand internationally if we are seen to be cooperating more strongly?   Three, what are the costs of sub-optimal cooperation?   And four, should power be used assertively or maturely, for short-term benefits or long-term stability? 

8.    It is important as well to keep reminding ourselves that India and China continue to have a substantial convergence of interests. The Chinese economy may be much bigger, its reforms began earlier, its per-capita income is higher and its international profile larger.   My conversations with policy-makers in Beijing have  underlined their developmental priorities.   It goes without saying that India’s focus too is primarily on enhancing growth and raising standards of living.   It is even stronger than China’s, precisely because we are behind. Therefore, let us not get carried away by alarmist interpretations of each others’ ambitions. If we pursue our priorities undisturbed for another generation, a natural relationship at a higher level will come into being between us.   As our Prime Minister has stated more than once, there is enough space for both India and China to grow.

9.    What are Indian expectations of China at this stage?  I would sum it up as displaying sensitivity on what matters most to Indians, while accepting that we cannot agree on all issues just yet.    Today, combating terrorism ranks foremost among the concerns of the Indian public.  This is not about religion or territorial concerns.    It is India’s pluralism that is being attacked and China, as a pluralistic society itself, should perceive a common threat.    Second, to achieve its developmental goals, India requires a stable and harmonious environment.   China can contribute to that.  Third, just like China, India too has international aspirations and expects that its historical sympathy and understanding for China’s would be reciprocated.    A wise approach to international relations requires coming out on the right side of history. 

10.   Diplomacy is an exercise in maximizing intersections of interest and managing divergences.  In many ways, that describes my mission statement in China.   But succeeding in that endeavour requires partnerships with counterparts as well as with other players in our ties.   As my opening remarks brought out, the need of the day is more engagements and explanations.    This is a role for think-tanks and academicians waiting to be filled.  Precisely because China is rising and is a larger factor in the calculations of others, particularly neighbours, we need to interact more effectively and intensively.   I suspect that there could well be some mirror imaging in respect to changes in India.  The media coverage of the past few months has demonstrated the danger of assumptions that our policies and actions are self-explanatory.  I am sure that this Institute can play an important role as a bridge between our two countries. 

11.   I know that diplomats are professional optimists.  But even during difficult moments, I am confident that India and China are destined to build a stronger relationship.  I state this with some certainty as I am convinced that it is in the self-interest of both countries to do so.  While waiting for that to work itself out, sentiment can play an important role in accelerating this engagement.   If I am not mistaken, India was the second non-Socialist country to recognize the People’s Republic of China and the first to establish diplomatic relations.   In 2010, we will be undertaking activities in a number of Chinese cities to remind people of this, drawing on the best aspects of the past to shape a better future.  Those activities should bring us back to Chengdu and I look forward to meeting you all again.  I thank you for your attention.

 

 

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