India–China Creating “Social Basis” For Bilateral Relations

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India to strengthen the “Wuhan spirit”–the consensus that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived at during their informal meeting at Wuhan in April. As a part of enhancing the “strategic communications” between the two countries, Wang began a new chapter in the bilateral relations with emphasis on the “soft” aspects of the bilateral relations–that is high-level people-to-people and cultural exchanges.

As civilizational states, soft power is not alien to India and China. However, a new twist was provided by this visit to enhance what External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj mentioned as ten “pillars”, viz., enhancing cultural exchanges, spread of film and TV shows, sports, tourism, museum administration, youth exchanges, sister city interactions, traditional medicine, yoga and language teaching. The Indian side depicted these measures as “positive and productive”, although the contentious “hard issues” such as border stability and mounting trade deficits also were raised and agreed to be discussed later.
Many of these issues are not new to the bilateral relations. Indeed, several Memoranda of Uderstandings (MoUs) have been concluded in the last three decades between India and China, including on the 1,000-odd youth exchanges, 32 educational scholarships a year, “friendship year”, book fairs, film distribution, yoga and Gandhi centres, Nalanda University, sports etc. Bollywood movies have carved out niche areas in China. Tourism, despite initiating e-visa facilities, remains low with only 240,000 Chinese visitors coming to India (mainly to Buddhist sites) compared to 1.4 million Indian visitors to China annually.
However, in the current round of discussions, over 40 items on which some progress has been achieved have been merged in the new format to provide a new thrust to the bilateral relations.
The recent spate of border transgressions, particularly the Doklam standoff in 2017 had rattled the bilateral relations. China’s “three warfares”, viz., media, legal and psychological warfares have not been able to dent into the resolve of the Indian side. On the other hand, excessive and negative propaganda of China had only increased negative feelings in India. For a country involved in a spate of debilitating tariff wars with the United States, alienation of the Indian opinion seemed to be too costly to ignore.
Terming the time “favourable”, Wang’s mission to India is cut out to enhance “greater synergies” as he mentioned. Duet, not duel, should replace the current discourse according to Wang. The thrust areas of focus in the slogan of “from the people to the people” still are the recent initiatives such as media and think-tank fora, in addition to utilising other platforms like the BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), East Asian Summit and Ancient Civilisations Forum.
These carefully orchestrated initiatives, when implemented, are to generate the “social basis” for the bilateral relations, given the acute acrimony that characterised the discourse pre and post Doklam crisis, specifically in the Chinese domestic debates. Today, China’s nationalism is directed against the United States and Japan. India is still not on the radar screen and it makes political sense for the Chinese leadership not to alienate India.
As there is a logjam with no quick progress on several contentious issues– such as the unresolved territorial dispute, increase in military capabilities, China’s transfer of conventional and strategic weapons to Pakistan, India’s non-participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and others–it appears that Beijing now sees soft power expansion with New Delhi could be the only course out of this imbroglio.
In 1988, a similar moment was generated in the bilateral relations between the two countries following then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing. China insisted that pending territorial dispute resolution by a “next generation”, other areas of bilateral relations could be explored. However, three decades of trade relations indicated to mounting trade deficits for India – about $ 626 billion in the last decade alone. Also, while functional and pragmatic cooperation on soft issues could be made, structural approaches should be made on contentious issues as well in the coming years.
Script: Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli, Chair, East Asia Centre, JNU