The Chinese Puzzle

In India, China is the country we don't want to think about. They are our neighbours, right, but they seem to be from a different planet altogether. We don't understand them. We feel much closer to the British and the Americans - don't we have a shared culture and a penchant for all things English - than the Chinese. The Chinese are strange people anyway - their language undecipherable, their food unpalatable and their politics unacceptable - to us.

Just that, we can't wish them away. They share thousands of miles of borders with us, most of which is hotly disputed. We fought an war in 1962 and badly lost, which bruised our ego and made us afraid of them forever. Yes, there was a time when we extended our hand of friendship and talked about permanent peace in Asia based on Panchasheel, the five principles of Civilized behaviour. We counted the Chinese to be friendly because they were a poor nation trying to develop as we were doing at the time, and both of us had legitimate grudges against the colonialists, particularly the British. It felt all but natural that our nations should be friends. But, alas, we turned out to be the bitterest of enemies instead.

Besides, they continue to make us feel bad. Despite all the progress that we have made in the last few years, they make us feel inadequate. Our military does not stand anywhere in comparison to theirs. Our economic growth looks feeble when compared with them. While we aspire for a seat at the world top table, they already have one. They almost mock us - our pride in being democratic stands a bit exposed when we look at our poverty and illiteracy rates against the Chinese - and make us feel insecure. For this more than any other thing, we have grown cosy to the Americans, though we know that they don't care much about our well being and prosperity either.

In some way, we don't actually have a choice. Whatever we say, our nuclear arsenal is made to order for Pakistan, but will not make a dent on the Chinese. Our large army is approximately half the size of the Chinese Red Army. When we are just about getting over with our hyphenated 'India-Pakistan' stage and aspiring to be bundled as 'Chindia', the Chinese have already moved forward and the buzz is around 'Chimerica', a different league altogether. And, while we were not looking, the Chinese have come into our home turf, our neighbourhood. We gave up Burma long time ago and they built naval and airbases all over the place. They have worked with Sri Lanka and undermined our dominance; the Lankan government does not even bother telling us what they are doing with their Tamil citizens anymore. They have meddled in Bangladesh, though, for the moment, we seem to be doing okay; but we lost Nepal irretrievably to them. They call this a 'string of pearls' strategy - we are surrounded by Chinese air and naval bases - and they built it all up while we were not looking.

The problem is - we don't know what to do with them. We can be openly hostile, but that will indeed be a mistake. First of all, they are stronger. Second, we stand to lose - they have more influence internationally and can give us real hard time in getting on with our nuclear energy programme or anything else. Third, there is a real opportunity of working together with them - they also need our expertise and experience in some areas, like IT, Banking, some areas like that - and we can sell a lot of things to them. Besides, what are our options really? Working with Americans? We don't think that will fly. Americans will never want to die for us against the Chinese; rather, they would want us to become their foot soldiers and die for them when China becomes too big for them and they want to distract the Chinese with an war.

So, cooperation is possibly the way. But we don't know where we start. We collectively know so little about China. Our children don't learn the language, we don't want them to. While children all over the world are learning Chinese, we sneer at the idea. We have all kinds of Visa restrictions and we consider the sinophiles in our country traitors of some sort. We had a long tradition of thinking - of visualizing Asia as one, with India and China together providing its moral and economic vitality - but the Chinese abandoned it and then we abandoned it. It is difficult to revive that spirit all over again.

But, why not? We are an independent country after all, and should we not do what makes most sense for us. We have these newsmen and journalists who were taught in English and can only read English news: They readily tell us that we should look west. What serves them best may not actually serve us well, collectively, as a nation. It may actually be time for us to reassess our strategic options and make peace with China. It is easy to tell where we need to start - first, we have to accept that China exists and start learning about it.


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