Forging A New Narrative in Sino-Indian Relations

By Ritika Bhasker

Defusing tension between rising neighbors India & China remains a challenge. Source: rajkumar1220's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

At first glance, the future may not look too bright for Sino-Indian relations. Historically contentious issues still rattle the relationship: China recently released a documentary accusing the Dalai Lama of orchestrating a recent wave of self-immolations by Tibetans; there are continuing diplomatic stand-stills as a result of both countries’ refusal to acknowledge the others’ sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet; and border tensions have been a feature of the relationship since the Sino-Indian war of 1962.

However, experts at a recent CSIS event that explored the current status of the Sino-Indian relationship painted a more nuanced and complex picture: all may not be well between China and India, but both nations have managed to table the most contentious issues that might otherwise hinder cooperation in other areas of the relationship. And it’s worked for them so far. The Sino-Indian relationship— admittedly one of mutual cooperation and accommodation— has been informed by carefully avoiding the historic narratives of the Dalai Lama, sovereignty, and the memory of the 1962 war. However, to achieve a fully co-operative relationship, both nations need to demonstrate the political will to re-assess and re-configure the narrative that defines it.

The fast growing defense spending by both nations, which some in the media have dubbed a new Asian arms race, makes the policy of mutual accommodation between China and India seem particularly important. And the media narratives employed in both countries have not helped: while the Chinese and Indian governments have attempted to keep relations civil, the media outlets—especially in India—have a tendency to paint the Sino-Indian relationship with sensationalism and nationalism. The most recent example of this was India’s recent testing of the Agni-V: the Indian media made repeated references to it as a missile capable of reaching Beijing while the Chinese state-run newspapers responded by declaring that “India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.”

The Sino-India relationship has moved forward slowly as a result of both nations carefully tiptoeing around the issues that could ignite a conflict, but the problems that hold them back from an open and fully co-operative relationship will eventually have to be addressed. The panelists at the CSIS Sino-India event suggested that the solutions to these roadblocks in the Sino-India relationship had to come from stronger political will on the parts of the leaders of both nations, better regional co-operation, and a more nuanced understanding of their respective cultures.

If a more positive relationship is to be forged, there is a need for both countries to turn to different channels in order to reassess the historical narratives that define the relationship and turn to a new narrative—based on mutual respect and understanding— upon which to build their future relationship. Increased cultural cooperation between the two nations, more joint initiatives that allow both societies to see the other as a partner rather than a threat, and most importantly, a responsible press which addresses issues without sensationalism will be integral to developing a more nuanced relationship at the public level.

The world has a vested interest in a future of mutual co-operation between China and India, but the way forward lies in the leaders, the press, and the citizens of both nations to generate a new, more positive, narrative.

Ms. Ritika Bhasker is a research intern with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S. – India Policy Studies at CSIS.


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