While India and China are Asia’s two largest neighbors and the most populous nations in the world, their high-level political contact is limited and more so in the defense sector. Thus the visit of a Chinese Defence Minister to India may be deemed a significant event – more so when the last such visit took place eight years ago in 2004. Furthermore, this visit was scheduled at   Beijing’s request and comes at a time when China is preparing for its leadership change at the national apex and President Hu Jintao will step down.

Hu Jintao visited India from September 2 -6  and alas, the visit received  more notice for the surprise cash gift that the visiting dignitary gave to the Indian Air Force pilots  who flew him in the special  VIP aircraft.   Clearly this was a protocol error on the Chinese side and the rather awkward matter was resolved with the pilots reporting the matter to their HQ.    A decision was then taken by the Indian government that the money (rupees one lakh in total)  would be  deposited in the  ‘toshkana’ – and  not returned politely, as one would have expected  – lest the Chinese sensitivity be offended. 

The symbolism in the manner in which this mater  unfolded – first the cash gift by the Chinese Minister  and then the Indian response may offer some indicators about the nature of the India-China relationship over the last 50 years – and the likely trajectory in the near future.

It is instructive that General Liang  chose to visit India  in the 50th anniversary of the 1962   Sino-Indian  border war,   which  has left a deep scar on the collective Indian consciousness.  Deemed to be  Mao’s  ‘lesson ‘  to  Nehru – the Chinese military  advance that took India by total surprise began on October 20, 1962 against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis that pitted the former USSR against the US led western alliance. 

For India this war was a national trauma  and  PM Nehru never recovered from the humiliation  that followed.  The war and its disastrous consequences revealed the glaring inadequacies in India’s higher defence management and  the political understanding  of the tenets of statecraft.  It is moot if  the Indian  leadership – drawn from all constituencies of a vibrant democracy – has indeed  learnt  the appropriate lessons from 1962.  My own assessment  is -  regrettably no. 

Over the last 50 years, China with its  single-party communist  rule that brooks no dissent (recall Tienanmen of 1989 )   has moved   steadily ahead of India  by way of accretion of comprehensive national power.  For China, the relationship with India  was   secondary – and till recently  Beijing was dismissive and  peremptory.  India  had limited maneuverability by way of how it dealt with  China  in the latter phase of the Cold War and the US-China entente  was a challenge. 

However ,  the post 1962  rapprochement    began with PM  Rajiv Gandhi’s   visit to  Beijing  in 1988.    Yet  bi-lateral relations were strained and further aggravated by the opaque Sino-Pakistan nuclear weapon  and missile cooperation ,  which in turn allowed  the Pakistani military to engage in nuclear weapon enabled terror (NWET)  against India. 

In the intervening decades, India has become a declared nuclear weapon power, demonstrated its  restraint and status quo nature in the 1999 Kargil War  and finally managed to re-arrange its  estranged  relationship with the USA over the complex nuclear issue. Each of these three developments have a co-relation with the India-China bi-lateral relationship  and the Liang visit  has to be contextualized against this backdrop. 

At the global level, the post 9/11 US military initiatives in Afghanistan first and then Iraq  and  now back to Af-Pak  have also altered the nature of the US-China relationship.  India in turn is affected by these developments. 

Deep wariness is an inherent element of the Sino-Indian relationship and  given the many complex and unresolved  issues between Delhi and Beijing,  the joint communique issued by both sides at the end of the Liang visit  is very  significant. Reiterating their commitment to improve the relationship, it noted:  “ They also discussed the regional security situation and international issues of common interest and concern. Both Ministers agreed that expanding bilateral cooperation between the Defence Ministries and Armed Forces of India and China helps enhance mutual trust, deepens friendship and promotes comprehensive development of the India-China Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity.”

The regional security issues  range from  religious extremism and related  terror which China is very concerned  about and the post 2014 scenario in the Af-Pak region,  to developments in the Indian Ocean.  Sustained consultation between India and China on all these issues is desirable and it is hoped that the legitimate security  and strategic interests of both countries are respected and accommodated . This   mutuality  is currently absent in the bi-lateral relationship.

In yet another  significant but little noticed section of the joint communique –  the last bullet point  avers that both countries will : “Work together to maintain peace and stability of the Asia- Pacific region.”  Given recent developments in the South China Sea and  India’s own interest in that region, this  acknowledgement of  Delhi’s  relevance in the Asia-Pacific is welcome – and to be cautiously interpreted. 

The challenge for India and China is to evolve a framework wherein their legitimate security interests are identified and accepted in a consensual manner and then accommodated in a progressive  and equitable manner. 

India’s subaltern status and the Sino-Pak alliance has posed many hurdles in the past – but there are opportunities in the future. These need to be recognized but if the cash-gift symbolism is to be recalled – India constantly deferring to perceived  Chinese sensitivities  is not the recipe for an abiding and equitable relationship. Delhi has to internalize many lessons from 1962 as it prepares to deal with its largest neighbor and a  major trading partner over the next decade.