In politics, there are no permanent friendships and enmities, only permanent interests. This Bismarckian principle is nowhere better exemplified than in the joint naval exercises recently carried out off the Shanghai coast by India and China. Beijing and New Delhi, except in the halcyon days of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Hindi Chini bhai bhai, have never been the best of friends. Relationships, at best, have been frosty ever since the Sino-Indian border skirmish of 1962. But the global ambience and the demands of realpolitik have changed too much to cling to past hostilities. Both governments, over a period of time, have decided not to beat an antique drum. On both sides, gestures have been made to place Indo-Chinese relationships on a more realistic level where dialogue and a certain amount of cooperation are not ruled out of court. The joint naval exercise is a product of long and fruitful backroom dialogues and its political implications are perhaps more important than what they mean for the navies of the two countries. Over the years, China has changed dramatically: communism is only its rhetorical shell. Economic growth had made it open out to the world. So has India even if it has been slower to respond to global economic trends. There are clear reflections of the changed attitudes on the mirror of Sino-Indian relations. A high-powered committee has been formed to look into the border dispute and the two countries have agreed to trade through Sikkim. The latter implies that China has accepted Sikkim to be a part of India.
The cooperation is obviously based on a mutual perception that on some issues India’s and China’s interests converge. It is too early to draw any wide generalization about this convergence. But on matters arising out of trade and the World Trade Organization, India and China could both benefit from greater cooperation. With the economies of both countries burgeoning, neither wants the irritant of a border dispute to distract from their principal driving force. By befriending China, India has the advantage of using it as a counterweight against Pakistan. The latter has been China’s ally and it would be in India’s interest to drive the thin end of the wedge into this alliance. A developing relationship between India and China has the potential to act as a transforming agent in Indo-Pak relations.
There is also a wider picture to be borne in mind. The phenomenon of the United States of America as the world’s only superpower is the most significant development of the last decade. Indian foreign policy, thanks to the efforts of two prime ministers — Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao and Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee — has adjusted to this changed global environment and has also gained certain advantages from it. But there is the unexpressed discomfort with one power calling the shots in all matters of consequences. This discomfort is a factor in the closer ties that are emerging between India and China. If the dragon is no longer breathing fire, the Indian elephant has woken up to Asian and global realities.