"Go-karting is what's going on between India and China." This is how a retired senior Indian diplomat, in a recent conversation with me, described the current play of India-China relations. The description - two go-karts trying to hit each other as they race along the track - is vivid, apt and, well, very scary.
If this was being done for a bit of fun, there would be no problems. We've seen how kids, sometimes even adults, drive small electrically powered cars at an amusement park with the aim of bumping into other's cars in an enclosure. These dodgems don't hurt. Moreover, once the game is over, the "rivals" burst into laughter and handshakes suggesting what an enjoyable time they both had.
Obviously, this is not what the Indian diplomat, who has served in China, was suggesting.
Go-karting experts warn that when high-speed racing karts are used, both sides should follow the rules of the game. Rule 1: No bumping. Always give your fellow driver racing room and respect. Do not hit each other or the walls. Rule 2: Win with your own skill and persistence, not by creating obstructions or problems for the other. The world respects champions who win on fair play. New Delhi and Beijing should heed this warning.
Sadly, this warning remains unheeded, as is evident from a series of acts of provocative diplomacy by both India and China. Predictably, our bilateral relations have hit a rough patch. Each side has shown insufficient respect to the core concerns of the other.
China's stand on India's move to join the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) has been obstructionist. Its repeated exercise of veto at the UNSC on a resolution to declare Masood Azhar as a terrorist has been unfriendly and unprincipled. There was a time, not long ago, when Beijing seemed keen to maintain more or less balanced relations with both Islamabad and New Delhi, recognising the latter's growing economic profile. However, now Beijing is so heavily tilted towards Islamabad that it is willing to appease Pakistan even on the issue of terrorism.
On its part, India has chosen to play the Tibet Card, which too is unfriendly and unprincipled. Moreover, it is reckless and myopically combative. In another display of shortsightedness, the current mainstream Indian discourse on India-US ties does not even attempt to hide the fact that one of their principal joint objectives is to contain China. This was again evident after the recent Modi-Trump meeting in Washington DC. The thinking among policy-makers in New Delhi, and of course among the ultra-nationalist supporters of the BJP, seems to be: "If Beijing is provoked by India siding with the US in a covert "contain-China" policy, so be it. We don't care."
The Modi government has provoked China also by opposing president Xi Jinping's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not realising that India can gain a lot by participating in it without compromising the principle of sovereignty. Not content with boycotting the big BRI summit in Beijing in mid-May, New Delhi issued a statement showing its objections to China's grandiose initiative go far beyond the fact that the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Rather, it sought to tell the world that BRI is financially and environmentally unsustainable, and detrimental to those who join it.
This kind of go-karting was bound to bring the India-China friction to the fore. Indeed, this has happened in the form of the latest, and potentially dangerous, skirmish between our two armies at the tri-junction of the India-China-Bhutan border. Claiming Indian troops "trespassed" into its territory, the People's Liberation Army has demanded their withdrawal. Furthermore, it has made troop withdrawal a condition for further talks to normalise the situation. In a rare and blatantly unfriendly display of military belligerence, PLA has also said India should learn "historical lessons", an obvious reference to the 1962 war in which India suffered defeat. The ultra-nationalists in the Chinese establishment seem to think: "If reminding Indians of their defeat in a previous war increases their mistrust towards China, so be it. We don't care."
The situation is serious. Just how serious? This is what another retired Indian diplomat, who too has served in China, recently told me, well before the recent military clash hit the headlines: "The bilateral relations between India and China, if not properly handled, could create a situation similar to what prevailed before the outbreak of the 1962 war."
The steady erosion of mutual trust between New Delhi and Beijing in the past couple of years has deeply saddened all those Indians and Chinese who have been striving for harmonious and cooperative relations between our two great ancient nations. Prof Ma Jiali, a well-known Chinese scholar and a true friend of India (he is associated the China Reform Forum in Beijing), said to me: "With a lot of effort on both sides, India-China relations had become steady in the last decade and in the early part of this decade. Now it pains me that the graph is going down."
The latest military stand-off involves tricky matters involving India, China and Bhutan. However, this is not the time to discuss claims and counter-claims. The most urgent task, to which both India and China must attach the highest priority, is to deescalate tension and ensure it does not erupt again. Why this must be achieved immediately is evident from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping will come face-to-face at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on 7-8 July. If the crisis is not resolved, or if it further escalates, it will cast a dark shadow over the G-20 summit and also on the BRICS summit, due to take place in September in Xiamen, China.
After the current tension is eliminated, Modi should coolly review in his own mind the up-and-down graph of India-China relations since he assumed office in May 2014. Why did the early promise of steady improvement in bilateral ties dissipate? Why did the good personal equation he had begun to strike with President Xi not sustain?
Modi should also show necessary astuteness and boldness to demonstrate to Beijing that his China policy is not formulated and articulated by the military. (The same holds true for China. PLA should not be allowed to drive China's India policy.) General Bipin Rawat's recent statement to the media that India is ready for a "two-and-a-half front war", which China has slammed as "irresponsible warmongering", was indeed irresponsible. It has triggered widespread debate in the electronic and social media, in which virulently anti-China views are being regularly aired. (In contrast, it must be pointed out that anti-India views are far less visible in the Chinese media, both traditional and online.)
One of the failures of the Modi government has been that it has allowed militarisation of the policy and public discourse on Pakistan ("Front One"), China ("Front Two") and our own Kashmiri people ("Front Half"). Frankly, there is no military solution to any of the issues pertaining to these so-called two-and-a-half fronts. However, there is one crucial difference in the way India deals with Pakistan and Kashmiris, and how it can ever deal with China. The high cost of displaying jingoism and military triumphalism in dealing with China will become immediately evident.
This does not mean India should show weakness and servility in its ties with China. Yes, India has some serious differences with China, just as China as some serious issues with India. But we are not enemies, as is suggested by Gen Rawat's "Indian army is ready on two-and-a-half fronts" formulation, or by the regular rants of our TV warriors.
Modi should know that the differences with China can be minimised - and opportunities for mutually beneficial win-win cooperation can be maximised - only through sound, sustained and farsighted political dialogue at the highest level with President Xi. As two strong leaders, they should - and the can - aim at developing strategic trust between India and China.This high-level dialogue should be combined with creative (not confrontational) diplomacy on both sides.
For me, writing this from Beijing is both agonising and ironic. I have come here to participate in the meeting of the CICA Non-Governmental Forum. India, along with China, Pakistan and 23 other Asian countries, is a member of CICA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia). India-China cooperation is critical for peace and confidence-building in Asia. Far from confidence-building, what India and China are doing is confidence-busting.
No more go-karting please. This is not an amusement game.(The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is chairman of ORF Mumbai. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.