In a Carnegie India paper, Vijay Gokhale says the most fundamental misperception between India & China is they're unable to comprehend the other’s international ambitions

New Delhi: Long before the 15 June clash in the Galwan Valley, India-China relations had been steadily declining due to rampant misperceptions and mistrust, former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale wrote in a paper for Carnegie India Wednesday.

Inability To Comprehend Each Other

“The most fundamental misperception between the two countries is the inability to comprehend each other’s international ambitions,” he wrote.

Gokhale served as the Indian Ambassador to China from January 2016 to October 2017 with his last major task to resolve the Doklam border stand-off from 16 June to 28 August 2017. He served as the foreign secretary of India from 2018 to 2020, and now works as a non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie India.

In his paper titled ‘The Road from Galwan: The Future of India-China Relations’, Gokhale pointed out that India and China stand at a crossroads with either a “path to coexistence of cooperation and competition” or “a new phase of antagonistic rivalry” ahead.

‘Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy Hardened Mutual Suspicions’

In his paper, Gokhale argued that misperceptions and mistrust occurred across three phases.

The first indication of mistrust was after the 2008 financial crisis when China began “expanding its global role”, which sparked a fear in New Delhi that China was attempting to undermine India’s interests, explained Gokhale. “In turn, New Delhi’s counter to these policies fostered an antagonistic response in Beijing,” he wrote.

The second phase was marked by new leadership in either country, which “hardened mutual suspicions”, wrote Gokhale. “[India’s] Neighbourhood First policy and closer ties with the United States were perceived negatively in China,” he added.

The term, ‘Neighbourhood First policy’, was popularised by the media after PM Modi began actively focusing on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbours, especially Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.

Beijing’s assertiveness towards this was “symbolised” in the 2017 Doklam stand-off and China’s increased naval activity in the Indian Ocean, according to Gokhale.

“These actions convinced New Delhi that despite its efforts, China was not sensitive to India’s international interests while also building a negative impression of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government. Hence, by 2018, misperception and mistrust became a pervasive feature of Sino-Indian relations,” he wrote.

In the final phase, Gokhale explained, policymakers in Beijing reacted sharply to US-India cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, labelling it “containment” or an attempt to restrict China’s maritime position.

‘China Perceives India As Trying To Counter It Regionally, Globally’

Despite “signs of good chemistry”, when PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in China in April 2015, there was pushback from India on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), observed Gokhale.

Within a year, the Chinese strategic community concluded that Modi would be “assertive”, the Neighbourhood First policy sought to counter China’s strategic inroads and that India wanted to lead a maritime defence chain in the Indian Ocean, he wrote. India’s closeness with the US also fuelled perceptions that Modi’s foreign policy aimed to counter China “both regionally and globally”, he added.

Gokhale also pointed out that Chinese analysts view India as trailing China on all global indicators and tend to dismiss Indian aspirations to become a major power.

“It is probable that this perception may also have led the Chinese military to shape a more assertive stance against India along the LAC and may explain the series of incidents that have taken place since 2013,” he added.