Even as he spoke of ‘India China Bhai Bhai’, Nehru wrote about China in his personal letters as India’s ‘foe or adversary for a considerable time to come’. Just after India conducted nuclear tests in April 1998, the then Minister of Defence George Fernandes proclaimed China as India’s ‘potential threat number one’. And again in May 2011, a Times of India article rang alarm bells about the expansion of the Chinese navy into the Bay of Bengal.
Whether it is the lingering trauma of China’s invasion of India in 1962, China’s coziness with Pakistan, or India’s endless self-comparison against China’s higher GDP growth rates and HDI rankings, the idea of China as a threat or competitor to India is an Indian obsession. But while many Indians focus on the actions of the Chinese toward India, few have reflected on factors that are part of India’s own national psyche. Why is India so fixated on China? How does India see itself in the world? And how does this affect India’s perception of China?
Like any country, India perceives other countries the same way that a particular person may perceive (or misperceives) another person. And just as it is difficult, if not impossible, for one individual to observe another individual objectively, free from personal bias, belief or experience, so too can it be difficult for one country to perceive another country ‘objectively’ free from history, realpolitik, or nationalist ideology.
India’s perception of China is affected by India’s perception of itself and its place in the world. With the birth of the idea of a united India under the British, and the rediscovery of ancient Indian learning, many Indian nationalists, including Nehru in The Discovery of India, became convinced that India had once been ‘great’ and dreamed that destiny would restore it to such greatness. The idea of India’s greatness was lavishly displayed at the First Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in March 1947. It found echoes in Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’, and spawned the ‘Nehruvian’ school of Indian foreign policy thinking which envisioned India as a key player in Asia and the world. It later became India Shining under the BJP in the 2003 reelection campaign after India’s GDP received a boost from good monsoon rains.
China is a threat to India because it threatens to challenge or appropriate India’s own belief that it is the great Asian power. Not only does China share with India a conviction of its own historic destiny as a great power, but China also lays claim to being one of the most successful and influential civilizations in Asia and the world.
Whereas India may be an emerging or potential emerging power, the China threat is already arriving or has arrived through its growing share of world trade, its diplomatic and political influence through the United Nations, and the ‘soft power’ challenge of the Chinese model of development. For India, Chinese actions such as the 1962 invasion or competition for resources in Africa are threatening not simply in and because of themselves, but because they challenge India’s own belief that it should be the preeminent power in Asia and have its place amongst the great powers of the world.
If we challenge India’s beliefs about itself, we also change its perceptions of others. By challenging India’s beliefs that is inherently ‘great’, or destined for ‘greatness’, its perception of other countries like China who are rapidly growing economically or becoming powerful diplomatically, may become less distorted. China may instead start to look like a developing country that is working hard to achieve self-sufficiency and prosperity after its own troubled history. By looking at what may influence one country’s perception of another, we can appreciate why Pakistan perceives India a certain way, why Israel looks at the Palestinian authority in a particular light, and how perceptions can be readjusted by challenging and discrediting core beliefs in inflated national selves, mythologies and destinies.
Randeep Purewall is a lawyer, researcher and cultural activist based in Surrey, Canada. Contact him at: