Posted by: John Elliott | March 21, 2010

China out-guns the US in friendliness at a Delhi conference

China has managed to present a surprisingly more friendly and forward-looking face than the US at an Asia Society conference in Delhi, where the theme was “India – Powering Asia’s Ascent”.  

You’d have expected the US to be the cheer leader for such a theme, but it was Victor Zhikai Gao, a westernised Beijing adviser, who enthusiastically called yesterday for China and India to see their disputed Himalayan mountain border “not as an insurmountable barrier” but as a “bridge linking these two ancient civilizations together, for mutual benefit, and for mutual enrichment” – while a senior US official merely recited a years-old list of economic reforms that American business wants India to implement.  

Gao (below) appeared to be sticking to Beijing’s firm negotiating stance on the border dispute, but his remarks nevertheless contrasted sharply with a warning on a Beijing website last year that “China and India cannot really deal with each other harmoniously”. So today I emailed Gao, now back in Beijing, asking him to repeat and expand on what he said yesterday.  

Explaining the context of his remarks, he replied that Chinese people came to India “many many centuries ago …. as eager and humble students in search of enlightenment and spiritual richness…and brought Buddhism back to China”.:  


“To the extent that Hinduism and Buddhism share many basic tenets and principles today, the Chinese and the Hinduists in India are more or less soul-mates, or at least quasi soul-mates to say the least,” he added.
“For me and many Chinese, coming to visit to India is the equivalent of a spiritual pilgrimage. From the Chinese perspective, India still remains a land of saints and a plethora of gods and divinity, and we see from all the faces among the multitudinous crowds the shadows of those Buddhist monks who have been immortalized in numerous Chinese Buddhist temples and Chinese minds”.  

Coincidentally, links between the two countries were also extolled by Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister and India’s chief international negotiator on climate change issues. He told the conference about “remarkable co-operation” between the two countries in climate change negotiations at Copenhagen last December, and on studying shrinking glaciers.  

He admitted that both countries were using each other for their own reasons, but added: “Partnership with China is a strategic message that we can collaborator and co-operate,” even when the media was polarising differences. “Negotiating with China is a headache for the United States. But negotiating with both India and China together is a nightmare”, he added with a grin.  

Gao had the same theme. “Rather than confronting each other, we need to find ways to work together,” he said, adding (without actually mentioning the US) that “India and China should avoid being used as pawns by forces from outside the region”,  

Compared with that, the US contribution was unimaginative. Robert Blake, America’s assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, made a speech that could have been delivered any time in the past 15 years, focusing on economic reforms that would benefit American companies. He also notably avoided mentioning Wal-Mart, the US retail group that engenders opposition in many countries, and used instead its Indian joint venture name of Best Price when calling for India to open up its supermarkets to more foreign direct investment.  

Timothy J. Roemer, the US ambassador, had made a more substantive speech earlier in the conference about education and how much he loved India, but memories of that were outweighed by Blake’s shopping list which ended with the hackneyed cry: “India should continue to increase market access for American businesses, finance, and people”, dangling the lollipop that “the United States will do the same” (which, as everyone knows, would never happen).  

Note that he was not preaching how India would benefit from opening its economy to the world, but just to the US. Nor, more importantly, did he show any awareness of the pushes and pulls of Indian democracy, which he does in fact know well and fully understands, having been a well informed and involved deputy ambassador in the mid 2000s. Such, apparently, is American public policy today.  

Deng Xiaoping’s former interpreter  

But to return to Gao, should India see what he said as a serious message from Beijing, or was it simply an instinctively effusive line from a man who runs private equity funds, is as well connected in capitalist Hong Kong as he is in communist Beijing, and is a member of the US-centric Asia Society’s global council?  

Gao’s base however is more than that. He has a direct link with the Chinese government because he runs a Foreign Ministry-sponsored policy think tank, the China National Association of International Studies. He also worked in China’s foreign ministry in the 1980s when he was a translator for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.  

Last August, the belligerent piece on a Beijing website gained considerable traction because it seemed to fit the mood of the times, when China was confronting India on several fronts including the two countries’ mountainous border.  

“There cannot be two suns in the sky. China and India cannot really deal with each other harmoniously,” said the article, adding that China could “dismember the so-called ‘Indian Union’ with one little move”. That was seen as reflecting Beijing thinking, even though the founder of the website claimed the writer had no known government links.  

The author of that message remained anonymous, but now we have a very different line from a far from anonymous source, and one directly linked with the foreign ministry – so does this also fit the mood of the times? Though it is unthinkable that China has changed its long policy of encircling and containing India, does it indicate a change of tack when its relations with the US are souring?  

When I asked Gao at the conference yesterday how he could be so positive, he avoided detail and took me to see a satellite photograph that was on display of China and India with the high Himalayas between them. How, he asked, could a war could be fought in such steep terrain?  

Easily, I said, by air over the mountains peaks. And anyway, China was constantly crossing the border in moves that reminded India uncomfortably of its humiliating defeat in a 1962 border war. Gao reminded me that China had retreated to its pre-war positions, but I countered that by pointing to China refusing to recognise India’s sovereignty over its border state of Arunachal Pradesh – a problem that Gao indicated should not be taken too seriously.  

The McMahon Line  

“We should refuse to be held hostage by some recent unfortunate events for which neither China nor India should be held responsible, since they originated in the British rule of India before,” he said in his e-mail today. He was referring, without naming it, to the McMahon Line that was set in 1914 by the British long before India’s independence. India now regards the line as its rightful border but China disputes it.  

That statement reduces some of the diplomatic significance of Gao’s remarks because it seems in effect to be asking for the McMahon Line to be ignored, which India will not do. It reinforces the general view of people I spoke to at the conference that he was not indicating a dramatic change in Beijing’s approach.  

But his friendly message was surely not without significance, so let’s give him the last word. 

The Chinese, he said, “share a collective sense of gratitude for India for having provided the spiritual richness which has so splendidly filled the spiritual void in the traditional Chinese civilization. This should be the foundation upon which China-India relations should be built upon and thrive”.

Earlier posts on India-China issues: 

China aims to block India’s place in the sun Aug 13, 2009 

New Delhi in lockdown over Olympic torch run April 17, 2008 

Demand from China kills India’s vanishing tigers Feb 13, 2008


  1. Buddhism, a religion that is still like hinduism and part / heart & soul of hinduism, is there in China for more than 2000 years. Maha Bodhi, a budhist monk taught martial arts to China and the Shaolin temple was built by the chinese rulers / kings for this monk to teach the chinese in henan province. There are many temples, sculptures, artifacts are the gifts of these religious / cultural venture in to this land. Chinese music & arts has quintessently Indian influence. And the knowledge of science, maths, astronomy & astrology etc are part / essence of Indian vedas, epics, puranas & saints contributed these and many more in Sanskrit language. Yoga, Ayurveda & Kamasutra are not gimmicks and practiced in India & world over. The spirituality, attainment & human life and death were elaborately discussed in these knowledge banks. The words / explanations of aeroplane, sound tracing arrows, the deadly weapons like Brahmastra, the culturing of human embryos outside the body ( what has been done to 101 Kauravas in Mahabharatha), leaving one’s body and entering of others body by the soul, vidyut (electricity) etc. can be found in Sanskrit literature which has been forgotten in India, but the modern world science have found these things practically. So these knowledge that India had, cannot be said just as fictions. For thousands of years India was facing aggression, invasions for being too good and having a good knowledge and vast wealth. The enmity and dividing & snatching away mentality of those has divided this country. India is waking up to its past and it will one day rule the world with its knowledge & wisdom as much as in the history by its natural & greatest of great strength, but without force, or aggression and political control. World has forgotten this.. Let the truth behold the future. China too has great history & traditions, culture, medicine. People in China & India can easily mix, but politics divides the countries. India & China still can come closer like one people. World needs peace & prosperity.

  2. Because of their culture, Indians can never settle their borders in civilized way. Show me one case in the last 2000 years that Indians ever settled their borders with neighbors peacefully.

    Just ONE.

    Goa? Skhim?

    Here is another proof from an Indian person.

    “You can scratch my back, but I won’t scratch yours.”

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  4. I wonder what was the point of John quoting from what Frank ( I am not familiar with) has to say about India, in the China-India discussion ?

    China fought border wars with Russia, Vietnam, India, and has ongoing disputes with Japan, Phillipines and others over some islands. Canada has border disputes with its neighbours, Brazil has with Argentina, and I am sure there are many more such examples.

    In case of India, Frank totally represents the view point of Pakistan and Bangladesh, two muslim nations that were ruled by military-Islamic rulers for the most part, and are hubs of religious extremism.

    Influence and leverage of the Anglo-Americans on Pakistan, and the China-Pak nexus directed against India is well known. Banglades on the other hand has had close relations with the above mentioned anti-India forces.

    India helped LTTE in Srilanka for its own reasons, just as the Anglo-Americans routinely do all across the globe.

    Moralities aside, India is doing well on the external front, and has no reason to compromise with the neighbours, as long as these nation prefer to remain the pawns of their masters, rather than settling disputes with a large neighbours.

    On the internal front, India is doing miserably, and I could not agree more with Frank on rich Indians hardly giving up 10% for the poor, which I suspect is mailnly because the 10% would never reach the poor unless distributed correctly.

    India has some serious shotcomings when it comes to nation building. Rampant corruption and incompetency amongst the politicians and bureaucrats, now percolates down to almost ever level of governance. I personally know of a few well-to-do individuals, who would join the IAS, in order to (1) make quick bucks through abuse of power and (2) draw huge dowry from the in-laws.

    The media is full of western educated self serving individuals, that maintain close relations with the establishment, and never venture out of their comfort zone.

    In India, the irony is that the poor and uneducated naxals have to fight for the very basic rights of human existance, and the so called educated Indians are nonchalant about it…… !

  5. This post also appeared on a Hong Kong news website, , which received these comments:

    Do not blame English Master
    written by Frank , March 25, 2010
    The point is India NEVER EVER settled a single border dispute in negotiation.
    Canada and others with border problems CAN settle their dispute with civilized negotiation.
    India CANNOT, because Indians do not understand the meaning of the word “give”.

    Indians are worse
    written by Frank , March 25, 2010
    You are right about Canada. There are a few more countries have border problems with more than half of its neighbors.
    India is threatening wars against its neighbors. And they hate their neighbors to the guts. When you hate more than half of your neighbors that much, you have a problem. Not your neighbors.
    India’s problem is that stingy Indians do not give. They only take, even in the most disgusting way. When was the last time your heard rich Indians give 10% of their money to the poor?

    Red Indians are worse
    written by Christian Democrat , March 25, 2010
    The 7th-largest sovereign state territory on the planet is bordered only by : (clockwise) Pakistan, PRC, Nepal, PRC, Bhutan, PRC, Myanmar and Bangladesh. If we include the Andamans sea zone we might say India borders Thailand, and of course there is Serendip in the south. That makes eight neighbours. Five of these at least must have territorial bones to pick with India, then, if we are not to find Franks’s careful measurement MORE THAN HALF IF NOT ALL to be untrue.
    Is it irrelevant here to point out that all of these borders were delineated by one Brit Imperial apparatchik or another ?
    An even more chaotic British creature is worth looking at : Canada is bordered only by three sovereignties (USA, Denmark’s Greenland and France’s Collectivité territoriale de Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon)– yet has BORDER PROBLEMS with all of them. Even if we pretend for a moment that the Canada-France dispute was permanently settled in 1992, we are still looking at a state which knows proportionately even less about COMPROMISE than does India.

    Indians never give
    written by Frank , March 24, 2010
    Good to hear you remember my comments. Your responds and anger proved that my comments are right on the mark. If my comments are irrelevant, you would have forgotten all about them. For example, media does bother to mention India because of it is an irrelevant country.
    Here are my new points. Remember them.
    Indians never give. Therefore, they do not know how to compromise. Negotiations with Indians are waste of time.
    For example, India is one of the only small quantities of countries in this world has border problems with more than half if not all of its neighbors.

    Long Time No Hear Frank!
    written by Frank’s Insecurity , March 24, 2010
    Great to have your childish, racist vitriol back on the comment forum, Frank! Always puts a smile on everyone’s face as we wonder what the entire nation of India did to hurt your fragile feelings. Keep feeding that wounded pride Frank and keep up the rants–they’re great!!

    Gao does not know about Indians
    written by Frank , March 23, 2010
    Gao does not know about Indians. He needs to read a book name “Mother India”. He also needs to be enlighted by those English speaking Indians.
    English speaking Indians do not know anything about compromise. They won’t give. Only takes. Compromise needs both. I think mainly because of the thousands of years being servants to Muslim, Mongol, French, and English masters made them so.

  6. Hi John,

    You have no idea of the history of this region. This region (India, china) is immensly rich in spirituality.

    Mr Gao is right, the chinese are very much in gratitude to India for all the spiritual learning they gained from India. India is the only place in the world so far, where spiritual search has blossomed in plenty. I dont foresee any animosity between India and China. And besides India has never threatened or invaded another nation in the past.

    It has always been invaded (including by the British) and messed around with. It is time people start to stop messing around with each other and respect each others cultures.

  7. I completely agree with you Neel123. There is much to cooperate and use each others competitive advantage for economic growth. Books by Kishore Mahbhubani called “Asian Hemisphere” and Jaques Martin highlights these points that relative decline of the “West” domination of the world has already started and next 40-50 years will see immense shift of power in the world. As someone rightly said “tectonic” shift of power is happening now from West to the East (Led by China, South East Asia and India).

    I feel sorry for the author of this blog that, Europe will have no part in the 21st century worldstage, with 50% of its population already ageing. Its labour force is expected to shrink in the coming decades and bills will rise to support the old population. Eagerly waiting for next 40 years when this shift completely takes place.

  8. Dear John

    “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. Beware of Chinese Singing our praise. The Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai is still fresh in our minds when they attacked the gullible Nehru in 1962 shattering his faith in them. What use is the withdrawal, when drop of a hat they claim more and more of our territories; Aksai Chin straight from us and parts from POK.

  9. The Chinese seem to be slowly moving towards reconciliation to the fact that a rising India is a reality.

    If India can continue to maintain its economic growth for a few more decades, there is no reason why it would not be the next China story.

    As the western economic decline gains momentum, there would be desperate attempts in the years ahead by the western powers to turn the tide by orchastrating wars in different parts of the world, Asia being theatre of choice.

    However this game is too familiar and the rest of the world can now see through it.

    It is logical and in the interest of both China and India to cooperate, and not confront.

    And 50 years from today, China and India coming together would be a nightmare for the western powers.

  10. I don’t think its uncharacteristic friendliness, In my view Chinese official statements on disputes with India tend to be routinely anti-inflammatory as par for the course.

    One only needs to compare their rhetoric when it comes to America on Taiwan or they Yuan to see that.

    If anything they are deeply ambivalent about India in the truest sense of the word. I see deeply conflicted policy and and as far as I can tell they really have not yet developed a solid view and full fledged India strategy that will govern the next couple of decades.

    None that I can perceptibly discern and certainly not in the way they have done with America.

    I do not believe for a second that the Chinese India policy of today is as cohesive and pre-meditated as it was say twenty years ago.

    Provocative behaviour is indicative of a certain level of angst felt by some, but I don’t think it is completely shaping policy at an official level any more than Indian angst and a press that uses a lot hyperbole shapes its official Chinese policy.

    Containment is neither realistic nor pragmatic, and that grows increasingly apparent by the day. Without that lynch pin, I ask what would be rational policy for rising global powers and rivals which neighbour one another??

    What was true even five years ago is no longer true today, and the Chinese are more acutely aware of that than India is.

    It’s not surprising that there is a growing sense of opportunity cohabiting simultaneously with deep suspicion, and that in my view would probably best describe the relationship on both sides


  11. Just curious. Does anyone here have any views on the following interesting article on the India-China border dispute?
    The article is by an Indian person, and contains very interesting statistics. Love to know what you think.

  12. Don’t worry, I am sure it won’t be long before China will come out with another excessively belligerant remark over one issue or another and this uncharacteristic friendliness will soon be forgotten.

  13. Realpolitik dictates that one should not get carried away with effusive platitudes of common spiritual heritage by an emissary who carries no formal responsibility for Beijing’s intent and actions.

    While Mr Gao may have a distinguished resume and “connections”, what he says can and will be easily disavowed as nonbinding when it comes to actually negotiating with the powers that be in Beijing. Of course, it is interesting to note that he has not given an inch on China’s stance on the McMahon line anyways.

    So why the effusive praise by Mr. Elliott over a speech which is basically window dressing and a public relations ploy to present a friendly face by Beijing? At least Mr. Blake was down to earth and tried to get on with aim of the conference even if his presentation was biased towards American interests. After all, that was his job. Airy flights of fancy about spiritual solidarity by Beijing should be taken exactly for what they are – flights of fancy.

  14. Spiritual greatness. That’s too far back. The problem, many of us do not know much of modern China except that what is dished out in the media. And that is about surging growth and superpower ambitions etc. China seems such a closed country!

  15. Nice to hear friendly statements from people like Mr. Gao who is doubtless reflecting at least one, if not necessarily the dominant strand of Beijing’s thinking. The bit about “visit to India is the equivalent of a spiritual pilgrimage” is a genuine viewpoint which I have heard even a decade ago, but there well may be other views not so benign !

    However, I suspect that the aggressive posture from 2006 onwards was a shift from previous attitudes which included negotiations on the border etc. Perhaps, Beijing thought it had India collared courtesy of the critical CPM support to UPA-I. With conditions changed and India not folding, the old line may have begun to prevail especially as Beijing realises just how much goodwill it has lost in India thanks to its needlessly aggressive posture.

  16. Dear John,
    On Indo China relation the general feeling in India is “once bitten twice shy”- Bhupinder

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