Last September, during a three-day visit to India by Xi Jinping, a newsreader at the official Indian broadcaster Doordarshan read the Chinese president’s name from a teleprompter as “Eleven” Jinping during a live telecast, mistaking “Xi” for the Roman numeral XI. It was an embarrassing gaffe—Indian officials moved with uncommon speed to fire her—and also a reminder of the unfamiliarity between the world’s two most populous states.
For decades, India’s approach to China has been defined by hostility and fear—emotions stemming, among much else, from competing border claims, the memory of India’s humiliating defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and the two countries’ locations in rival geopolitical camps down the years. Indian newspapers channel the othering of China through reporting marked by ingrained jingoism and suspicion, which often results in stories with outlandish spin. In the winter of 2012, for instance, newspapers reported that Indian forces along the Chinese border were alarmed over sightings of mysterious flying spheres. According to a Press Trust of India report, these appeared to “lift off from the horizon on the Chinese side and slowly traverse the sky for three to five hours before disappearing.” Unnamed Indian “officials” said that these “UFOs” were not Chinese surveillance drones, but it was reported that India would nevertheless take the matter up with China at the diplomatic level. Mail Today then wrote that “India’s protests at the local border personnel meeting with the Chinese have met with a cursory denial,” and added that it had learnt that the issue was “discussed at a high-level meeting on China in the Prime Minister’s Office.” Meanwhile, scientists assembled in Leh to study the phenomenon were reported to have concluded that the spheres could be “Chinese lanterns.” Finally, in July 2013, The Telegraph solved the mystery, reporting that the “flying objects” at the heart of so much consternation were actually just Jupiter and Venus.
Yet, despite a surfeit of similar stories on supposed Chinese threats and incursions, China and India have managed their contested border remarkably well, with not a single bullet fired across it in nearly four decades. Contrast that with the five-decade border dispute between Assam and Nagaland, which in 2014 alone displaced more than 10,000 people, and claimed 18 lives in a matter of weeks. Today, China is India’s biggest trading partner, and the two countries are engaging with each other in ways that would have been unthinkable even at the turn of the century. Hence the Indian media’s shrillness is going against the grain of the thaw in the two countries’ relationship, if not hindering it.