New Delhi: Governments lies about lots of things but it is most dangerous when they lie about foreign relations. Relations between India and China are far from satisfactory and they will remain so until Chinese expansionism is contained and India rises as an economic and politico-military power. But were New Delhi’s background briefing to the press to be believed, ties with Beijing have never been better. The Doklam crisis is well behind both countries; China is not strengthening Pakistan against India; the Chinese market will unprecedentedly open for Indian produce; there is complete understanding of the two nations on “Indo-Pacific” conflicts, and so on.

The truth is diametrically opposite. China-India relations are far from stable. The Chinese military build-up in Tibet is being sought to be matched with some puny military airlifts of our own which the services have duly advertised. China has noted India’s flip-flop on Doklam: an aggressive posture quickly followed by appeasement. The Wuhan summit went according to the Chinese script. In close grilling by the Chinese according to insiders, the Indian side disclosed more than was prudent. Xi Jinping received Narendra Modi in the manner of a Chinese monarch of old receiving tribute from a vassal. China-Pakistan relations are stronger than ever because China sees Pakistan as a gateway for expansion. The Pakistanis cannot complain because they are indebted to the Chinese. And China will only make a show of opening its market to Indian goods. It needs temporary peace with regional adversaries since Donald Trump’s trade war has left China vulnerable.

A true guide to Chinese intentions is the state of play with the United States. Come January and the United States is likely to order a ban on purchases of Huawei and ZTE technologies. The detention of the Huawei heiress and chief financial officer in Canada has led to matching Chinese retaliation against two Canadian subjects. If Meng Wanzhou is finally deported to the United States as looks likely, China will be further informed about the seriousness of the American assault on its economic and trade brigandage. China has made cosmetic moves to placate the United States. That they are cosmetic is well recognized and badly received and unlikely to assist China’s cause. The US battle with China is no longer president Donald Trump’s private war. The American establishment is determined to end China’s iniquitous trade practices. Simultaneously, pressure is mounting on China’s illegal claims to the East China Sea and South China Sea. The centre of gravity of future conflict has shifted to those seas. It will take long years to break Chinese adamancy and make it behave. So what’s this Indian make-believe about that ties with China are proceeding swimmingly?

Foreign offices generally try to portray situations better than they are to deflect attention from their own diplomatic failures. In the case of China, a succession of foreign secretaries, including the serving one, have painted a rosy picture of relations. It is the foreign office bureaucracy which claimed that China had been won over to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Club, a pointless pursuit in any case. Tellingly, there is no mention of NSG in the ministry of external affairs’ optimistic assessment of India-China ties. If you press the diplomatic bureaucracy, it will reel off the various bilateral and multilateral events, allude to the communiques, and gush about personal chemistry. Important as they are, they do not constitute the substance of India-China ties. There is a vast power differential between India and China. Summits and joint statements (anodyne for the most part) cannot address that. In any case, the Chinese are realists. They fear the exercise of force when it is sustained, inexhaustible and absolute. They fear Donald Trump. India is a blip on their radar.

The second reason for the glowing report on China is that a general election is due in months and Narendra Modi needs to manufacture a nice geopolitical narrative. He cannot claim a breakthrough in relations with Pakistan. There is no coherence in Indian diplomacy as applied to the rest of the region as well. Obviously, the government has to be economical with the truth. But in geopolitics, it never pays to lie or exaggerate. A nation is forewarned and forearmed when the external environment is correctly presented. Such high-mindedness and wisdom cannot be expected from the present rulers. The country, however, should not be fooled about China. If the United States, the world’s only superpower, has identified China as the foremost threat to world peace, stability and prosperity, India cannot pretend otherwise.