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India-China Relations: An Analysis 

  • 16 Aug 2018
  • 8 min read

The rise of India and China as two major economic and political actors in both regional and global politics has caught global attention. The two emerging and enduring powers representing two modes of civilization signify a complex and dynamic relationship in world politics. The Wuhan meeting (April 2018, “informal summit”) between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping is being hailed as a ‘new chapter’ in relations as the two countries engage in the wake of post-Doklam rhetoric.

India-China Relationship: Evolution

  • For thousands of years, Tibet was the buffer that kept India and China geographically apart and at peace. It is only after China invaded and occupied Tibet in 1950, the two countries are sharing a common border.
  • The extensive mutual historical experience was not there between the two nations and each country had a poor understanding of the psyche and system of the other.
  • Before the mid-20th century, India-China relations were minimal and confined to some trade and exchange of pilgrims and scholars. Interactions began after India’s independence (1947) and the Communist revolution in China (1949).
  • Nehru’s views supporting an independent Tibet gave rise to Chinese mistrust. Nehru accepted China’s suzerainty over Tibet but wanted Tibet to remain autonomous.
    Tibetan regard for India (where Buddhism originated) as their spiritual mentor and the holy land was a concern for China.
  • China showed no concern for McMohan Line (1914 Simla Convention signed between the British and the Tibetan representatives) which it said was imposed by “imperialists.”
  • Nehru and Zhou signed the Panchsheel treaty on 29 April 1954 to lay the roadmap for stability in a region (Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai) as India acknowledged Chinese rule in
    Tibet: Mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty; Mutual non-aggression; Mutual non-interference; Equality and mutual benefit; and, Peaceful co-existence.
  • As China tightened its grip on Tibet, India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama (1959).
  • In 1962, China's People's Liberation Army invaded India in Ladakh, and across the McMahon Line in the then North-East Frontier Agency. After the conflict, relations were in a freeze.
  • Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit in 1988 began a phase of improvement in bilateral relations. India-China relations normalized through the regular exchange of high-level visits.

India-China Competition, Cooperation, Discord

India-China relationship is dotted with competition, cooperation, and discord. In 2017 these played out in India’s critique of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the dramatic crisis in Doklam, the acceleration of multilateral cooperation in the BRICS and attempts to foster economic engagement.

External Balancing

External balancing is the forging of military cooperation with one state to deter or defeat a threat posed by another, is one of the principal means by which states cause and enhance security for themselves. It emerged as a component in India’s foreign policy during the last stages of the 1962 War with China and persisted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During these years, India sought or concluded three agreements with other states to deal with the threat perceived from China. India-China relations have continued to be subject to an underlying security dilemma.

India-China Relations: Reset Needed in 2018

  • There is a systematic buildup of negative images of how each side viewed the other’s foreign policies along with a collapse in geopolitical trust.
  • China’s attempt to raise its economic and political profile in the subcontinent was seen as a challenge to India’s authority in the region. India’s military engagements with the U.S. and Japan (China’s main strategic rivals) was seen as a serious challenge to Chinese security.
  • Both Delhi and Beijing seemed to be convinced that only an assertive policy will work and for past few years, they have been exploiting leverages and pressures particularly with respect to India’s US tilt and China’s Pak tilt.
  • PM Modi with his visit to China attempted a course correction. It is being called a ‘reset’.

India’s Policy Towards China: An Analysis

  • India has adopted a two-pronged policy for dealing with China. The first prong involves continued engagement, both bilaterally and in multilateral forums such as BRICS, SCO and the Russia-India-China trilateral, in order to maintain overall stability, deepen economic ties, and foster diplomatic cooperation on regional and international issues. Thus, during the Doklam crisis, India not only insisted on a diplomatic settlement based on a return to the status quo ante but did not let the crisis come in the way of scheduled bilateral visits and meetings despite China’s state-controlled media warning India of a repeat of the 1962 war and more troubles.
    India has also sustained efforts to enhance its military and deterrent capabilities as the second prong of policy.
  • There is an emerging third prong in India’s China policy in the form of new external balancing effort. The evolution of India-US relations in particular but also of India’s relationships with Japan and Australia as well as the quadrilateral cooperation among them indicates a growing convergence in their views regarding stability in the Indo-Pacific region particularly with respect to China’s intentions in laying territorial claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea as well as to the sovereign territories of India and Japan.

Tension or conflict between the two countries takes away from the prospects of the Asian century that their leaders speak of. A regular pattern of more informal summits between the leaders of the two countries is needed.

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