India’s relations with China: suppressed hostility, not open antagonism

PUBLISHED February 26, 2018

At a recent conference, Shivshankar Menon, India’s former national security adviser and an old China hand, declared that ‘India should take China’s rise as a given and work its strategy against that backdrop, instead of looking at the relationship in binaries’. The problem, he said, is that we treat India–China relations as a Twenty20 [cricket] match, thus expecting a speedy response to every move made by the other party.

These were indeed words of wisdom because the relationship between the two major Asian powers is far too complex and multidimensional to be reduced to a tit-for-tat strategy. Such a binary approach, if employed without adequate forethought and preparation, could end up disastrously for India, as happened in the border war of 1962. In that conflict, an irate but uninformed public pushed the Nehru government into a more aggressive policy on the border without adequate military preparedness. The Chinese, on the other hand, were more than prepared for a military confrontation at high altitudes in the Himalayas. India suffered a body blow from which it couldn’t recover for decades.

Although there have been several border clashes between India and China since the 1962 war, both sides have been careful not to let those skirmishes escalate into full-scale conflict. The last military casualty on the border occurred in 1977. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 broke the ice between the two neighbours and set up a framework that helped isolate the border dispute from the wider gamut of economic and political relations between the two countries.

However, small-scale tensions on the border have continued, including the recent clash at Doklam at the junction of India, Bhutan and China after China tried to construct a road in the area claimed by Bhutan—India’s ally (and de facto protectorate). This occurred on territory that’s very strategically important to India because of its proximity to the narrow ‘chicken neck’ corridor that connects the Indian northeast (some of it claimed by China) with the rest of the country. The 10-week standoff was resolved on 28 August 2017 after China stopped its road construction but didn’t explicitly renounce its claim.

In the meantime, economic relations between the two Asian giants have been thriving. Despite the absence of a free trade agreement between the two countries, China has become India’s largest trading partner with total trade in 2016 amounting to more than US$69 billion. However, this is heavily skewed in China’s favour. It exports goods worth US$60 billion to India and imports goods worth only US$9 billion. While trade has helped bind the economies together to some extent, its lopsided nature has also created tensions.

Nonetheless, it’s strategic factors rather than economic ones that create tensions in India–China relations. Indian suspicion of China’s designs in its neighbourhood, especially Beijing’s cultivation of strategic relations with Myanmar and Sri Lanka, is a catalyst for renewed Indian misgivings. China’s increasingly intimate economic and political relations with India’s nemesis, Pakistan, have been perennial points of contention between the two countries. China’s massive financial commitment—US$500 million—in grants to build the Gwadar port facilities in Baluchistan is seen in India as part of Beijing’s strategic policy of extending its reach to the Persian Gulf, but it also bolsters Pakistan’s capacity to confront India in the future.

China, for its part, suspects that the US and India are colluding to curb China’s growing influence in the Asia–Pacific. The Trump administration’s active wooing of New Delhi to achieve this end is an open secret. The renaming of the Asia–Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific region in American official parlance since 2017 is seen by China and other countries in the region as a public endorsement of India’s regional primacy.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a clear signal in a speech last October that Washington considers India not only a strategic ally, but also a partner in building a ‘rules-based order’ in the international system. In the same speech, Tillerson characterised China as a ‘destabilising force’ in the region and accused Beijing of ‘provocative actions in the South China Sea [that] directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for’. China must have taken note of the contrasting way in which the secretary of state portrayed the two countries.

While the Indians didn’t openly dispute Tillerson’s thesis on China (and indeed probably agreed with it in their heart of hearts), they didn’t endorse it publicly. This cautionary policy reflects Indian ambivalence towards China. On the one hand, New Delhi considers Beijing to be its principal rival and competitor. On the other, economic and—even more—geographic compulsions preclude India from openly taking an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis China. The Sino–Indian border is too long and, despite India’s advances in bolstering its military capability, the gaps between the two countries’ GNP and military technology are too great for India to openly pursue a hostile policy towards China.

Consequently, Sino–Indian relations in the foreseeable future will include elements of conflict and cooperation that are unlikely to see an open clash between the two Asian giants. One can possibly describe the relationship, at least on the Indian side, as one of ‘suppressed hostility’ that will continue at least over the next couple of decades, or until India is able to appreciably narrow the economic and technological gaps with China.

Mohammed Ayoob is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington DC and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. Originally published in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Image: Flickr user BentheCM

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