Maxar WorldView-3 satellite image shows close up view of road construction near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) border in the eastern Ladakh sector of Galwan Valley

The two Asian giants seem to have clearly reached an inflection point in their relationship

by Harsh V Pant

Under normal circumstances India and China would have been celebrating 70 years of their diplomatic relations this year. In fact, both sides had planned extensively for it. Instead, this year would probably be remembered as one that fundamentally altered the trajectory of their bilateral relationship. The border crisis and its dramatic escalation, with the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers last week, has shaken the foundations of the relationship to the core and unleashed unprecedented anti-China sentiment across the country. Indian policymakers recognize the challenge with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar underlining to his Chinese counterpart that the unprecedented developments in the Galwan Valley area last week would have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship and emphasising that the need of the hour was for the Chinese side to reassess its actions and take corrective steps. The two Asian giants seem to have clearly reached an inflection point in their relationship.

As two ancient civilizations, India and China have had cultural and trade ties since at least the first century. The famous Silk Road allowed for economic and trade ties to develop between the two, with the transmission of Buddhism from India to China giving a further cultural dimension to the relationship. The advent of western colonialism broke this engagement which took some time to get steady. The rise of post-colonial India and China allowed for imagining new possibilities and Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of Asian solidarity was premised on strong ties between China and India.

After People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949 and India established diplomatic ties with it in 1950, India not only advocated for PRC’s membership at the United Nations (UN) but also opposed attempts to condemn the PRC for its actions in Korea. Yet, the issue of Tibet soon emerged as the major bone of contention between China and India. China was suspicious of Indian designs on Tibet, which India sought to allay by supporting the Seventeen Point Agreement between Tibetan delegates and China in 1951 that recognized PRC sovereignty over Tibet and guaranteed the existing socio-political arrangements of Tibet. India and China signed the famed Panchshila agreement in 1954 that underlined the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence as forming the basis of their bilateral relationship. These principles included mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual nonaggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These were the hey-days of Sino-Indian ties, with the Hindi-China bhai-bhai phrase a favourite slogan for the seeming camaraderie between the two states. But that was not to last long.

Soon the border dispute between China and India escalated and led to the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Though a short war, it was to have a long-lasting impact on Sino-Indian ties. It demolished Nehru’s claims of Asian solidarity, and the defeat at the hands of the Chinese psychologically scarred Indian military and political elites. It led to China developing close ties with Pakistan, resulting in what is now widely considered an “all-weather" friendship. China supported Pakistan in its 1965 and 1971 wars with India and helped in the development of its nuclear weapons arsenal. Meanwhile, the Indian nuclear weapons program was accelerated in 1964 after China’s nuclear tests.

As China and the US became closer after their rapprochement in 1972, India gravitated to the former Soviet Union to balance the China-US-Pakistan axis. It was in 1988 that then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi turned a new leaf in Sino-Indian ties when he went to Beijing and signed an agreement that aimed at achieving a “fair and reasonable settlement while seeking a mutually acceptable solution to the border dispute." The visit saw a Joint Working Group (JWG) set up to explore the boundary issue and examine probable solutions to the problem.

However, bilateral relations between India and the PRC nosedived in the immediate aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in May 1998. China had been singled out as the “number one" security threat for India by India’s defence minister just before the nuclear tests. After the tests, the Indian Prime Minister wrote to the US President justifying Indian nuclear tests as a response to the threat posed by China. The visit of the Indian external affairs minister to China in 1999 marked the resumption of high-level dialogue, as the two sides declared that they were not threats to each other. The two states appointed special representatives to impart momentum to border negotiations in 2003, replacing the India-China JWG mechanism. In 2005, both nations agreed on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, broad principles to govern the parameters of any dispute settlement.

Though both China and India continued to emphasize that neither side should let differences act as an impediment to the growth of functional cooperation elsewhere between the two states, the relationship could only move in fits and starts.

At the global level, their rhetoric has been all about cooperation and indeed the two sides have worked together on climate change, global trade negotiations, and in demanding that global financial institutions be restructured in light of the global economy’s shifting centre of gravity. The case for Sino-Indian cooperation has been built by various constituencies to offer a counterweight to US global and regional hegemony. Concerns that the US had become too powerful and unilateral, and that a unipolar US-dominated world would not be in the best interests of weaker states like India, has made the idea of Sino-Indian partnership attractive to certain sections of the Indian strategic elite. India and China took strong exception to the US-led air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, the campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, and other more recent interventions, arguing that they violated the sovereignty of these countries and undermined the authority of the UN system. Both also favour more democratic international economic regimes. They have strongly resisted efforts by the US and other developed nations to link global trade to labour and environmental standards, realizing clearly that this would put them at a huge disadvantage to the developed world, thereby hampering their drive toward economic development, the number one priority for both countries. Yet bilaterally differences continued to grow between the two nations.

The recent rounds of boundary negotiations have been a disappointing failure, with a growing perception in India that China is less than willing to adhere to earlier political understandings on how to address the boundary dispute. No results of any substance have been forthcoming from Sino-Indian border negotiations even as the talks continue endlessly. Also, the suggestion by the Chinese to the US Pacific Fleet Commander in 2009 that the Indian Ocean should be recognized as a Chinese sphere of influence has raised hackles in New Delhi. China’s lack of support for the US—India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact, which it tried to block at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and its obstructionist stance in bringing the terror masterminds of the November 2008 attack in Mumbai to justice have further strained ties. China’s rapid economic growth in the past decade has given it the capability to transform itself into a military power. Its rapidly modernizing military and the opacity surrounding its military build-up remain a cause of great concern for India. Whatever Beijing’s intentions might be, consistent increases in defence budgets over the last several years have put China on track to become the power most capable of challenging US predominance in the Indo-Pacific. China’s nuclear force modernization, its growing arsenal of advanced missiles, and its development of space and cyberspace technologies are changing the military balance in Asia and beyond. As China becomes more reliant on imported oil for its rapidly growing industrial economy, it will develop and exercise military power projection capabilities to protect the shipping lanes that transport oil from the Persian Gulf to China. The capability to project power would require access to advanced naval bases along the sea lanes of communication and forces capable of gaining and sustaining naval and air superiority. In this context, China’s so-called ‘‘string of pearls’’ strategy of expanding its naval presence and building diplomatic ties in and around the Indian Ocean littoral is generating concern in Indian strategic circles.

The Doklam crisis of 2017 at the India-Bhutan-China trijunction brought the two armies eyeball to eyeball and galvanised the Modi government to find alternatives to manage the boundary problem. Informal summitry at the level of top leadership was deemed to be one way of reducing bilateral pressures on the relationship. Yet as the recent LAC crisis has underlined, that too has been found wanting.

The challenge in Sino-Indian ties is fundamentally structural. China is interested in shaping an alternative global order commensurate to its growing economic and military power. And India is a nation on China’s periphery whose rise it seeks to scuttle to secure its interests. Indian foreign policy has to effectively respond to this challenge.

In New Delhi, there is now a more realistic appraisal of China. Indian foreign policy has evolved in directions that demands reciprocity from Beijing. China is both India’s most important neighbour, and its most significant foreign policy challenge. India cannot ignore China, and it needs to be cognisant of the growing power differential between the two.

But New Delhi, too, has its options, and over the past few years it has made it clear to Beijing that it’s not a pushover. From Doklam to India’s opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India’s message has been clear: New Delhi will stand up for its vital interests. There is now less diffidence in carving out strategic partnerships with other like-minded countries. Recent LAC tensions will further accelerate these trends.