This article is the first of a three-part series on the past, present and future of India-China relations.
There is a long history of positive India-China interaction in history from antiquity. It is an inspiring story of contact and openness, through traders, pilgrims, and monks; of two open societies exchanging learning and ideas; and overcoming the perils of travel by land and sea that took years. The life stories of Kumarajiva, Bodhidharma, Xuan Zang, Fa Xian, and others are known, recognised, and admired to this day in both countries. China’s first contact with India, and its admiration of this equivalent civilisation from Han to Tang times, despite considerable internal opposition, is in vivid contrast to the forcible “opening” of China by the West in the 19th century. And in India, the number of words in Sanskrit and Prakrit with the prefix cina, meaning China, is proof of the two-way nature of these exchanges.
Until the 20th century, however, China was peripheral to or absent from the security and political calculus of Indian polities, as was India to the Chinese. India and China had no common border until 1950, until China occupied Tibet. Most of the historical contact, including the long record of peaceful exchanges, was intermediated by other societies and nations. Nothing in history prepared either the Republic of India or the People’s Republic of China, founded within a year of each other, to deal with the other.
In the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, when India and China impinged on each other’s political and security calculus, their contact was intermediated by imperialism. Their colonial experiences differed and created further gaps in understanding. Chinese radicals saw India’s fate as a British colony as a warning, as something to be avoided. Indians were visible enforcers of Imperial Britain’s actions against China – as policemen in the treaty-ports like Shanghai and Hong Kong, or as the Indian Army which fought for the British in both Opium Wars, occupied Peking during the Boxer Uprising and in multiple other actions in China.
Even when their meeting was not intermediated by imperialism, the mutual incomprehension remained. The pan-Asianism of Indian nationalist leaders cut little ice with a China subject to Japanese aggression from 1895 onwards. During his February 1942 visit to India, Chiang Kai Shek was unimpressed by Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to use non-violent means. Gandhi too was not impressed. He summarised the meeting to Sardar Vallabhai Patel subsequently in a letter: “I would not say that I learnt anything, and there was nothing that we could teach him.”
Today, as relations worsen, negative narratives on the history of India-China interactions proliferate. Shyam Saran has a fascinating piece on negative Chinese views of India. We probably need a mirror examining Indian views of China.
One reason for the differing narratives is the fact that China, like India and other civilisations and powers, expects others to behave as it would. But China’s relative isolation and lack of contact with equivalent civilisations in history produced a unique political and strategic culture. This results in China often misjudging other countries. China often displays a form of great power autism, a lack of empathy or understanding of how others think and how they might react, to a greater degree than other powers do.
My own sense is that in reality for most of history India and China lived in separate multiverses in geopolitical terms. While exchanging goods, people, ideas and learning, they did not impact each other’s politics or security until the 19th century. So, attitudes to each other could be pure narrative, based on selected literary sources or historical evidence, untrammelled by fact or experience. We may be seeing a similar phenomenon again today.
China studies are in decline in India as are India studies in China. Very few journalists or academics are exchanged, and tourism is minuscule. The media in each country engages in a form of navel-gazing, solipsistically studying each other’s media and propaganda statements rather than the reality of India-China interactions or the situation around us. Today’s plethora of media and information has not really improved the situation in terms of mutual understanding and popular images of the other corresponding to reality.
The two republics
Because of this history, the two republics, the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China, founded within a year of each other in the mid-20th century, have had mixed success in managing their relationship.
I won’t repeat the long story of the years when they worked together before 1956; of the deterioration thereafter – in which Tibet was a major factor – leading to war in 1962; of the deep freeze through the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the modus vivendi that evolved in the 1980s which kept the peace and enabled each to go about its more important business until about 2012.
That modus vivendi, formalised during the Rajiv Gandhi visit to China in 1988, provided for disputes like the boundary to be discussed and settled peacefully, for other aspects of the relationship to develop, and for cooperation on the international stage where interests coincided. It led to a series of agreements, starting with the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993, setting in place confidence building measures (CBMs) and standard operating procedures (SOPs) on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and a commitment not to change the status quo before the border was settled.
Annual bilateral trade grew from $200 million to almost $100 billion, over 24,000 Indian students were studying in China in 2019, and India and China worked together at the Doha Round and in climate change negotiations. Peace was kept on the border and the status quo was maintained. Each was free to concentrate on what was more important to them, namely internal reform and integrating into the world economy.
The border (not boundary) has always been a litmus test of the state of the relationship and the two countries’ ability to manage it. In the early and mid-1950s both new states, the Republic of India and the PRC sidestepped the boundary issue, while they extended administration and development in the border areas up to their idea of the boundary. Relations began to deteriorate in the late 1950s when the extension of control over areas claimed by both sides brought them into military contact. With Tibet in revolt and China’s involvement in promoting revolution in India in the 1950s and 1960s, the boundary dispute ultimately led to war in 1962. Through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, India and China were successful in putting aside the boundary question, keeping the peace on the border, and developing the rest of the relationship.
All that has now changed. The transition, from engagement and coexistence in the decades after 1988 to crisis today, has not been sudden but has been building since 2012.
Today the relative balance of power between India and China is not what it was in the 1980s when we came to the successful understanding of how to manage our relations. Then the two economies were almost the same size. India was more integrated into the world economy than China, and we were at similar technological levels. China had just begun reform, as had India.
Today, after 40 years of reform and export-led growth, the Chinese economy is almost five times larger than India’s. Most global supply and value chains run through China. China is the world’s manufacturing superpower, China is the world’s greatest trader, and China is poised to be a technological innovator in high technology areas critical to the future such as artificial intelligence (AI), and in information and communication technologies (ICT) such as 5G.
India-China relations have deteriorated since around 2012. The signs of increasing tension were many. Border incidents became more frequent and larger in scale with Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, and Doklam in 2017. Each took longer and proved harder to resolve. China abandoned her public neutrality on India-Pakistan issues and committed to building the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on Indian territory under Pakistani occupation in Kashmir, creating a Chinese stake in a continued Pakistani hold.
China opposed Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2015, a shift from her going along with the consensus NSG exemption for India in 2008. China is increasingly involved in the internal politics of our neighbours in the subcontinent. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now a semi-permanent presence in the Indian Ocean as China has a military base at Djibouti and controls a string of ports in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) that could be used for military purposes from Gwadar to Hambantota to Khyaukpyu.
China too has her complaints. India was the first and only invitee to respond negatively to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As US-China relations deteriorated in the last decade, India’s ties with the US have strengthened, particularly in defence. India revived the Quad and committed itself to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, concepts that China regards with suspicion and opposes. And India sought to rectify the adverse balance on the border from the beginning of the century by building new roads, advanced landing grounds (ALGs), raising two new mountain divisions in 2010, raising a new mountain strike corps in 2013, and a host of other steps.
Shivshankar Menon is a former national security adviser of India.
(This article has been adapted from a lecture delivered by the author to the Manthan Foundation in Hyderabad last month)