India-China Relations: The Second Coming of the Bharatiya Janata Party

India and China are the two biggest world powers in terms of territory, population, standing in world politics, and economic, political and military potential. Both India and China have crossed the “nuclear threshold.” Paradoxically, the two biggest geopolitical rivals have been actively deepening political, commercial and economic relations.

In the year since his party’s convincing victory in the 2014 general elections, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown a personal interest in pursuing a more active foreign policy. In just 57 days, he visited 18 countries, including the US and China, as well as India’s “near abroad” from Bhutan to Bangladesh. He also attended a number of important international summits. Leaders of major world powers, including the US, China, and Russia, have paid official visits to India.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China in mid-May 2015 is in a class of its own among the major foreign policy initiatives advanced by the new Indian leadership. Prior to his visit, Mr. Modi said: “The 21st century belongs to Asia. I hope that my visit will not only strengthen Chinese-Indian friendship but will also become a new landmark in relations of the developing countries of Asia and the world.”

What is this visit’s significance for India and China? How can it influence the geopolitical situation in Asia and the alignment of political and strategic forces in the world?

Indian political scientists have traditionally described their country’s geopolitical position as made up of three concentric circles. The first circle includes its immediate neighbors. India’s strategy in this region is to bolster its dominance in South Asia and prevent outside interference in relations between South Asian countries. The second circle represents India’s expanded neighborhood in Asia and the Indian Ocean. In this zone, India seeks to balance the influence of other states and to prevent encroachment on its own interests. The third circle is the rest of the world. At the global level, India would like to be a great power and play a key role in efforts to ensure international peace and security.

Among India’s foreign policy priorities, China stands out. From a purely geopolitical perspective, China can be said to span all three concentric circles. China is India’s immediate neighbor but is also located within the second circle comprising the expanded Asian neighborhood and the Indian Ocean. China is also a great power and one of the key guarantors of peace and security at the global level.

India and China are the two biggest world powers in terms of territory, population, standing in world politics, and economic, political and military potential. Both India and China have crossed the “nuclear threshold.” One is a generally accepted member of the nuclear club, while the other has tested a nuclear device and rightfully aspires to official recognition of its status as a nuclear power.

The geopolitical rivalry between the two Asian giants at the regional level has taken the form of a protracted border dispute that has ebbed and flowed for decades, from the signing of important bilateral documents to direct armed clashes along the border. Protracted and painstaking negotiations resulted in the signing of agreements on border confidence-building measures in 1993 and 1996. In the early 2000s, the sides finally agreed not to rely on legal or historical precedents to resolve border disputes, and to be guided solely by political considerations. Today both governments and the public in the two countries are clearly aware of the fact that the territorial problem can only be resolved on the basis of mutually acceptable compromises.

The Tibet problem and the presence of the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees in India remain a major irritant in relations between India and China. Delhi has invariably reaffirmed that it recognizes Tibet as an inalienable part of China and that it continues to regard the Dalai Lama as the Tibetans’ religious leader and permits him to live and work in India only in such a capacity. China views such assurances with mistrust and suspects India of aiding and abetting “Tibetan separatists.” From time to time, Tibetan refugees in India stage anti-Chinese protests. For example, a Tibetan refugee set himself on fire to protest China’s occupation of Tibet shortly before the Chinese leader visited Delhi to attend the latest BRICS summit. The Indian leadership regards the buildup of Chinese forces armed with advanced weapons in Tibet as a serious threat to India’s border security.

The prospects for solid strategic ties between India and China are still complicated by the Pakistani factor. India is even more aggrieved by Pakistani-Chinese military-political cooperation than its unresolved border dispute with China. Therefore, permanent normalization in India-China relations is likely only if Pakistan and China discontinue their cooperation in rocket and nuclear technologies. India also has misgivings regarding China’s “special” relations with the so-called “smaller countries” in South Asia – neighbors of India that have traditionally opposed its interests. The “Chinese military threat to India” is a fixture in Indian media discussions, even though a real border clash between India and China is all but impossible.

Paradoxically, the two biggest geopolitical rivals have been actively deepening political, commercial and economic relations. As of today, bilateral trade exceeds $60 billion, even reaching $73.9 billion in 2011 according to customs data. Within the next few years, trade may reach $100 billion. China is in fact emerging as India’s main trade partner, outperforming both the US and the EU.

We should view relations between India and China through the prism of this duality. Xinhua News Agency published an article shortly after the BJP government came to power in India with the headline “India and China are strategic partners, not rivals.”

The new Indian prime minister’s three-day visit to China in May 2015 demonstrated the two countries’ intention to meet each other halfway despite persisting differences in their approaches to a number of problems. The talks in Beijing focused on trade and economic relations and on the unresolved territorial dispute.

At the end of the visit more than 200 Chinese and Indian companies signed major economic cooperation agreements worth $22 billion in such areas as alternative power generation, the banking sector, port infrastructure construction, and industrial parks.

The final communiqué praised the steps taken in the area of trade and investment and noted the need to take necessary measures to “remove barriers to bilateral trade and investment and to facilitate broader access to markets.”

Prior to the visit, China made it clear to India that settling the territorial dispute could give a powerful impetus to the resolution of a wider range of bilateral problems existing between the two regional rivals. Characteristically, Beijing sent a clear signal that if the Indian PM wanted to achieve a “breakthrough in relations,” he should refrain from visiting Arunachal Pradesh – a reminder of China’s extremely harsh reaction to Modi’s trip to this disputed territory in the Himalayas in February 2015.

There is no doubt that many analysts responded positively to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China, expressing hope for better to come given the emergent India-China rapprochement on a number of bilateral, regional and global issues, which would facilitate cooperation within the Russia-India-China project. It could be added that Delhi and Beijing worked together to found the New Development Bank of BRICS. China has supported India’s accession to the SCO, while India has agreed to give Beijing observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

However, despite the wide range of problems discussed and the generally positive international reaction to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China, one has the impression that the sides were avoiding a serious discussion of issues like the situation in Pakistan and Pakistan-China relations (including the planned economic corridor between China and Pakistan, a section of which will pass through the Pakistan-occupied territory of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a project which met with a highly negative reaction from Delhi); China also has not shown support for India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and participate in a number of agreements and regimes related to nuclear security, etc.

As usual, the main stumbling block is what kind of relations India and China will have with the US, including in the context of the situation in Afghanistan and beyond. A number of US publications have noted the warming of the political climate between India and China, which have outgrown the current West-dominated world order. One has the impression that among other things India’s relations with Washington are aimed at containing Beijing. But we should expect India to continue pursuing a foreign policy guided by its national interests. Relations with the US, China and Russia are likely to figure prominently in its foreign policy priorities. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.