Dialogue  April-June 2008 , Volume 9 No. 4

India’s Place in China’s Strategic Vision –

A Historical Perspective





A highly significant metamorphosis has been witnessed in the character of Sino-Indian ties during the last four decades or so- from a position of ‘strategic enmity’ in 1962 to that of ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’ in 2005. Its impact on the geo-political situation in Asia, South Asia in particular, continues to be profound. How such transformation has come about? No doubt, it has been the outcome of culmination of the strategic thought process that has been progressing in both the nations, taking into account the deep changes happening both at global and regional levels. This paper takes China’s case and examines the nature of imperatives for that country’s policy shifts in the matter of ties with India. In addition, an attempt has been made to trace the directions of shifts and analyse their   implications for India.   

      Like in other nations of the world, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) also, the foreign policy at each historical stage has been a by-product of the country’s overall prevailing strategic vision at that time; more importantly, very often, major components of such vision have been the perceived domestic policy priorities of a particular period. To cite instances of domestic and foreign policy linkages, in the Mao Zedong era (1949-76), ‘class struggle’ and ‘self-reliant development’ were the main domestic goals; to facilitate their accomplishment, China externally adopted a strategy of ‘leaning to one side’, i.e with Socialist allies. Internal priorities underwent a major change in the post-1978 period, with veteran leader Deng Xiaoping initiating a path of  ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, to be matched by an adjusted foreign policy – based on open door, anti-hegemony and independence principles. As a break from the past, no alliance or strategic relation with any major power was envisaged. This path continues till today, but with additional inputs without any basic change. To illustrate, in the post-Deng period, Jiang Zemin  formulated  national policies centering round  his theory of “ Three Represents”, aimed at making the Chinese Communist Party a representative of  majority of the people and codified  ‘three  major historic tasks’ for China – Modernisation, National Reunification and Safeguarding World Peace and Common Development. This was matched by an external line of ‘Independent Foreign Policy of Peace’. His successor Hu Jintao brought forth a development model marking a shift in emphasis – from GDP centric growth to ‘balanced development’, to be backed by his own concept of “ Scientific Outlook of Development”, of which ‘creation of ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ and ‘Sustainable development’ constituted main components. Designed to suit to China’s ‘primary stage of socialism’, it seeks to analyse the country’s own development practice, learning side by side from experiences of other countries. Correspondingly, Hu put in place a foreign policy course based on the idea of a  “Harmonious World” which lays emphasis on accomplishing ‘lasting peace and common prosperity, through a win-win solution in international relations’.1     

      The history above confirms that China’s strategy to develop a foreign policy conducive to the country’s modernisation drive, had its origin as early as in years immediately following 1978, when, under Deng’s stewardship,  ‘revolution’ was jettisoned as the party ideology, to be replaced by the new line of ‘reforms and opening up’. To the credit of the succeeding  ‘third and fourth’ generation leaderships, the strategy was fine-tuned with additional clear-cut assertions; notable has been the declaration of Premier Wen Jiabao that ‘what China needs for its development first and foremost is an international environment of long term stability and a stable surrounding environment’.2     

       With a ‘peaceful periphery’ becoming important for its modernisation drive, China’s domestic goal- foreign policy connectivity policy at the present juncture is contributing to a change in its strategic vision of South Asia in general, India in particular. In fact, the contours of the PRC’s “South Asia policy under new situation” were visible in as early as December 1996; the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin hinted at a beginning of his country’s ‘balanced’ South Asia policy in his speech to Pakistan Senate at that time, by adopting a neutral stand on the Kashmir issue favouring New Delhi - Islamabad  ‘consultations and negotiations’ on the subject. A leading China scholar3 later confirmed this trend by observing that subsequent to Premier Wen’s South Asia tour in 2005, the PRC would develop relations with South Asian nations in a ‘parallel’ manner, adding that ‘China’s strategic partnership with India and Pakistan is unprecedented in the sense that each relation is not directed against any third party’.

     It is natural that the domestic policy -driven changes in China’s vision of South Asia is having a positive impact on Sino-Indian relations; it can be said that the pre-1978 bad bilateral atmosphere marked by strains in the aftermath of 1962 conflict and China’s support to Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars, no longer agitates the two nations. At the same time, it can not be denied that non-domestic factors are also motivating Beijing now to improve ties with New Delhi- neutralising the perceived US regional strategy to contain China, leveraging India ties to strengthen relationship with East Asian nations, important for trade, markets and resources, developing economies in areas bordering India, cooperating with India in exploitation of much needed energy resources, protection of oil transport security in the Indian Ocean with the help of India, getting India’s support to ‘One China’ policy and last, but not least, seeking India’s influence to reduce the pressure on China from the resurgence of Tibet issue.

     Viewing chronologically, as sure signs of China’s new interest in mending ties with India, Deng told the then visiting Indian Foreign Minister Vajpayee in 1979 that ‘no country poses a threat to each other’ and that ‘ the border issue can be solved through mutual concessions’.4 Around the same time, Beijing also started modifying its pro-Pakistan stand on Kashmir issue, with the state-controlled media dropping references to ‘India-occupied Kashmir’ and using instead the term  ‘India-controlled Kashmir’.

    Developments since the landmark visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988 have been remarkable. China has been more than willing to enter into several key bilateral agreements with India utilising the opportunity of regular exchanges of high level bilateral visits which included  - on ‘finding a fair and reasonable settlement to the boundary issue’ and forming a ‘Joint Working Group’ for the purpose (1988), ‘Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in Border areas along the Line of Actual Control’ (1993),‘Confidence Building Measures along the Line of Actual Control’ and  ‘Constructive and Cooperative Partnership between China and India in the 21st Century (1996), ‘Developing  a long term Constructive and Cooperative Partnership and  holding  border consultations on equal footing’, Appointment of Special Representatives ‘to explore the framework of a boundary settlement, from the political perspective of  overall bilateral relation  (2003),  ‘Global and Strategic significance of ties, Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity and Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question’ (2005), ‘Promotion of Civil Nuclear Cooperation (2006) and ‘Shared Vision for the 21st Century ( 2008). Overall, signs of some flexibility in China’s positions on some key issues like support to India’s case in the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as for permanent membership of the UN Security Council have emerged. Also being seen is a new stress on bilateral cooperation in the WTO and climate change issues5.

       Undoubtedly, by all indications, China’s intentions are in favour of improving ties with India, to which the latter is responding against its own imperatives. Beijing’s goal is to establish a ‘moderately well off’ society by 2020 through quadruplication of the GDP for 2000 and become a ‘modernised medium level developed country’ by 2050. It characterises the current global situation as favourable to China’s “Peaceful Development” with no chances of a war breaking out and is optimistic on a ‘long term peaceful international environment’ and ‘favourable neighbourhood’.6Keeping this in mind, a change in the PRC’s present global strategy, including towards India, is not likely.

    Will China become aggressive in international relations once its modernisation drive gets completed at some point of time from now? Immediately coming into one’s mind in this regard is the advice given by veteran leader Deng Xiaoping that China should ‘ stand firmly, hide its capabilities, bide its time and never try to take the lead’ in pursuance of its objectives. Worth noting in this context are evidences already surfacing to suggest that China’s strategy is not going to remain static, for e.g. in the new circumstances, the country’s  ‘independent foreign policy of peace’ is being made conditional to ‘safeguarding of Chinese Sovereignty, Security and Development’ and the  ‘economic growth’ imperative is being balanced with that of ‘military modernisation’. This would mean that the PRC will not hesitate to modify its strategy, if need arises.

      India has reasons to note with concern that barring improvements in bilateral trade (US$ 40 billion in 2007 with a target of US $60 billion by 2010, commencement of Joint Study on Regional Trade Agreement), Sino-Indian relations remain bedevilled by lack of progress on settling core issues- like the boundary question, Sino-Pakistan nexus and China’s competition for influence in India’s neighbourhood. The first is most important as China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh of India has a strategic purpose- then only it will be able to control over the Tibet Autonomous Region.7 The Chinese have of late introduced new elements to the border question by questioning the already agreed position of keeping areas with settled populations out of the dispute. Upping the ante on its claims, Beijing has gone to the extent of criticising the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to and improvement of border infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh by India. Also, it is assessing that the border negotiations would be a prolonged one8. Complicating the border issue is another factor- the resurgence of agitation in Tibet, the biggest in last two decades. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has himself admitted that the Tibet issue is  ‘sensitive’ one in Sino-Indian   relations. The Chinese also see a connection between the issue of their sovereignty over Tibet and the Sino-Indian border problem by alleging that British took away a large chunk of Chinese territory step by step since 1914 and that India has inherited the British legacy. This being so, the net effect of the recent Tibet unrest could probably be in the form of an erosion of China’s position in the ongoing border talks. On New Delhi’s part, it does not share the Chinese view that the Dalai Lama is the instigator of Tibet unrest, though it has no differences with Beijing on China’s sovereignty over Tibet. It is taking care to ensure that its traditional sympathy for the Dalai Lama does not produce a negative impact on the bilateral ties with China. 

    There is a strong feeling in India that the ‘all weather’ Beijing- Islamabad friendship is   primarily aimed at restraining New Delhi. Apparent in this regard has been the character of ‘alliance’ between China and Pakistan established through their unique Friendship Treaty of 2005, with the objective of hedging against India. Even some Chinese scholars have admitted the same9. The phenomenon of ‘alliance’ through the treaty against India goes against the spirit of Hu Jintao’s statement in New Delhi that his country has no selfish gains in South Asia. On the next issue concerning the PRC’s initiatives to get closer to India’s surrounding nations, Chinese motives have generally come under a suspicion in India. China’s military modernisation is another matter of India’s concern, as suggested by in its Defence Ministry’s recent annual reports. New Delhi may have noted the recent evaluation of the US10 that China’s military modernisation is changing the regional balance in East Asia. Though Beijing’s Defence policy is in the main oriented towards preventing US intervention in Taiwan, it has other intentions, for e.g. gaining capacity to meet contingencies like conflicts over resources and territories. Yet another irritant for India concerns Chinese fears over New Delhi’s joining a Western alliance against the PRC. Beijing’s authoritative media have commented that Washington’s intentions to enclose India into the camp of its global partners, fit exactly with India’s wishes’11 The PRC has specifically questioned the motives behind the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation and defence agreements and formation of the four nation (Australia, Japan,India and US) ‘alliance of democracies’, being described in Beijing media as ‘Asian NATO’12. To the credit of India, its leaders have tried to assuage the Chinese suspicions.

       In a nutshell, it can be said that India, no doubt, figures prominently in China’s strategic vision. At the moment, just like in the cases of its relationship with other concerned nations, Beijing is following a tactical approach towards New Delhi with the principle of ‘reserving the differences and working for common development’ as basis. In the long run however, China’s intentions remain unclear. It looks that Beijing may not be able to address immediately all of New Delhi’s core concerns and as such, potentials for future conflicts may always exist, putting to test the wishes of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that ‘there is enough space for two countries to develop together’.



1 Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi ’s press conference, 12 March 2008

2 Wen Jiabao ’s interview with Associated Press of Pakistan, People’s Daily  

  Online, 4 April 2005

3 Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs webpage, Professor Zheng Ruixiang,

   June 2005

4 ‘Defining moments’, N.Ram, Frontline, September 12-25, 1998

5 The Hindu online, 15 January 2008

6 Wen Jiabao, Signed People ’s Daily Article, February 2007

7 India-China: Hype and Reality, South Asia Analysis Group, B.Raman, No.2047

   dated 1 December 2006.

8 China Institute of International Strategic Studies Analysis, 21 November 2006

  and Premier Wen Jiabao’s quotation that border issue is complex and can not be

  resolved overnight, Xinhua, Beijing, 18 March 2008

9 Professor Yu Dunxin, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations,

   AFP, 22 November 2006

10 US Office of the Defence Secretary, “ Military Power of the PRC”, 2008

11 People ’s Daily, 30 August 2007

12 China Daily, 16 January 2007


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati