Dialogue  January-March, 2007, Volume 8  No. 3

India and China: Neither Rivals nor Partners

D.S. Rajan

 Concerning the future course of India-China relations, there appear to be two schools of thought among China scholars in India – one with an euphoric approach, sure of bright prospects, mainly on the basis of the expected surge in overall bilateral ties as an offshoot of the ongoing momentum in the economic and trade fronts, and the other, still not free from old memories and very much pessimistic, concerned as it is with the still unsolved issues at strategic levels dividing the two rising Asian powers. Both the streams, obviously opposed to each other, seem to miss the current realities in the Sino-Indian relations. Firstly, the two nations have become keen to move closer to each other at the present historical stage, marked by the world’s progress in the new century under the heavy influence of the growing interdependence between nations with primacy to conflict resolutions. Policy priorities in India and China are accordingly changing. Secondly, there is still no let up in the level of mutual suspicions between the two, based on factors relating to both the past (e.g. boundary issue) and the present (e.g. competition for influence). What is required under such conditions is a realistic appraisal in India on future ties with China, with focus on the question as to how relations with China could be improved without compromising India’s core strategic interests.

 To the credit of the successive governments in New Delhi, their policies in essence towards Beijing have indeed been reflecting a desire to pursue a realistic approach, especially since the landmark visit of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988.With China responding, albeit out of its own interests, the result has been a steady improvement in Sino-Indian relations since then, especially in matters of bilateral trade and confidence building measures. Needless to say however is that a full normalisation of ties would depend on the sincerity of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in addressing India’s sensitivities on strategic issues. China’s track record shows that its responses in this regard have at the best remained dithering and that much more needs to be done by Beijing to translate into action its oft-repeated assurances on creating ‘a win-win situation’ in relations with New Delhi; against this background, a fresh evaluation of the current status of the key Sino-Indian issues and its implications for the future, looks justified. What follows is an attempt in that direction.

Boundary Issue

 Admittedly, no permanent solution to the Sino-Indian boundary issue is in sight, despite the holding so far of 9 rounds of negotiations between Special Representatives and 15 Joint Working Group meetings between the two sides. At the same time, the progress, which has been made with regard to ‘guiding principles and political parameters’, appears significant, for instance the reported agreement on preventing ‘major displacement of population’ during border settlement1. The Chinese are however persisting with their claims over entire Arunachal Pradesh of India, specifically Tawang2, which are not acceptable to India. Such claims, subjected to careful analysis, appear as a pressure tactic against India at a time of the highly speculated Sino-Indian package deal – India’s acceptance of Chinese claims in Aksai Chin in the West, to be matched by China’s consent to India’s territorial limits in Arunachal Pradesh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)3. The negotiations seem to have entered a delicate phase now, but with some optimism generated by the instructions given by India and China to their respective Special Representatives to speed up their talks.

 The basic point not to be missed is that suspicions persist outside China, particularly in India on the PRC’s strategy towards finding solutions to the boundary problems in general. Past practices show that Beijing is never inclined to giving up its border claims, but preferring to ‘reserve the differences or shelve the territorial issues and work for common development’ (for e.g, China’s formulae in the cases of South China Sea islands sovereignty disputes and the Senkaku island ownership issue with Japan)4. In other words, China thinks its claims are always just, but would prefer to keep the issues frozen for some time, especially in complex cases like the boundary problem with India; this fits in with the PRC’s current strategy to maintain a peaceful international atmosphere globally and a stable environment in the periphery, to suit to its modernisation drive. Viewing from this logic, it seems that Beijing is prepared to wait for long in the matter of finding a final solution to the border dispute with India. Chinese academicians close to the authorities are echoing such thinking, saying that the still prevailing lack of trust between the China and India meant no chances of an immediate solution to the boundary problem5. Noticeable from the same angle has been Beijing’s official description of the issue as ‘historical legacy’. This being so, significant in an overall sense is the apparent willingness of the both the sides to look beyond the border issue in promoting bilateral relations.

China-Pakistan Nexus

 China’s declared policy towards Pakistan is to elevate their strategic partnership to ‘a new high’ (a terminology not being used in the case of India). Beijing continues to supply Pakistan with weapons systems, fighter aircraft (JF-17 type), frigates (F 22 model) and nuclear enrichment as well as missile technologies (relating to cruise missiles). Beijing is to construct a civil-military airport at Gwadar(Pakistan) for possible use of Chinese Air Force at times of emergency6. The China-Pakistan Treaty of Friendly Cooperation and Good Neighbourly Relations (April 2005), considered by both the nations as legal foundation to strategic partnership between the two, is the first such one between the PRC and a South Asian nation. Interestingly, the Treaty is being looked upon in China as ‘symbol of Sino-Pakistan alliance against foreign invasion’.7 Expectations are that Pakistan will use the treaty as leverage against the perceived threat from India. China may also feel that Pakistan will be Treaty-bound to come to its aid in any event of any acute Sino-US competition in South Asia.

China’s role in India’s neighbourhood

 There are reasons for New Delhi’s doubts on this account. Broadly speaking, China looks intent to exploit its friendship with Pakistan (also with Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) to gain a foothold in South Asia, especially to limit India’s influence in the region. Another objective could relate to Beijing’s international maritime security strategy with the specific goal of reducing the level of the country’s dependence on the piracy-prone Malacca Straits for the movement of its oil and gas supplies. In this regard, the PRC’s port projects in Gwadar(Pakistan) and Sitwe (Myanmar) could turn out be useful for China; the one at Hambantota (Sri Lanka) could facilitate port calls by the Chinese Navy, besides providing a listening post for the Chinese to cover the nuclear, space and naval activities in South India8. It may thus not be wrong to conclude that China’s declaration (by President Hu Jintao in India, November 2006) that it seeks ‘ no selfish gains in South Asia’ comes under a cloud.

 In the above background, Beijing’s indications in favour of a balanced South Asia policy (first noticed in the speech given by the then PRC President Jiang Zemin to Pakistan Senate in December 1996) look hollow. Pertinent to note however is that some new elements, signalling China’s recognition of the growing importance of India, have surfaced in the recent period. President Hu Jintao’s description (New Delhi, November 2006) of ties with India as having acquired global and strategic significance and acknowledgement of India’s role in ensuring world multi-polarity (none of these figured when Hu Jintao visited Pakistan), have been cases in point9. As other indicators, China, for the first time, has offered civil nuclear cooperation with India, giving rise to expectations on its endorsement to the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement as a member-nation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Also, Chinese scholars have argued that the PRC should start addressing India’s security concerns while promoting relations with Pakistan10. In addition, Beijing has modified its stand on Kashmir, by dropping its earlier calls for self-determination of the people there and calling for solution of the problem bilaterally by India and Pakistan. There was no bias in favour of Pakistan at the time of Kargil conflict.

Tibet Issue

India has recognised the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China’s territory. Tibet issue has now ceased to be a factor in India-China relations, which is admitted officially by Beijing itself. Nevertheless, it is clear that China continues to feel uneasy as a result of the presence and activities of the Dalai Lama and his followers exiled in India. The PRC Premier Wen Jiabao’s concern, expressed without naming India, about the functioning of ‘ Tibet exiled government abroad’ against China’s interests, illustrates this point (Press Conference at the end of Parliament session, Beijing, March 16,2007). India too seems to have misgivings on recent developments in Tibet. China has been fast improving the infrastructure in Tibet, especially by connecting Lhasa with interior provinces by railway with effect from 1 July 2006, which is sought to be extended up to Yadong, close to Indian border. Beijing is also visualising a Tibet-Indian Ocean trade route via India through Yadong. These developments undoubtedly have strategic implications for India.

India thus seems to still have a definite a stake on the Tibet issue, though it is now an internal matter for China. Tibet’s stability is important for neighbouring India, in the interest of which it would like the exiled community to return to Tibet finally, with a proper leadership position for the Dalai Lama there. The spiritual leader is getting old and if he passes away, the likely impact of the same on Tibet and Tibetans in India would be difficult to predict. China appears to have understood such implications and hence its readiness now to talk to the Dalai Lama side, though at informal levels. New Delhi also may be aware that any violent resistance against China in the post-Dalai Lama period, by hardliners in exile in India, with some probable international support, could complicate India-China relations. It would therefore be advisable for India to indirectly enter the stage for the purpose of adding momentum to the ongoing dialogue between the Dalai Lama side and the Chinese leadership.

Military modernisation in China

Military modernisation in China is a contentious issue in Sino-Indian relations. In justification of such modernisation, the Defence White Paper of China (December 2006) cited the need for the PRC to meet the ‘grave threat’ coming from ‘Taiwan Independence forces’, the situation created by the North Korean missile and nuclear tests in 2006 and the US-Japan efforts to build a defence shield usable in any conflict over Taiwan. The announced 17.8% increase in the Defence budget for 2007 (Beijing, March 5, 2007) has also been referred to by Beijing in the context of a Taiwan conflict (to safeguard national sovereignty and integrity, to quote from China’s jargon) The Indian concern about China’s military modernisation came through the Defence Ministry’s Annual Report (2005-06) which stressed the need for New Delhi to monitor the subject including the development of infrastructure in the India-China border areas. The remarks of the then Indian Defence Minister (Beijing, May 2006), citing the defence MOU signed with China, that his country need not be concerned with China’s military modernisation ‘as every country is following a similar process’, indeed caused some confusion, but basically did not mark any shift in India’s positions on the subject.

 New Delhi is also opposed to China’s weaponisation of outer space as could be seen from the criticisms, though guarded, against the PRC’s anti-satellite test (January 2007) made by the Indian Space Agency Chief and Minister Pranab Mukherjee. As counter-offensive, Beijing through its media is resorting to projection of the ten-year Indo-US Defence Agreement (June 2005) and the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement (2006) in an unfavourable light. In both cases, the US has been accused of drawing India against China.

Other irritants

Other issues affecting India-China relations include New Delhi’s proposed participation in the four-nation (India-the US-Australia-Japan) dialogue process, India’s nuclear programme, its permanent membership in the UN Security Council, India’s role in the East Asian economic integration process and the democracy issue relating to China. Regarding first, the Chinese tend to see an “Asian NATO” and a security mechanism against China in the proposed process11. Recent signs indicate that Australia may be dragging its feet over inclusion of India in the process, so as to not annoy China12. On India’s nuclear weapon programme, President Hu Jintao’s offer (New Delhi, November 2006) for Sino-Indian civil nuclear energy cooperation may mean a softening of China’s stand on India’s nuclear intentions. In the wake of India’s nuclear tests in 1998, Beijing virulently attacked India on this account.

Regarding India’s permanent membership in the United Nations, certain ambiguity still seems to prevail concerning China’s position, despite the hint given by Hu Jintao in India (November 2006) of possible support to New Delhi in this regard. On India’s participation in the East Asian Summit (EAS) (Kuala Lumpur, 2005) and the 16- Nation Pan Asian Free Trade Area (FTA) (2006) in which India was included at Japan’s behest, the Chinese scepticism has been evident. Beijing did not want India as one of the EAS leaders, preferring in this regard the ASEAN+ 1 (China). On the Asian FTA, China suspects an effort by Japan to dominate Asia and contain China and South Korea13. Regarding the last point of democracy in China, Beijing does not want outside intervention, especially from the West, on this score. The subject is very sensitive for China and though it has so far made no criticisms in open, Beijing is not expected to take kindly the calls given by US personalities like Rice and Rumsfeld (2005) for a transparent political system in China and also the New Delhi-Washington ‘Democracy Initiative’ (July 18,2005).


It can be seen that China has so far failed to sincerely address India’s strategic concerns relating to key issues. No doubt, economic relations are on the upswing (India-China regional trading arrangements to be completed by 2007 and bilateral trade to go up to US$ 20 billion by end of this year), but stability in bilateral ties can be established only if the two nations come to see eye to eye on strategic issues. A clear example is the case of Beijing-Tokyo relations. In spite of the boom in bilateral economic ties, their political relationship remains sour till today, despite the revival of high-level leadership contacts between them in the recent period. The reason is obvious- the continuing clash between the strategic interests of China and Japan. The analogy is apt to describe the India-China ties also. In achieving full normalisation of relations within a particular time frame, an uphill task therefore appears to await the two nations. 


     1.   www.phayul.com/news/tols/print.aspx?id+15766&t+0

     2.   As in footnote 1

     3.   Paper No. 2028,dated 17 November 2006 of SAAG, www.saag.org/papers21/paper2028.html

     4.   ibid

     5.   ibid

     6.   Paper No 2131 dated 11 February 2007, B.Raman, www.saag.org/papers 22/paper2131.html

     7.   Paper No 2058 dated 10 December 2006, www.saag.org/papers21/paper2058.html

     8.   Paper No 2158 dated 6 March 2007, www.saag.org/papers22/paper2158.html

     9.   Paper by D.S.Rajan, www.whatisindia.com/opinion/rajan/wis20061130

   10.   Prof Chao Gancheng,Shanghai Institute of International Studies, 12 April 2005,www.tibetinfor.com, 11 May 2005 ( in Chinese)

   11.   China Daily, 16 January 2007

   12.   The Australian, 13 March 2007

   13.   Peoples Daily, 26 August 2006


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati