Managing India – China Relations – Analysis


By Bhaskar Roy

Both India and China have struggled to manage their bilateral relations since the 1950s. The two fought a border war in 1962 when China attacked India and still holds Indian territory acquired during the war. Over decades, the Chinese officials and official media launched virulent attacks on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru even long after his death. The Chinese proclivity to warn India at every conceivable opportunity even without clear reasons, continues.

In spite of two major Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) agreements along the border – one when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited China in 1993, and the other when Chinese President Jiang Zemin came to New Delhi in November, 1995 – Chinese soldiers have kept periodically provoking along the border. One major incident that occurred was in July 2003. When Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was still in China, a large group of Chinese soldiers in the eastern sector arrested a small Indian patrol inside India’s perceived territory and warned never to venture there again. This was a deliberate and calculated act, telling India that Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit had not resolved any major issues and the border issue was not going to be reconciled easily.

China - India Relations
China - India Relations

Specifically on the boundary issue, there is no indication that the Chinese are in any mood for a solution. The closest the two countries came towards a way was when they signed an agreement in 2005 on modalities to resolve the boundary issue. Section 4 of the agreement stated there will be no exchange of settled population. The Chinese quickly realised they had given up their claim on Tawang, and have stalled the spirit of the agreement since.

China has resolved its land border disputes with almost all countries (some small differences still remain with Russia in the eastern sector) except India. The differences with India are not restricted to India-China border alignment/territories. China’s position is that the India-China border is 2000 kms, India’s legal position is that it is 4000 kms. This difference results from Beijing’s strategic policy to counter India. The Chinese position on the border challenges India’s sovereignty over territories from Sikkim to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). This is also a ploy to perpetuate the border issue indefinitely. There would be lasting impediments, however, even if the two governments agree to delineation through some small give and take. India cannot expect to get back Aksai Chin from China, and China cannot expect to get Tawang which it had never held, let alone Arunachal Pradesh. But on other small exchanges each country will have to carry their people with them on territory exchanges, which will not to be an easy task for either side. These can be examined only after China agrees to come down to their point.

The history of Kashmir is well known. POK is Indian territory according to the instruments of accession in 1947, a legal agreement, but occupied by Pakistan. In 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded over 5000 Sq kms of POK to China, and China is currently making good use of it to reach the Arabian sea and Gulf region through Pakistan. Taking the Chinese position on the length of the border, China does not recognize the Indian Jammu and Kashmir (including Ladakh) as Indian territory but a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. On the one hand it opposed an ADB loan for development projects in Arunachal Pradesh claiming it was disputed territory between China and India. On the other, it is investing and constructing infrastructure in POK, another disputed territory. Their two faced approach is dangerous and naturally raises questions in India.

There is a long list of other well known issues with China that have led the Indian people to regard it with suspicion. There are the various aspects of the nuclear issue including the India-US nuclear deal and the most recent Xinhua commentary suggesting the Australian Labour Party’s decision to sell uranium to India will risk spread proliferation. There have been warning against India’s Look East Policy both directly and indirectly and India-Japan defence relationship. Even India’s relationship building in Central Asia has been looked at suspiciously by China.

From 2008, China began demonstrating its military and economic power in prosecuting its foreign policy. This included sharp attack on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tawang, something which upset the Indian government and New Delhi responded accordingly. Another was the issue of stapled visas to Kashmiris and even Lt. Gen. Jaiswal, the Kashmir based GOC of the Indian army. Following strong Indian protests including suspension of military-to-military relations, Beijing reverted to issuing regular visas to Kashmir residents. There are just a couple of examples. The Chinese have warned India’s ONGC-Videsh to desist from oil and gas exploration with a Vietnamese company in Vietnamese water in the disputed South China Sea. The Chinese official media has also raised the question of India-Vietnam defence and strategic agreement. While India stood its ground in all these issues, the point is that China consistently opposes India even with half-opportunities.

An India-China war?

There are some serious concerns among a section of Indian experts that China may launch a surprise attack on India in 2012. They have reasons. The 1962 attack was a surprise under the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ (India-China are brothers) slogan. This is not exactly correct. The leaders and those concerned in the Indian government abysmally failed to read either the Chinese signals or the Chinese military movement along the undemarcated borders. India’s first Prime Minister, Pt. Nehru, who the Chinese love to hate, never thought the Chinese would betray him. He may have made some free-wheeling comments in Parliament, but those were not well thought out policy positions. Nehru had gone all out to support China at every conceivable international fora. He gave up the UN Security Council (P-5) seat in favour of China. He believed in an Asian unity and thought the offer to India to take the P-5 seat was a western conspiracy to break an Asian solidarity and India-China friendship.

The war wary Indians have been closely watching the Chinese militarization of Tibet, and permanent military-cum-civilian infrastructure construction there at a rapid pace. Roads and barracks have been built along the borders; five air ports have been constructed along the borders from the western sector to the eastern sector. There has been planned extension of the Tibet railway to the Indian borders and Nepal. The Golmud-Lhasa railway has been quietly used for transportation of military equipment including ammunition and explosives. High altitude military drills and para-droppings have been conducted by the PLA troops in Tibet. DF-21 missiles (range 1800 Kms plus) in Sichuan province cover north-east India. To top it all are the frequent incursions of the PLA troops inside Indian controlled territory of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

And China has resisted exchange of maps of the respective sides in western and eastern sectors to reconcile the border line, giving rise to the apprehension China is not sincere.

One must take heed of Chinese assertive statements over the last two years at least, and PLA associated statements that China was strong enough to use force to secure territories which they perceive as theirs. Chinese military threats in the South China Sea over the sovereignty of the Spratley Islands and clashes with Japan over the Senkaku Islands are straws in the wind read here.

China’s concerns

With its huge economic development and currently the No.2 economic power in the world only behind the US, and military modernization taking it to almost the second or third strongest military power racing ahead in sophistication, the Chinese leadership felt it was an appropriate time to demonstrate its national power internationally. In the course of its hubris, it miscalculated international perceptions thinking that with the global economic meltdown in which China stood as a virtual rock of stability, it could have its way especially on its questionable territorial claims in its Asia-Pacific neighbourhood.

While showing its military flag it has pushed most of its South East Asian neighbours into a virtual coalition against China forcing them to look at the US as guarantor for their sovereignty, territorial integrity and most importantly, independence.

US President Barack Obama’s recent Asia-Pacific surge has greatly disturbed China. The foundation was laid during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2010 Asian tour and her tough position in mid-2010 in the ASEAN meeting in Hanoi especially on free navigation in the South China Sea. Beijing thought that with the US mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and internal economic problems, it could do a deal with Washington. But its unofficial private proposal to Clinton that the South China Sea be recognized as China’s “core” interest (that is, it will be controlled by China) was firmly rebutted.

Politically and economically, Obama’s strong support to and joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) can make the ASEAN and APEC redundant. China is seriously assessing the impact of the TPP and considering whether it can join it or not. The basic rules of the TPP have already been made and many of them, like human rights and rule of law, counter China’s policy. There is a fear that the US may be trying to replicate the Atlantic model in the Pacific.

Chinese experts however, have begun to question some of the positions that the Chinese Communist Party and the government has taken. For example, China’s claim on the South China Sea has been questioned. China’s support to North Korea in 2010 when Pyongyang sank a South Korean frigate and shelled a South Korean island, were also criticized.

While maintaining its rigid positions in the region it sees the perceived US encirclement policy of China growing stronger. It is worried about the growing US-India relations especially in the area of defence–military acquisitions, joint exercises, and India’s joint naval exercises with some of the South East Asian countries, India-Japan relations among others. They see these developments as supported and aided by the US.

China has also noted with some concern the talks about an India-China war in the near future. At the moment, China is going through a tense internal situation with upcoming change in leadership next year, and such discussions can disturb their internal imperatives. The Chinese official media has said recently that there is no possibility of such a war. Yet, at the same time, the official propaganda or psychological warfare is highlighting India’s military acquisitions and spreading the fear of India bullying its small neighbours. The mischief continues.

China’s oppositions to India’s Look East Policy, questioning US-Japan-India dialogue among others is highly questionable, especially when China continues to actively pursue its strategy of influence including military among India’s immediate neighbours.

Beijing is well on its way to establish a naval base in Seychelles, calling it a support base for the PLA navy’s anti-piracy operations off the Somalian coast. China’s serving military experts have expanded on this move to say that ultimately such facilities may be converted into military bases. President Hu Jintao has recently directed the navy to prepare for warfare, and the PLA has established a Strategic Planning Division (SPD) under the General Staff Department to not only assist in planning, budget and coordination, but also have the responsibility in advising in political, diplomatic, economic, energy and other such areas. These are developments which indicate the PLA’s growing influence on policy something that makes the Asia Pacific region and the Indian Ocean region uncomfortable.


Amidst discussions on China’s military intentions, the official news agency the Xinhua (Dec 19) said that if China was ever to encounter a military conflict the most likely place will be in the waters surrounding China. It is heavily pre-occupied politically, economically, militarily and strategically in its eastern sea board. In spite of its vastly improved relationship with KMT Ma Ying-Jeo government in Taiwan, Taipei still remains uncertain. There is a huge population of original Taiwanese residents who want independence. The majority wants status quo to remain. Those supporting reunification with the mainland is small. While the US supports one-China policy and has helped in easing Taiwan-mainland relations, it still sees Taiwan as very important strategic assets and keeps arming it, albeit in dribbles. In Beijing’s view, this is very serious and it has cogent reasons to believe that if Taiwan becomes independent, China will start disintegrating.

Next to Taiwan are South East Asia and Japan with problems relating to territorial issues. China’s forces are here. It cannot think of launching a war against India under these conditions. Further, India in 2011 is not India in 1962. The global changes in all aspects since 1962 have been immense.

At the same time, China will continue to build around India and the Indian Ocean region, fortify further militarily along the India-China borders, and keep the border issue alive. For India, forewarned is forearmed There is nothing called only soft power. Military power supports economic development and is an unstated strength on meeting tables, and the very essence of security. Their key phrase for India is “verify before trusting”. No overtures can be taken at face value.

Having said that, it would be advisable for both countries to work together for mutual benefit among differences. Much, however, depends on China’s India policy. Recent Chinese statement suggest their mistrust of India is growing. Beijing leaders and experts need to deep introspection on India’s independent foreign policy. While India will never be an ally of any country against a third country, that does not prevent it from seeking and consolidating its own national interests and cooperating with other countries for national development.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *