India Versus China: Why They Are Not FriendsKanti Bajpai
296 pages|₹ 599
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Xiamen, September 4, 2017 (Photo: Getty Images)
IN JUNE 2020, a bloody melee at Galwan in Ladakh left Indian and Chinese soldiers dead and injured. Both sides rushed military reinforcements to the area. Despite a protracted series of negotiations, they were unable to disengage the nearly 50,000 troops on either side of the border. After the 1962 war, the two forces had managed to preserve a high degree of military stability along the border. In 2020, six decades of relative calm collapsed in a matter of weeks. The crisis suggests that India-China relations are darker and more complex than most observers appreciate or acknowledge. It is tempting to ascribe current difficulties to the memory of the war and the unsettled border. Clearly, those do affect Indian and Chinese thinking. Yet the Galwan crisis suggests we need to dig deeper. Why have these two societies, comprising nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population, become locked into a conflict that refuses to go away?
Post-imperial India and China started well. India was one of the first countries to recognise the communist government and support its right to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. From 1950 to 1953, Delhi mediated between Beijing and Washington during the Korean War. Jawaharlal Nehru had twice visited China before India gained its independence and had helped arrange for a group of Indian medical personnel to go there in the late 1930s. In The Discovery of India, he recorded his admiration for Chinese society: “the vitality of the Chinese people astonishes me. I cannot imagine a people endowed with such bed-rock strength going under.” Later, in 1954, he made a highly publicised trip to China, was greeted by large crowds, and met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. When Zhou visited India in 1960, Indian crowds cheered “Hindi Chini bhai bhai! (Indians and Chinese are brothers!)” as he drove through the streets. Two years later, though, India and China were at war. India lost the war, and despite the withdrawal of Chinese troops from most of the areas they had captured, the relationship between Asia’s giants never fully recovered. Countries fight and become friends, but India and China, 60 years after fighting India’s shortest war—11 days of actual hostilities—are still not friends, as the bloody encounter in Galwan showed.
India and China are not friends for four key reasons: deep-seated differences over their perceptions of each other, over their territorial perimeters, and over their strategic partnerships with the big powers, as well as the implications of the asymmetry of power between them. The two societies’ perceptions of each other, especially influential Chinese perceptions of India going back to the 19th century, have been negative. This may in part account for why India and China cannot agree on their perimeters—their borderlands. Negative perceptions of each other and profound differences over their perimeters are compounded by the fact that they have never been strategic partners. They have both partnered the Soviet Union/Russia and the US at various times but have never been in partnership with each other and have no history of working closely together. Their differences might not have mattered had it not been for the power gap between them, which particularly since the early 1990s has grown relentlessly in China’s favour. As a result of the immense gap in power, India cannot make concessions, for fear of appearing weak, and China will not make concessions, as it does not see the need to do so.
Delhi and Beijing have no history of strategic collaboration to balance against their negative perceptions of each other. Had they been on the same side, they would have been better placed to reassure each other
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Are there other factors that bear on their relationship? What about a fifth P—Pakistan—which is often identified as a source of conflict? Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani rather blushingly described his country’s friendship with China as “higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey”. The quasi-alliance between the two powers clearly irks India, which sees Islamabad as a pawn in Beijing’s geopolitical moves. In the end, though, the close China-Pakistan relationship is more effect than cause: it resulted from the India-China conflict, not the other way round. India and China are also divided by several other differences—growing Chinese influence in the rest of South Asia; India’s deepening relations with Japan and Vietnam; Delhi and Beijing’s diplomacy in other parts of the world and in multilateral forums; international status-seeking by both powers; India’s huge trade deficit with China; and Chinese dam-building on the Brahmaputra River. These are important elements of the troubled relationship, but again, they are more effect than cause. They are not the fundamental causes of the conflict. Rather, they have become additional points of friction driven by four more basic causes.
The two countries do also have a record of cooperation, primarily in preserving military stability along the borderlands. Despite serious confrontations in 1967, 1975, 1986–87, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2020, the total number of Indian battle-deaths in these eight episodes is just over a hundred (the Chinese figures are not public). For a ‘live’ border quarrel over such an expanse, this is a small number. On the other hand, India and China have had five major confrontations in the last decade alone, after nearly 25 years of military stability, confrontations that could have escalated. In a paper I published on India’s China policy in June 2018, I concluded that India was “faced with the possibility of more Doklams around the corner”—this after the 73-day standoff there between the two militaries in 2017. The Ladakh crisis of 2020 was much more than a Doklam, but the prediction was correct in so far as it suggested that relations were increasingly brittle. The 2020 confrontation may be resolved peacefully, but it is a good bet that there will be more Ladakhs.
Of the four key reasons why India and China are not friends, let us first look at mutual perceptions. While India and China at various times looked up to each other until about the 15th century, their modern perceptions of each other have been largely negative. In the late 19th century, Chinese reformers studying India concluded that Indians had a “slave mentality” and a divided society which had led to the establishment and continuation of colonial rule. The presence of Indian troops, policemen and even “exploitative” businessmen in China left a further negative impress on ordinary Chinese perceptions of India.
Fast forward to the present. In 2011, Simon Shen, a Hong Kong professor, published a fascinating study of Chinese online comments on India and Indians, where the dominant sentiment expressed was disdain and disrespect. Stereotypes and words associated with India include “dirty, messy and bad”, a country full of slums and beggars, “crawling behind China, eating the Chinese dust”, and living in a chaotic democracy. India was also seen as a troublemaker, with its support of Tibetan separatism and refusal to negotiate on the border. A good proportion of the posts thought a punitive war against India was inevitable. A decade later Shen teamed up with Indian journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury. Their analysis of Chinese social and mainstream media showed that while Bollywood has a following in China, popular Chinese opinion after Doklam featured even more negative feelings: Indians were “arrogant, inefficient…filled with hatred and suspicion”, they “listen to whatever Captain America says”, and a strategic plan to “dismember” India was necessary.
The invidious perceptions are not all Chinese. The Pew Research Center and other surveys of Indian opinion between 2014 and 2020 reveal largely negative views of China. China is seen as a major threat to India’s security, as bad for the Indian economy, and as responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. Beyond the surveys, racist attitudes towards the Chinese are widely expressed—Indians from the Northeast are routinely referred to as “chichi chu chu” and “chinky’’, and offensive comments about Chinese eating habits are frequent. Badminton player Jwala Gutta, whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Indian, recounts how on online forums she has been called “half-Corona” and “China ka maal”.
Beyond the pejorative and racist perceptions of each other, Indians and Chinese have deep-seated differences over their perimeters—the borderlands, Tibet—despite unbroken negotiations since 1981. The conventional Indian view is that these conflicts were largely China’s fault compounded by Jawaharlal Nehru’s ineptness. In fact, Delhi and Beijing’s handling of the border problem between 1949 and 1962 suffered from mirror-image difficulties—hesitations in engaging on the issue; contradictions and inconsistencies when they engaged, leading to suspicions on both sides; and an inability to accept the other’s basic principle on colonial boundaries (India thought colonially inherited boundaries were legitimate, China disagreed).
These difficulties arose partly from their diplomatic inexperience, partly from their lack of cartographic and archival expertise, partly from their preoccupations with internal politics and other international challenges, and partly from differing political and strategic cultures. Differences over the border were exacerbated by doubts about their commitments on Tibet. From the mid-1950s on, India felt that China had reneged on its commitments on Tibetan autonomy. On its side, the Tibet rebellion of 1955-56 and India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama convinced China that India was subverting Beijing’s rule. Worse still, in the escalation to war, both thought the other to be aggressive rather than defensive militarily—a view that has remained unchanged despite a range of confidence-building measures designed to reassure the other.
In 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru made a highly publicised trip to china, was greeted by large crowds, and met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. When Zhou visited India in 1960, Indian crowds cheered ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai!’ as he drove through the streets. Two years later, though, India and China were at war
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Negative perceptions and fundamental differences over perimeters were compounded by their strategic partnerships with the Soviet Union/Russia and the US. For much of the Cold War, India partnered the Soviet Union against China. In roughly the same period, China partnered the US. After the Cold War, India drifted towards the US and increasingly sides with it in the new Cold War. This pattern of partnerships has meant that Delhi and Beijing have no history of strategic collaboration to balance against their negative perceptions of each other and their conflicts in the perimeters. Had they been on the same side, they would have been better placed to reassure each other when disagreements occurred. Though their interests sometimes ran parallel in resisting US hegemony, the moments of diplomatic convergence were ephemeral, and the two leaderships, civilian and military, have therefore lacked robust structures of trust and communication.
Finally, since the early 1980s, India has fallen increasingly behind China in terms of economic, military and soft power. The economic power-gap is enormous—from a position of rough equality in 1962, India’s GDP is now one-fifth China’s. The military power-gap is real but is tempered by geography: the intervening mountains and oceanic distances between India and China mean that the use of force will be limited. Unless India repeats the mistakes of 1962, it is well placed to defend against an attack on its land borders. In the Indian Ocean, China lacks sufficient naval power projection to overcome India’s locational advantages. However, the military balance is not static. If India does not galvanise its indigenous arms industry and if China forges even further ahead in the development of key emerging technologies, the current military balance will turn against India. As for soft power, Australia’s Lowy Institute estimates of the “power of attraction” and persuasion indicate that China bests India. Overall, on a rough estimate, China may be seven times as powerful as India in terms of “comprehensive national power” (economic, military and soft power combined).
In sum, negative mutual perceptions, differences over perimeters, rival partnerships, and the power asymmetry are intertwined and magnify each other, making the conflict more complex and enduring. Mutual perceptions and the power asymmetry may be the most serious problems between the two countries. If India and China looked at each other more respectfully and if they were on par in terms of capabilities, the relationship would probably be far more amicable. For India, changing its image in Chinese eyes and growing its power are vital.
(This essay is based on Kanti Bajpai’s latest book India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends | Juggernaut | 296 pages | Rs 599 | Published this month)