S. Mahmud Ali argues that despite historic tensions between China and India, Modi and Xi have displayed a refreshing ability to both command authority and challenge fossilised notions of zero-sum national interests. With these leaders, the two nations have a rare opportunity to discard past animus and lay the foundations of a more positive future.
China’s President Xi Jinping’s recent visit and exchanges with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi illuminated tensions colouring bilateral relations. Modi urged boosting economic engagement and resolving longstanding border disputes amidst a military standoff in Ladakh; Xi emphasised strategic collaboration’s systemic import. Agreements signed during the visit, though hinting at future potential, curbed premature excitement. Modi’s stronger engagement with Tokyo and Washington underscored the competitive edge to Sino-Indian dynamics. Notwithstanding the leaders’ personal warmth, mixed messages reflected and reinforced the challenges to prospective amity.
The neighbouring giants, growing more slowly than in recent years but still faster than traditional powers, share a complex history. Conventional wisdom insists competitive friction infusing China-India relations will dominate much of the 21st-century Indo-Pacific strategic landscape. The record of the past six decades makes this an apparently reasonable proposition. However, conventional historiography is partly inaccurate.
Western and Indian literature posits that China betrayed non-aligned India’s “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” offers of fraternal friendship by invading India in 1962. Chinese accounts insist British imperial subjugation of Tibet, enforced with military and trading posts established following the 1904 Younghusband expedition, and annexation of Cis-Himalayan southern Tibet, were illegitimate acts that independent India should have reversed. These partly true narratives oversimplify complex political-strategic calculations by unequal powers, whose interactive dynamics distort reality to the point of generating mutually exclusive perspectives when viewed through the prisms of self-interest.
Between 1858, when the British Crown took control of India, and 1947, when the latter was partitioned into the dominions of India and Pakistan, British-India drew up numerous lines delineating, but not demarcating, its borders with Qing China and its successors. In 1950, alerted by the Red Army’s march across the Drichu to the presence of Tibetan officials stationed south of the Himalayas, New Delhi adopted the most expansive expressions of British imperial ambitions as its own. Fragile Chinese control over Tibet, on the other hand, was manifest in Qing Ambans travelling to and from Lhasa not overland, but via Bengal and Hong Kong. China could not replace itsenvoys expelled after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. In 1912-1949, Tibetan sovereignty was moderated only by the British-Indian military presence.
More recent historiography is equally incomplete. On 5th July 1947, five weeks before Britain freed India, Prime-Minister-designate Jawaharlal Nehru authorised rotational stationing, servicing, maintenance and replenishment of US military aircraft engaged in operations over China and elsewhere at Barrackpore, Kharagpore, Palam, Agra and Karachi airfields. The US Air Attache in New Delhi would reimburse the Indian Air Force for services rendered. In April 1948, the agreement was amended to remove Karachi, now the capital of Pakistan, from the list. The accord was renewed several times until 1958.
By then, the 1954 Sino-Indian agreement on Tibet notwithstanding, India and the USA were waging a proxy war against Chinese military control there, using Amdowa and Khampa rebels recruited, trained and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Indian Intelligence Bureau, operating out of Sikkim and proximate hill stations. Prospective insurgent commanders were secreted out of Dumdum to Guam and Colorado via Bangkok and Saipan. Their efficacy in challenging Beijing’s writ, tacitly supported by the young Dalai Lama’s chancery, triggered the Red Army’s 1959 crackdown and the prelate’s flight to India. For the newly-established People’s Republic of China, Indo-US collusion threatening its nascent state-building enterprise destroyed what little anti-imperial fraternity that might have bound the neighbours. The 1962 border war unfolded against this strategic backdrop.
Asymmetric dynamics pitted a defensive, insecure Indian elite against Maoist (later Dengist) China that cast a wider net, developing national capability to compete first with the Soviet Union, and later America, while keeping open diplomatic options to maintain non-lethal stability. While India considered China the source of its gravest strategic challenges, China viewed India as a secondary player peripheral to the systemic core. Apparent Chinese indifference and presumed hostility drove India to fashion hedging linkages, successively with both the USA and the Soviet Union, forging tacit countervailing coalitions coalescing around China. The Soviet Union’s fission ended the Indo-Soviet alliance, reviving Indo-US strategic collaboration.
Since India’s 1998 nuclear tests Beijing has paid attention. When Pakistan mounted covert operations to capture the Kargil heights in disputed Kashmir in 1999 Beijing conveyed deep dissatisfaction to its “all-weather friend.” Seeking stability in its nuclear-armed and volatile binary southern ramparts, China has urged caution since then, while making efforts to build strong economic bridges to India.
Strategists blinded by the opportunity costs of unmitigated rivalry poisoning the Asian heartland continue to ratchet up competitive tendencies in both capitals. National security elites, tied to worst-case contingency scenarios by training and inclination, challenge diplomacy. However, Modi and Xi have displayed a refreshing ability to both command authority and challenge fossilised notions of zero-sum national interests. With these leaders, India and China have a rare opportunity to discard past animus and lay the foundations of a more positive future than could have been imagined two years ago.
With BRICS, G20, EAS and climate-change and trade fora providing stepping stones, cooperative habits have acquired some traction in Sino-Indian interactions. Expanded SCO and SAARC could reinforce these trends. With Modi and Xi endorsing the need for a resolution of the border dispute, a core discord could be addressed by formally adjusting the status quo. As global power-relations change, transitional fluidity pushing actors to seek hedging and balancing options, China and India can finally begin to imagine a future unburdened from their historical rivalry. This would enable them to envision and forge a collaborative partnership to shape the future of Asia, and thereby the world. Only cooperation can unleash synergetic energies essential to realising the potential of their 2.5 billion people. Such a positive-sum enterprise could transform Asia and the wider hemisphere. The alternative does not bear contemplation.
This article originally appeared as the China-India brief on the National University of Singapore’s Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG) website.
About the Author
S. Mahmud Ali is East Asia International Affairs Programme Associate at LSE IDEAS