Jaishankar and Wang Yi at the SCO summit July 2024

By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, July 5:

The relationship between India and China has been fraught from the time of India’s independence in 1947 and the birth of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. But it was not the centre piece of India’s foreign policy until much later.

Today, it is the main concern in policy making circles in New Delhi. Besides it is impacting countries in India’s neighbourhood and causing resentment there. The conflict also shapes India’s relations with world powers.

Recent moves in India’s foreign relations stem from the antagonistic Sino-Indian relationship:  Within days of assuming office as Prime Minister for a third time, Narendra Modi flew off to Italy to fraternize with the leaders of the anti-Chinese Western bloc at the G7 summit.

On June 19, to China’s chagrin, India facilitated a meeting between a US Congressional delegation and the dissident Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, in Dharamshala.  

Modi chose to be absent himself from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan on July 4. China happens to be one of the founders of the SCO. In all likelihood, Modi will stay out of the BRICS summit in Kazan (Russia) on October 22 also. China is a founder-member of BRICS and a leading player there.

India has made a number of anti-Chinese moves both in the Indian economy and India’s neighbourhood. In the domestic sphere, it banned Chinese apps accusing them of snooping on Indians. It imposed high tariffs on imports from China. Chinese companies were banned from participating in highways, micro, small and medium industrial sector projects.

Applications for investments in the e-commerce and financial services sectors were viewed with suspicion. Steps were taken against money laundering and tax evasion. All this led to US$ 6 billion in potential Chinese FDI being held up in 2022.

In India’s neighbourhood, steps were taken to dissuade governments from giving projects to the Chinese, in some cases successfully. Neighbouring countries felt uncomfortable about being a venue for Sino-Indian tussles. International forums also saw India and China battling it out on one issue or the other.

China’s Provocations    

On February 4, 2022, government told parliament that China was in illegal occupation of about 38,000 sq.km of in Ladakh for the last six decades. Chinese troops killed 20 unarmed Indian soldiers at Galwan in Ladakh in June 2020.

China claims sovereignty over the entire Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh and gave new names to places in that State irritating India.

Chinese President Xi Jinping did not attend the G20 summit in India in September 2023, although it was Indian Prime Minister Modi’s prestige project.

In 2008, China blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It also blocked its entry into the UN Security Council as a permanent member. China has blocked India’s bid to sanction terrorists at the UN. In short, China is loath to give India quarter in the multilateral sphere.

Relevance of Sino-US Relations

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment website, Former Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China, Vijay Gokhale, says that China judges India’s actions from the stand point of its relations with the US.

From the 1940s, the Chinese have never seen India as an independent country with a foreign policy independent of the West.  India has no independent status in China’s policy landscape. India matters to China only to the extent that it has a role in the Sino-US conflict.

According to the Chinese, the signing of foundational agreements between the Indian and US armed forces in 2023 meant that India and the US were moving towards an alliance, disturbing the balance of power between China and the US. 

Gokhale quotes Ye Hailin of the National Institute of International Strategy in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to say that China is convinced that India would lean to the US to derive benefits and that China would inevitably be the target of a joint Indo-US “China containment plan.”

Line of Actual Control Issues

According to Gokhale, the escalating tension on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on  the Sino-Indian border since 2013 has to be seen from the Chinese perspective to understand why China is troubling India so frequently.

According to a recent study by Ms Ketian Zhang, Assistant Professor at George Mason University, China uses mild coercion on the LAC to warn India not to go for an all-out war with China.

Ms. Zhang  submits that India’s cooperation with the US has not yet reached a level that can compel the US to support India in case of a war with China, and that China’s current strength and level of coercive actions along the LAC are adequate to unsettle India without provoking a serious backlash or full scale war.

In Gokhale’s understanding, China regards India as being “unequal” to it, and therefore “unworthy” of being looked at as a stand-alone or independent power.

India becomes relevant to China primarily in the context of great power relationships, especially US-China relationship.

China expects India to treat China’s concerns as “global” and therefore  requiring immediate attention. It wants India to regard its own concerns vis-a-vis China as “localized problems” that should be managed bilaterally. In other words, India should be satisfied that China is not making these problems worse!

According to Gokhale, China’s leaders believe that the nature of India’s polity as well as the asymmetry of power between the two countries do not require China to reshape its policy in a way that meaningfully accommodates Indian interests.

However, paradoxically, the Chinese think that India will never formally become a US ally. They also think that the US will not get directly involved militarily in a India-China war because this will be an intolerable burden.

There is also the view in China that India is hesitant to play the role of a junior ally of the US because it has a long tradition of pursuing a non-aligned foreign policy.

According to Ms. Zhang, even QUAD has not changed China’s view that the US and India will not form a military alliance. She therefore says that the probability of a geopolitical backlash to the continuance of the current level of coercion on the LAC, or even some increase in it, will be low.

China Underestimates India

In Gokhale’s view, China is under-estimating India’s potential. India is also building up its economy and its military power and is sticking to its stand on the border issue and normalization of relations.

China wants the border issue to be put on the backburner and the two countries to work on trade, economic cooperation at the bilateral and multilateral levels. But India insists that there can be normal bilateral relations until the situation on the border returns to normal, which means going back to the positions and the agreed conditions of engagement as of 1993. But China does not want to go back to the 1993 agreements.

War Unlikely 

However, both sides seem to rule out an all-out war of the 1962 kind. In a TV interview, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar ruled out war saying it would be difficult to take on a country whose economy is five times that of the Indian economy.

War or even a big increase in Sino-Indian tension will result in China losing the big Indian market for its telecom, machinery and electronic goods sectors. China’s share here in this is 30%, according to the Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI). Bilateral trade is now US$ 118 billion

Jaishankar-Wang Yi meeting in SCO Summit

The Foreign Ministers of India and China, S.Jaishakar and Wang Yi, met on the side lines of the SCO summit at Astana in Kazakhstan on July 4 and agreed that “the prolongation of the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side.”

Jaishankar highlighted the need to redouble efforts to achieve complete disengagement from the remaining areas in Eastern Ladakh and restore border peace and tranquillity in order to remove obstacles towards return of normalcy in bilateral relations.

He reaffirmed the importance of fully abiding by relevant bilateral agreements, protocols, and understandings reached between the two Governments in the past.

The Line of Actual Control must be respected and peace and tranquillity in the border areas always enforced, Jaisankar told Wang Yi.

Wang Yi’s response is not mentioned in the Indian read out. In all likelihood he was silent.

However, both ministers agreed to continue and step up meetings of the diplomatic and military officials of the two sides to take forward their discussions to resolve the remaining issues at the earliest.

To that end, they agreed that the Working Mechanism on Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) should hold an early meeting.



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