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Foreign Policy

China and India Must Establish a Relational Baseline

May 07, 2024
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Sela Tunnel.png

Construction crews work at the Sela Tunnel in Arunachal Pradesh in 2021. EyePress News/Reuters

As the world’s two most populous nations, China and India have long had a complex, volatile, and structurally tense relationship. The Sino-Indian War in 1962 saw the commencement of decades of intense territorial disputes and military altercations, often leading to protracted standoffs along their Himalayan boundaries. For a more recent example, the Galwan river valley clash in 2020 was the first deadly confrontation in five decades, with dozens of fatalities incurred by both sides.

Beyond confrontational militarisation along the Line of Actual Control, the Sino-Indian relationship has been marred by a number of deeply entrenched, historically embedded factors – including India’s long-standing suspicions of China’s intense cultivation of Sino-Pakistani ties and acrimonious squabbles over the contested regions of Kashmir and Jammu.

More recently, bilateral ties have further soured under China’s perception that India has actively aligned with the U.S. in pursuing a quasi-containment strategy via the Quad and Indo-Pacific military coordination, whilst the Indian establishment views China’s overseas technological and data presence as detrimental to its own national and economic security.

As the current Indian administration strives to develop a robust and enduring manufacturing sector within the country, the substantial trade deficit in favour of China (spurred by rapidly growing exports from China into India) has resulted in a burgeoning narrative that the two countries are not only non-complementary, but in fact direct rivals when it comes to the competition for investment and dominance in manufacturing sectors.

While such Manichean narratives are neither accurate nor particularly conducive to mutual interests, such inflammatory rhetoric has indeed taken off – with the effects clear for all to see. In 2023, India was the only middle-income country surveyed by the Pew Research Center where a majority of citizens (67%) held an unfavourable view towards China.

Most recently, the inauguration of the Sela Tunnel by incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March this year, as well as China’s laying claim to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the Doklam Plateau, have sparked a new round in escalation in bilateral relations, with mounting concerns amongst spectators that in this year of Indian elections, China and India are heading towards a full-on confrontation, with deeply deleterious consequences.

It is evident that both countries have active interests in stabilizing relations. China’s foremost priority for the year – beside the perennial question of national security – is comprehensive economic recovery. Peace is the prerequisite for the unleashing of the animal spirits of the private sector, as well as revitalising foreign direct investment flows into the country, which had suffered under a combination of high interest rates and persistent policy uncertainty.

Above all, the Sino-Indian tensions are by no means the ‘primary contradiction’ with which China has to grapple. Short of direct provocation behooving a genuinely escalatory response, Chinese leaders have no interest in pursuing a kinetic or even full-out economic war against its sizeable neighbour, which is also a member of the BRICS+ and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – the former increasingly a crown jewel in China’s soft power and global discursive campaign.

Whilst some have suggested that the ruling BJP is keen to instigate ultra-nationalist sentiments domestically as a means of shoring up support for the imminent elections, such conjectures ignore two key elements – firstly, the BJP has maintained its consistently high levels of support amongst its Northern base, and the Indian opposition is far too splintered to pose any viable challenge to the party; secondly, whilst controlled, managed ratcheting-up of trenchant India-first rhetoric may be conducive to the BJP’s electoral odds, an unbridled escalation in tensions with the second largest economy in the world is by no means in anyone’s interest, BJP or Congress.

More fundamentally, as India seeks to advance its own Vishwaguru foreign policy (as explored insightfully by Oxford academic Kate Sullivan de Estrada in a recent article), its national leadership will continually strive to balance its growing strategic and financial ties with the ‘West’, with its economic ties with China, as well as military-security and energy ties with Russia.

Indeed, recent statements and rhetoric articulated by both China and India indicate that their leaders are keen to prevent further palpable deterioration in bilateral relations. Modi stressed that “For India, the relationship with China is important and significant.” His relatively conciliatory remarks were reciprocated by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson affirming that “sound and stable ties” are in both countries’ common interest.

How should this be accomplished? There is no panacea to this complex, ‘poly-problem’. Indeed, any attempt to repair relations should begin with acknowledging that few solutions are likely to solve the Sino-Indian structural tension – the focus should instead be on managing it such that it does not spiral into unmanageable antagonism. Establishing a baseline, not utopian thinking, is urgently needed.

Firstly, it would be most conducive for the senior leaders of both countries to meet. This should take place as soon as the upcoming electoral cycle concludes, thereby paving the way for the Indian Prime Minister (who will likely remain Modi) to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The meeting should seek to establish three key ‘buckets’ – the bucket of non-negotiable baselines for both countries, which Beijing and Delhi should tentatively abide by short of overriding reasons to act otherwise; the bucket of common and convergent interests – for which further collaboration, alignment, and exchanges should be pursued, and the bucket of negotiable disagreements.

An instance of such ‘negotiable disagreements’ could well be visa and travel restrictions, which have rendered bilateral exchanges and dialogues incredibly difficult. The meeting between leaders should hopefully conclude in a statement that sets out actionable directives and objectives for senior bureaucrats and leaders to follow up in executing. It would also grant more China-friendly states within India, such as Tamil Nadu, the room to deepen economic engagement with China.

Secondly, it is imperative that China and India strengthen dialogue across two fronts. On the front of government-to-government dialogues, both the Chinese and Indian militaries would benefit from strengthening coordination and communication, as a means of establishing guardrails and a mature response mechanism in the event of further border flare-ups. The world today cannot stomach the repercussions of another regional war – especially when it is one between two nuclear powers.

Dialogue should also be strengthened between civilians – specifically, academics, think-tanks, businessmen, and investors, who can play a much greater role in conducting Track-2 diplomacy. Geopolitical disputes and inter-state rivalries cannot be dissolved through the amplifying of trust and repairing of relations between the peoples – indeed, this has been demonstrably epitomised by the fraught state of Sino-American relations, despite the deep intertwinement between their peoples. Yet listening and conversing can go a long way in addressing misconceptions between civilian populations, and in paving the way for further normalisation in inter-state relations in the future.

Hong Kong certainly has a crucial role to play. As the most cosmopolitan, business-friendly, and international city on Chinese soil, the Special Administrative Region must provide the ‘third space’ to Chinese and Indian interlocutors as they seek to understand, clarify, and appreciate one another’s cultural values, political interests, and strategic differences. 

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