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Foreign Policy

Why Aren’t We Talking about Sino-Indian Relations?

May 16, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

How China and India interact with one another, is likely to be one of the most strategically important questions defining 21st century international politics. 

This is not to say that the two will enjoy exclusively amicable relations, i.e. ‘friendship.’ Relations have been and will remain fraught for the foreseeable future. Between Beijing and Delhi lie deeply seated divisions and fault-lines exist. Overcoming them will require political will and acumen. 

It is to say, however, that we aren’t spending enough time thinking through and talking about this relationship. The Sino-Indian relationship is not only intrinsically interesting to explore, given that the two countries are the most populous nations in the world - with India recently overtaking China in population.

Understanding it is also instrumentally vital to the West’s continuous search for a more measured and contextually attuned policy in relation to both China and India, especially in light of the rise of the QUAD military-security dialogue, ongoing Sino-Indian border clashes along the Line of Actual Control, and India’s distinctive policy and stance on the war in Ukraine. 

There are three core pillars underpinning Sino-Indian relations worthy of highlighting. 

The first, is the historically rooted, multi-textured disputes that render improvements in Sino-Indian relations both practically difficult, but also fundamentally necessary in establishing guardrails. Long-standing diplomatic and strategic ties between China and Pakistan (dubbed “Iron Pak” in Chinese colloquialism) have proven to endure; with Islamabad and Delhi locked in proverbial loggerheads over religious, territorial, and ideological differences, the Sino-Pakistani relationship has been a source of substantial suspicions directed towards China amongst Indian political elite. 

Over the past 60 years, China and India have held conflictual territorial claims along their 3,488km-long border. The long roster of military confrontations - including the 1962 Sino-Indian War, violent clashes in Nathu La and Cho La in 1967, the 1987 Sumdorong Chu standoff, and the conflict in Galwan Valley in 2020 - goes on to demonstrate the lingering potency of mutual scepticism and animosity between military-security leaderships of both countries. Elsewhere, Beijing and Delhi had clashed over their respective military and economic activities in the South China Sea. 

The April 27 2023 meeting between the Indian and Chinese defence ministers did not produce substantive consensus, despite recent attempts at rebuilding communicative channels and dialogues between the militaries and defence ministries of both countries. The hopes of some in China that India would be persuaded to take a more conciliatory stance towards China given both countries’ distinctive relations with Russia, have been partially dashed by escalating tensions between China and the United States, with whom India has increasingly engaged through the QUAD. 

The second, concerns the economic front. Here China and India possess a relationship that can best be described as, to channel Ambassador Fu Ying’s prescriptions for Sino-American relations, ‘co-opetitive’. China had been India’s largest trading partner between 2008 and 2021, prior to being overtaken by the United States in 2022, despite bilateral trade rising to an all-time high of 135.98billion USD in 2022. Yet the China-skewed trade deficit has no less generated substantial domestic pressure within India. Indeed, in face of a raft of concerns such as the purported dumping of goods, over-reliance upon Chinese raw materials, and induced un-competitiveness amongst Indian producers, select protectionist legislators in India have advocated aggressive rebalancing to trade by limiting the extent to which Chinese goods and services can access India. 

The drive for protectionism against external competitors, paired with ostensible national security concerns, have resulted in the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banning TikTok and 58 other Chinese applications in June 2020. With an increasing number of leading multinational corporations and tech companies seeking to hedge against geopolitical risks, there is growing talk of manufacturers exiting China for India as a part of their diversification strategies. 

With a salubrious population growth rate, India is positioning itself as an alternative economic powerhouse to China - and the economic rivalry between the two economies is only due to increase over the coming years, unless new complementarities based on comparative advantages can be found. Indeed, in the domain of semiconductors, India has sought to position itself to international stakeholders - including but not limited to the West and its allies - as a viable alternative to China. 

Where does this leave us in terms of potential room for convergence or commonality? The third, and perhaps increasingly important, dimension constitutes the two countries’ respective visions for the international order. Both India and China have paid increasing emphasis to the concept of multi-polarity, though it is clear that they have perhaps divergent understandings of both the constituents and governing rules of the multi-polar world order. 

China views a multi-polar order as a post-Western hegemony world - one where China rises to serve as a counterbalancing force against an Anglo-American-led international society, alongside a number of other, potentially ‘weaker’ poles in Europe, Latin America, the Gulf, and beyond. 

India, on the other hand, views itself as playing a pivotal role in defending a multi-polar order where India has substantial say and sway, as the de facto representative of the Global South. As author Jagannath Panda notes, India takes a substantively more conciliatory vision of the West, and views attempts at constraining or confronting the West as non-conducive towards Indian ends. 

Yet both countries are united by a shared recognition that only a multi-polar world could fully accommodate and address their respective regime interests. In his lucidly and astutely written ‘swamp notes,’ Edward Luce observes “India’s unwillingness to join western alliances” given the fact that “New Delhi’s foreign policy is strictly realist.” Luce is indeed right. 

The purported ‘friendship’ between China and India remains fragile. Bilateral literacy - that is, an understanding of the other by diplomats, academics, and thinkers within each country - remains limited. People-to-people exchanges are scarce and increasingly difficult given the tautness of relations and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Linguistic fluency in Mandarin in India, or Hindi, Bengali, and Marathi etc. in China, remains hugely constricted. Mending rifts and improving trust require comprehensive exchanges and efforts, and there are few signs that they are on their way. 

There are two key tenets Western observers should get to grips with, when it comes to Sino-Indian relations. As things stand, most seem to appreciate the first, but not the second. The first is that there exist clear headwinds preventing immediate improvement in bilateral relations, and that such headwinds have prompted India to shift closer to the U.S. and its allies in its search for geopolitical balancing. 

The second, on the other hand, is that the governments in both Beijing and Delhi are fundamentally driven by interests of self and national preservation. India is unwilling to enter into a direct, all-out hot war with China unless absolutely necessary. Nor does it view itself as a member of the proverbial ‘West’ - it prizes itself as a democracy, but one that is rooted in cultural practices and values that are fundamentally distinctive from the West’s. Similarly, China has no incentive to designate and treat India as a perennial enemy. 

There could well come a day when the two powers identify and forge a modus vivendi -- and we should not be too surprised when that day comes. 

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