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China-India Relations at Crossroads

Oct 13, 2020
  • Su Jingxiang

    Fellow, China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations

In recent months, the media in many countries have expressed concern about the relationship between China and India. Some commentators in the United States and Europe have argued that China and India are heading toward war as a result of the intensifying border dispute, and some experts have even analyzed the outcome of such a war and its possible repercussions.

But many of these comments are unrealistic and don’t reflect the real China-India relationship. The Sino-Indian border issue is extremely complex and cannot be resolved in a short period of time. On this the two countries have long agreed:

• In September 1993, during Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to China, the countries signed the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the China-India Border Areas.

• In November 1996, they signed the Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the China-India Border Areas, under which neither side may use weapons within 2 kilometers from the line of actual control.

• In April 2005, they signed the Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the China-India Boundary Question.

• In October 2013, they signed the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement, a standardized procedure for dealing with border disputes and emergencies.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, India’s foreign policy toward its neighbors shifted from its previous policy of strategic restraint to a strategically active approach. In September of that year, Chinese and Indian troops were locked in a standoff in the Dalakh area.

In 2016, the Indian military revised its original “limited doctrine of war” to make it more offensive. In September of that year, Indian troops crossed the border and attacked military targets inside Pakistani territory.

In June 2017, India and Pakistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but a serious standoff between Indian and Chinese soldiers ensued in the Doklam area on the border between China and Bhutan.

In August last year, India unilaterally revoked the disputed State of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two federal territories.

It is therefore understandable that the repeated clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in the Dalakh area since May this year are the result of a change in India’s foreign policy. It has done so because it has established new strategic cooperation with the United States.

During the Cold War, Pakistan was a strategic partner of the United States, while India pursued a policy of non-alignment. It had closer relations with the Soviet Union and cooler relations with the U.S. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between the U.S. and India began to reconcile, and in 1992 the U.S. and Indian navies conducted the so-called Malabar Exercises in the Bay of Bengal for the first time.

In 1998 India conducted nuclear tests, and the United States terminated the Malabar Exercises as a “sanction.” But at that time, the U.S. already believed that China would be a geopolitical rival to the U.S. and that India could be used as a force to contain it.

U.S. President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000; the United States recognized India’s possession of nuclear weapons in 2001; and in 2002 the two countries resumed their annual Malabar Exercises. Under President Bush in 2006, the U.S. and India signed a nuclear agreement that established a new relationship, and U.S. politicians began to openly discuss plans to form an “Asian NATO” against China.

In 2007, Robert Gates, the U.S. defense secretary, formally proposed at the ASEAN Regional Forum that the core countries of the “new NATO” are the United States, India, Japan and Australia — the Indo-Pacific Alliance, also known as the quad.

Japan has been part of the Malabar Exercises since 2015. Australia first asked to join in 2017 but was rejected each time by India, which is well aware of U.S. intentions and the huge uncertainties and dangers inherent in the strategy to contain China. It believes that given the growing confrontation between China and the U.S., it’s in its own best interests to maintain a relatively neutral position.

Some Indian politicians are sober enough to believe that U.S. strategists urging India to develop plans for a two-front war against both Pakistan and China will ultimately only waste the Indian people’s money, benefit U.S. arms dealers and be detrimental to India’s future.

But in the present situation, it is doubtful that India can really maintain a neutral stance. The main role of strategy is to prevent a country from being drawn into a situation step by step in response to various events and being unable to disengage. Many international commentators have argued that India’s overall national development strategy is not very clear and has strong opportunistic undertones. Given the deepening military cooperation between the United States and India in recent years, there is still a risk that India will be further integrated into the U.S. “anti-China coalition” and become a front-line state against China.

The possibility of war, whether between China and the United States or between China and India, is extremely remote. What is real is the strategic confrontation between China and the United States, and it is this confrontation that has pushed China-India relations to a crossroads.

This year’s Malabar Exercises are scheduled for mid-November. According to Indian media reports, the Indian Ministry of Defense has discussed inviting Australia to participate, but no final decision has been made. The U.S., India, Japan and Australia will hold a meeting of foreign ministers in Tokyo on Oct. 6 and 7, and will continue to discuss this topic. The international community is also watching closely.

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